The sale of Brooklyn Motors, Redditch, in 2009 signalled a crossroads in the career of Jackie Braziel. She was the forecourt manager but unfortunately the new owners, Bristol Street Motors, had no plans for a filling station.
David Hill, a work colleague and friend for over 25 years, suggested that they should look at jointly buying the filling station that Jackie knew so well. After many sleepless nights weighing up the financial implications, Jackie and David made the bold decision to become the owners of Redditch Service Station in Batten Drive. Hill’s Retail Ltd had arrived.
After 12 successful months, the pair decided to add to their portfolio and with local knowledge secured the lease of Foxlydiate Service Station, just a five minute drive away but closed for the previous two years.
"I am a Redditch person and knew the site well," explains Jackie. "It had been a busy forecourt in the past and we felt that with some minor refurbishment and greater emphasis upon the shop, we could recover the volume. It was a risk but one worth taking."
And so it proved. Volumes started to climb from an initial 9,000 litres a week, to 25,000 within three months.
With daily shop takings of £1,600, Foxlydiate was making money; owning two forecourts improved economies for Hill’s Retail yet presented few additional headaches.
"Being in close proximity made life easier and we were pleasantly surprised just how quickly the public returned," enthuses Jackie. "By and large we did no more than implement the same disciplines and standards that were in place in Redditch.
"I always look at our forecourts through the eyes of a customer and ask the simple question, ’Would I buy my fuel and groceries here?’ The answer is always the same; only if it is spotless, easily accessible, well presented and offering a high standard of service across everything it does."
These service values have seen Foxlydiate shortlisted twice in consecutive years at SuperStation, Certas Energy’s award-winning forecourt standards competition. Redditch Service Station has also been a front runner and was a finalist at this year’s Forecourt Trader of the Year Awards.
In 2011, a forecourt in Alcester was acquired by Hill’s Retail. Located in a residential area, the site comprised a modern forecourt and shop along with a two-bay service and MOT centre.
"The forecourt, pumps and canopy were in good condition but the shop and offices had been neglected and required much more than a lick of paint," says Jackie. "With so many homes in the immediate area we knew the potential, especially from walk-in trade, and decided to undertake a complete shop refurbishment and apply for a liquor licence at the same time."
There was some resistance to the proposed changes but Hill’s Retail eventually received the go ahead and a complete shop refurbishment was implemented thereafter. Shop sales increased from just a few hundred pounds to around £2,000 a day and the buying habits of local residents changed.
"The transformation of the shop was dramatic. Previously, the site looked tired and uninviting; dimly lit and with only a limited product range for customers. We ripped out everything except the floor then turned to the Mace shopfitting team. The impact of the new look and Mace brand was immediate on sales and profits. Our customer base continues to grow and local people know that we are the convenient alternative to their supermarket; for choice, competitive prices and plenty of available offers."
A long-term working relationship with Mace is proving beneficial for Jackie and David, who utilise the company’s expertise in convenience retailing across all three sites. The arrangement is flexible with no restrictions on working with local suppliers for fresh produce, seasonal lines and special offers. All three forecourts now have a consistent look and feel with Mace shops and Gulf branded forecourts.
"We had already seen the benefit of moving to Gulf at Redditch and Foxlydiate," says Jackie. Both forecourts were revitalised and volumes increased. Our relationship with Gulf and Certas Energy, the driving force behind the brand, is strong, it extends from our area manager to the head of retail. We did, however, decide to delay the introduction of Gulf to Alcester as the site had been Esso branded for 30 years."
The switch to Gulf took place in June this year and proved to be a completely smooth process. Feedback from customers has been over-whelmingly positive and the Gulf image improves the overall appearance. The demise of the Tesco Clubcard points was not even mentioned, says Jackie.
Supported by Gulf’s local account card and its Key Points promotion, volumes have increased by around 20% and the ongoing promotion extends across all three locations with points redeemable on fuel and in-store.
Having developed a successful footprint that includes a combined volume of 10mlpa, Jackie and David are now ready to add another site to their portfolio. "It’s on our radar. Our current sites are within a very manageable triangle and we are ready to expand although preferably not beyond this geographic area."
Jackie’s passion for the business is as strong as ever. She recognises the potential that exists within convenience retailing by offering the customer a better level of service.
She invariably works nine hours a day, seven days a week, managing the books for each location.
"This is our livelihood and we prefer to be hands on. By understanding each of our sites intimately we will hopefully make the right decisions. It’s a philosophy that is working for us in unison with our greatest attribute, our staff. We employ 32 people in total and their importance to the business cannot be underestimated.
"We pay a decent wage, every member of staff is properly trained and encouraged to let their own personality shine. Today’s forecourt staff have to be multi-talented and that includes customer relations. It’s not unusual for us to make a home delivery if a regular is ill or unable to drive. We may face severe competition on price from local supermarkets but when it comes to the treatment of people, service and personality, they lose hands down.
"Jamie Chatwin is a great example. We inherited Jamie over six years ago and he is now an integral part of our Alcester operation. He is bright, hard-working and knows his customers. They in return respond to him. Each of our sites has its gems and we never undervalue their efforts. It’s why staff turnover is low and when we are recruiting we rarely have to look beyond friends and families."
In less than seven years, Jackie and David have certainly made their mark in north east Worcestershire, establishing a robust business and serving their local community with the very best in forecourt retailing. Living proof that the renaissance of the independent dealer is no myth, their journey continues