Attention quickly turns to the unlikely presence of a retro American ambulance parked next to the price pole sign on a visit to Hordle Garage near New Milton in Hampshire’s New Forest.
The vehicle was used in Johnny Depp’s film Dark Shadows and when owner Sean Denman saw it for sale on eBay he thought "That’s silly, I’ll have that". This seems characteristic of Sean he likes to have fun: "Since a member of staff left recently I’m doing more hours on the till but that’s like a cabaret for me," he says. "I enjoy going on the mike and taking the mickey out of the regular customers!"
But it’s admirable that Sean is so upbeat since buying the site six years ago, the business has been fraught with problems. "From that day on it’s been a steep and bumpy ride," he reveals. "Years ago I said to the previous owner, Paul, that if he ever wants to sell, I will buy it. He came to me about 11 years ago and asked if I wanted to lease it but I was only interested in buying so he leased the business to someone else for five years. For the last 18 months of that lease, the site wasn’t run with the vigour that ownership brings, and that created a lesser valuation from the bank."
After overcoming that hurdle, Sean made his first fuel supply deal, switching from Total to Gulf. "It was all change new owners, new Gulf brand; it was going to be great. But unfortunately it was all a bit of a facade. They were great people at Gulf but the challenge was getting fuel each week. Eventually I was told that we were ’on the fringes of their logistics’ but I hadn’t moved the garage since we signed the deal!
"It was a five-year deal with a two-year break clause so I exercised the right to break after two years, at which point I agreed to sign over to Shell.
"I spent a lot of time negotiating the move to Gulf while learning as much as possible about running a petrol station, and then I had to spend another year negotiating going to Shell."
Unfortunately bigger obstacles were yet to come. At the point of moving from Gulf to Shell, the bank agreed to put the fuel bond in place, but the guarantee was never finalised. "I traded on and on, completely unaware that it hadn’t happened, and 18 months later Shell phoned and said they hadn’t got a bank guarantee in place so I called the bank and they said they didn’t want to do that any more. We have been been paying Shell regular amounts of money to build up a fuel bond, which has not helped our cash flow, but we are still trying to resolve the situation with the bank and I think we are almost there."
If that situation hasn’t been difficult enough, now the bank has cut Sean’s overdraft in half. "It means I’m doing everything with my hands tied behind my back," says Sean. "I don’t expect the bank to help me but I need them to understand how this business works and I need them to understand how much fuel costs. It’s such a huge outlay now it’s gone from being £30,000 for a load to £55,000 and it affects us drastically.
"Understandably everyone is moaning about the price of fuel they have their faces rubbed in it every day," he adds, pointing to the pole sign. "What people don’t understand and I didn’t either at first is that fuel is a commodity that is gambled on in the stock market, which affects its price."
But the future is looking brighter for Sean. In July this year he extended the shop and joined Spar to create a better convenience offer for the local community. In a co-investment project with Appleby Westward, Spar’s regional distribution company for the south and west of England, the 550sq ft store was increased by nearly 60%. The store now offers an expanded chilled offer with fresh meat, a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables, an extended grocery offer, food-to-go, bean-to-cup coffee, a full range of news, magazines and cards, and a variety of promotional offers.
"I’m delighted we made the change. I wanted to be profitable in all areas of the business and everyone kept saying ’you’ve got to go symbol’," says Sean. "Spar is highly regarded in Europe it’s more of a supermarket there and in our part of the New Forest we attract lots of holidaymakers. I wanted those customers to recognise the brand.
"I also looked at what Spar had to offer; the people involved and the way they went about things and I found them very professional and it wasn’t just one-way traffic. I always get answers it’s very much a partnership.
"The whole team has been superb and really supportive throughout the whole project. They were prepared to throw money at my shop and I knew that Spar was going to be better at being a shop than I was."
Shop sales saw a 28% increase for August and that’s without an off licence or the National Lottery, which Sean is keen to get as soon as possible. "We got our personal licences a few years ago but then we were a petrol station with a few bits in the shop. Now we need to prove we are a shop that sells petrol. Having the Lottery and an off licence will definitely increase footfall and stimulate extra sales for us."
"and I couldn’t have asked for better," he said. "I am extremely happy with the end result. Most importantly, our customers love what we have done too."