It’s been a painstaking process but last month saw the opening of a glorious redevelopment of a forecourt site in Cosham, Portsmouth, by the family-run Garner Group. Brothers Mike and Tim Garner, along with financial director Dave Auger, have overseen an amazing transformation of Portsbridge Service Station, a small, traditional garage on a restricted irregular-shaped plot, which has been brought into the 21st century with a modern, spacious Jet-branded forecourt, and a stylish 2,200sq ft Nisa convenience store. It is also the first petrol station in the country to feature the new Nisa format.
The site was originally a pub garden, acquired in 1967 by Mike and Tim’s father Maurice, who founded the Garner fuel retailing business which in recent times has celebrated 50 years as an independent Jet dealer.
All those years ago, Maurice, a chartered accountant, saw an opportunity in fuel retailing with the fast-rising number of cars on the road. He signed his first supply contract with Jet in 1961, following the opening of his first service station near Portsmouth, and five decades later, the Garner Group operates three Jet forecourts in the region Woolmer, Green Road and Portsbridge, and one Shell site. During that time the company has bought, redeveloped and sold a number of forecourts.
"The Portsbridge site was a typical garage with workshops, a small shop, and a few car sales," explains Tim. "We’d changed it a bit over the years, but volumes on the site had started to drop to about 2.2mlpa from 5mlpa in its heyday. We had two choices close it and put flats on it, or go with it and try and make good money out of the shop as well as the forecourt. It’s a big gamble."
However, the Garners enjoy the business petrol’s in their blood and so they went ahead. But not without doing their homework first.
"We could also see what our peers have achieved people like the Frasers, John Ryeland, Ollie and Derek Lodge, David Charman all great retailers who have been very helpful to us," stresses Tim. "We were also reassured by employing a private consultant to do all the analysis with regards to the shop, the demographics of the area and the customer profile (we have a college and a large residential area nearby).
"It’s a hard decision to make. If it was only fuel we wouldn’t do it the margins just aren’t there. That’s why we’ve invested a lot of money in the shop.
"We got planning permission to develop the site about three and a half years ago, and then we had to make the very difficult decision to go ahead when you’re talking in excess of £1m, the question is, are you going to get that money back in the short term?
"We made the site bigger by buying a couple of houses behind the plot, taking some of the garden and selling it on. It has left us with a funny-shaped space for the shop, although that’s not obvious to customers as they drive in."
Portsbridge closed its doors on July 31 last year, but didn’t start putting a spade in the ground until November 2013. Work was stalled by the environment agency, and dealing with a certain amount of land contamination. Then it started raining, which also didn’t help.
However, by pulling together a good construction team, the site finally opened for business on April 23. It was a soft opening, while the new team of 20 staff, headed by Lisa Kemp the enthusiastic store manager who previously worked on a BP/M&S forecourt got used to running the site.
The forecourt features three Scheidt & Bachmann pumps with media screens, plus a red diesel pump, targeted at the many local businesses using farming/heavy machinery. Big investments have been made in backoffice and EPOS systems. There have also been many environmental considerations including 50 PV canopy panels; a bore hole for the jet wash and toilets; thermally efficient roof and walls on the main building; LED lighting; and 100% renewable electricity bought from a renewable company. "You’ve got to do your bit," explains Tim. Above the shop are spacious offices; kitchen/restroom for staff and a store room accessible by a lift.
The Nisa convenience store covers 2,200sq ft, and features the new grey/orange imagery, darker shelving units, three-sided gondola ends, and special food-to-go imagery. The store is a blaze of chillers and freezers; and is currently carrying about 3,000 lines, including fresh fruit, meat and veg. It also features Costa Coffee, Paypoint and a sizable off licence. It is the first symbol store for the Garners, who have worked closely with the Nisa team to develop the store.
"We looked at everyone, but felt Nisa was the most forward thinking the most proactive in the industry at the moment," says Tim. "The promotions are also incredibly strong, with a three-weekly cycle, and an easy method of producing our own marketing material. The promotions are as good as those of a supermarket, and we have to be competitive, as we are a promotion-driven business now. We also get involved in the community and really like the ’Making a Difference Locally’ charity scheme."
However, the Garners have stayed loyal to Jet, and not put Nisa on the pumps: "We have stayed with Jet because it is a very personal and approachable company. I can speak to the right people whenever I want. Plus our long relationship goes back to my late father," explains Tim.
The Garner Group has put a huge effort into Portsbridge and is now reaping the rewards, with shop and fuel sales well on target. "Our main focus now is on customer service after all every single customer that walks through that door helps pay our wages," says Tim. "We are massively pleased about doing this. The third generation coming into the business has helped spur us on. It was the right thing at the right time for us."