It’s been more than two decades since the Brobot Group built a site from scratch, but the Top 50 Indie’s latest development on a greenfield site in Corby’s Southern Gateway is a striking concept and represents a new departure for the retailer.

Brobot was formed in 1978 as a family business with one site in Melton Mowbray. When the founder John Bootle died in 1996, forecourt operations were handed over to two directors Eddie Bright and Brigit Smith.

In the early ’80s, Brobot began distributing domestic fuels and by the time Eddie and Brigit took the reigns, the company was operating 14 petrol stations and had three fuel depots. Eddie joined the company in his 20s as a site manager for Melton Mowbray and Grantham and, as the company grew, he was promoted to area manager, and eventually became a director.

Brobot now operates 23 sites, with the new-build in Corby being its biggest development to date. "Corby Southern Gateway is a big step forward in terms of concept," says Eddie. "It’s a leap of faith into a different trading format from a more traditional forecourt business to a full-on convenience business."

The new site, which opened in May, has a striking curved canopy and sprawling forecourt with facilities such as AdBlue and the infrastructure to introduce electric vehicle charge points in the future. A large Londis-branded c-store features a Costa Express machine and Bake & Bite food-to-go, with a currently-empty 2,000sq ft unit next door for a branded restaurant or food outlet.

The spare unit was earmarked for a Greggs bakery but the food retailer failed to sign on the dotted line. Eddie is now looking for another food-to-go operator to lease the property. "The problem is that most fast-food outlets are only interested in drive-thru," he says, "If we don’t get any interest, we will have to think about doing it ourselves. It’s disappointing because we changed the design of our shop thinking that Greggs was coming we made a conscious decision not to put lots of food-to-go in there. We’d almost completed the deal, with Greggs having agreed verbally. We were talking to them for eight or nine months while the build was going on so they were strong takers."

Brobot’s relationship with Londis has been a significant influence in the company’s new departure. Now into its fourth year, the Brobot/Londis alliance was first trialled for six months at Brobot’s Woodhouse Mill site in Sheffield, and in June 2009, the rest of the network signed up to the symbol fascia. "That was a turning point," says Eddie. "We had moved around with different shop suppliers over the years and weren’t happy with the way we were progressing. The industry was changing so much and we needed more expertise in shops because the shop is now the driving force behind the business."

Competitive pricing and promotions are a key feature of the store and Eddie says people are starting to notice that their offers are better than some of the multiples. "Londis is probably a better brand than Tesco Express because the offers are better. People are brainwashed into thinking Tesco is cheaper. In the long term consumers will get more savvy and understand that where they get good deals is not in the supermarket but in independents like us."

While Brobot is challenging perceptions of value in the shop, competition from the multiples is a continuing threat on the forecourt. "Virtually every one of our sites is in an area with tough competition from the major supermarkets. Unfortunately in Grantham, for example, we’ve got two supermarkets competing with each other, and in Keighley there are three competing with each other. That’s what we’re up against.

"You don’t tackle competition; you live with it," adds Eddie. "You do the best you can to balance your books and work harder and harder in your shop. If you can make 3ppl you’re doing alright which is pretty crazy."

It’s not just supermarket competition that’s putting a dent in Brobot’s fuel margins. "Credit card costs are killing the fuel business because they’re based on transaction value. As the price goes up, the costs go up. With Allstar fuel cards, when the price goes up, you get to the point where nearly all your profit is eaten up. The answer is to surcharge credit cards, but then the supermarkets will say ’we don’t surcharge; come to us’. The other way to get around it is to get credit card suppliers to agree a different charge structure for petrol. If we get to £2 per litre there will be no profit in fuel and something will have to change or no one will want to sell petrol."

When it comes to fuel supply, apart from a brief few years with Texaco on five sites at the tail end of the ’90s, Brobot has a long history under one fuel brand, with its network supplied by Jet since the ’70s. But the company has just switched three sites over to BP. "Our relationship with Jet has been very strong over all those years," explains Eddie. "Jet has always managed to get the most suitable deal for us, but I wanted to have another brand in the mix. It’s not healthy having all sites under one brand. Competitive companies will work harder for you. BP would have taken all of our sites but I wasn’t prepared to do a 100% flick-over. If BP can improve volumes, I might be tempted to move more over.

"In the future I’d like to think we will have more than one brand in the business but there’s no guarantee," adds Eddie. "We’ve seen a lot of brands disappear. The industry is changing dramatically and there’s less choice out there. I think the choice will shrink to such a degree that new players will come into the market. I’m not convinced by own-brand I still believe in the power of a brand. Brand strength is important and people do trust a brand."

Challenges aside, Eddie is looking to the future and making plans to continue the growth of Brobot’s network. "We don’t have a specific strategy for growth, but I have a number of sites in mind to fit the number of people I’ve got operating the business, and we’re a few sites away from that. I’m thinking three area managers should manage 10 sites each.

"We don’t have any specific criteria for new sites just potential for a decent bottom line. That could be high fuel volume and low shop sales, or good shop sales and low fuel volume providing the numbers stick and the sites produce acceptable profit."