Clive Gardner has welcomed first his daughter and now his son into the business, to complement his laid-back approach to life, and love of siestas! 

FT - Clive Gardner, Gardner Garages, Cheltenham Service Station Nov 2020 IMG_5474

Independent retailer Clive Gardner is famous for his laid-back approach to life, as well as revealing in an interview that he gets some of his best ideas lying down. Fittingly, the feature in Forecourt Trader in 2007 was entitled ‘Viva La Siesta’. It would still be appropriate today. “I still take a nap every day,” he laughingly admits. “I’m on the phone, I look at the CCTVs – the technology has improved, so I can spend longer in bed now!

“I’ve never wanted to be a huge operator, because I’ve always valued family life and friends. I always wanted to be active and sociable in my youth – from the ages of 40 to 60. And that’s what I’ve tried to do – and I think I’ve done it quite well. I have always had a good work-life balance, some people would say a life-life balance!”

Clive started out on his own as a BP licensee in Cheltenham in 1981, having left the family car sales and catering business, which he had officially joined at 16 following a family tragedy. He was well-versed in the forecourt business having seen in his first tanker delivery when he was 12 years of age: “No one cared then,” he muses.

He went through a divorce, met his new wife Stella, then bought his first freehold garage in 1994. By 2003 he had three garages and three Bargain Boozes. His daughter, managing director Emma, joined the business in 2000.

Then he decided on a little break in Spain – for three years – with his family: “That’s when I had all the siestas.” And who better to look after the business than Emma? “I bought her an Audi TT as her company car as blackmail, so she wouldn’t want to leave!” he quips.

Clive had everything worked out for an easy life. So far, so relaxed. Then he returned to the UK for his younger children’s education, and needed to generate a bit more income. In 2005 he bought Cheltenham Service Station, which was being divested by Texaco. Then other acquisitions followed including Northwick Service Station in Worcester and London Road Garage, a leasehold site in Gloucester.

Then four years ago there was a sudden threat to this easy way of life. Emma had some news: “Emma decided to start a family. It was a shock to me then – because it was always my daughter and myself. I thought I may have to work a bit!” He then sold a site to MFG to lessen his load while she was on maternity leave.

However, one of the many plus points of being a father of five, meant he was unlikely to be on his own for long.

“My son Ashton finished all his skiing and travels (he spent two seasons working as a ski instructor in Whistler, Canada), and announced he wanted to join the business because it looked like an easy life. He’s only ever seen me in boats, aeroplanes and nice cars – and generally not working too hard. His mates have gone off to the city, and he’s always wanted to have the life of a petrol retailer I guess. So he joined the business in 2017 as operations director.”

With his son and daughter now firmly entrenched in the business, Clive believes they make a great, complementary team.

“It’s great that the family are taking over. I’m loving the fact that my son and daughter are involved in the business. I’m loving the fact that I can dip in and dip out without worrying about the day-to-day. If I had to run a site on a day-to-day basis, I would have sold all the other sites – it’s very hard.

“Emma is great on the business discipline, systems and structure, the training and so on – that’s her strength and my weakness. She also does all the negotiations for most of the suppliers.

“Ashton is driving the technology of the business forward. Since he arrived we’ve upgraded all the tills and back-office systems, as well as the CCTVs.

“My strength is exploring the opportunities, making the fuel deals. It was my decision to change from Spar to Londis; and to change from Texaco to BP or vice versa. People generally come to me as the head of the business to talk about opportunities.”

However, this can produce a situation where Clive is not always so relaxed, and the real steel that has enabled him to run a successful business, shows through his normally jovial character: “The deals are not always about money, but you need to have a good relationship. If a supplier annoys me by taking my business for granted for example, that’s it.”

The belief in strong relationships also stretches very much to the staff, which is all about empowerment and respect: “I want them to work with us, not for us,” he stresses. These great staff then welcome the customers to what he has always aimed to provide: a good, relaxed environment in which to come and buy petrol and shop in-store. He even plays music at the pumps rather than ads, to help get them in a jovial mood.

Clive has been busy adding forecourts – he’s now up to seven – and other assets as he sets up his children for the next 20 years, and as he prepares to take more siestas: “I’ve always loved this industry. But they are the major shareholders of the business now, so it’s in their interest to drive it forward as a lifestyle business for themselves.”