Life in the fast lane, for many of us is literally just that charging down the outside lane of the motorway in a rush to get to the next appointment, whether that is work or play. But wouldn’t it be nice to get off once in a while and take that frown off your face? If you do, there’s no better place to do it than the relative oasis of calm that has been created by Westmorland Ltd and its ’family’ of sites on the M6 in Cumbria Tebay Services, northbound and southbound; Junction 38 Services; the Rheghed Centre; and more recently the amazing new development on the M5 northbound Gloucester Services.
This is no ordinary motorway services area there is grass on the roof! There is also grass on the forecourt canopy. As you enter the main building, there is a huge amount of clear empty space to stand in and ponder the scene the antithesis of a normal motorway services area. There is no clutter of coffee and foodservice brands clamouring for your attention; no ’special offer’ fleece blankets or garden chairs, and no piped music. To your left is an extensive farm shop, which includes among a plethora of local food and craft a traditional butcher’s counter, a cheese counter, lots of bread supplied by artisan bakers, ales and ciders, and seasonal soft fruits. Ahead is a palace of wood and windows revealing countryside scenes and a fountain of flowing water. There is a huge centre table featuring freshly baked cakes and pastries try resisting. There is a mouth-watering menu of ’home cooked’ options to sit and eat in the spacious café area or outside on the patio. If you don’t have time there is a ’grab and go’ area. The forecourt shop hidden beneath the grass-covered canopy features a similar range of locally supplied products with its own serve-over food and hot drinks counter. Chalk boards tell you that every month 11,000 pies, 12,000 eggs and 6,000 cakes are cooked and it’s all local. In fact it is sourced from more than 130 local suppliers (within 30 miles) and 70 regional suppliers (30-50 miles).
All of the Westmorland businesses reflect the same principles of being at one with the location in terms of minimising impact on the landscape and investing in the community. And these have been the guiding principles of the business, right from the start, even before it was fashionable, according to Laurence King, the company’s managing director.
"Westmorland was created in 1972 by John and Barbara Dunning and it has been developed gradually over 40 years. They were cattle farmers and when they found out the M6 would be going across their land through the Tebay Gorge, they had great foresight, seeing it as an opportunity, something that would enhance the local community and would not just be a blot on the landscape."
They first created Tebay Services northbound the only family-run motorway service station in England. In 1976 the Tebay Services Hotel and an adjacent caravan site opened, also on the northbound side. A truckstop the J38 Services was also developed at that time; and in 1993 Tebay Services southbound opened. In 2000 came the 90,000 sq ft Rheged visitor attraction hidden under a grass roof on the edge of the Lake District at Penrith. It features a gallery, shops, cafés, and cinema and forecourt. Farm shops were added on the motorway service areas in 2004 and included butchery counters using beef and lamb produced on the family farm.
Then came the opportunity to develop Gloucester Services on the M5. "The Gloucestershire Gateway Trust had some land options on the M5 in pursuit of their charitable objectives, but didn’t have the resources and expertise to put together a planning application. But they knew that because it was just below Robinswood Hill in Gloucester, adjacent to the Cotswold escarpment, it wouldn’t be the easiest planning permission to obtain. There was only one operator that would fit with the values they were seeking, so they approached us in late 2007," explains Laurence, a chartered accountant with 20 years’ experience as a financial director and managing director. He joined the company in 2008, with Gloucester as his first main task.
"We own 100% of the Gloucester enterprise with a commitment to the charity which could be £10m over 20 years. We put the planning application in in 2009; got the first nod in August 2010 with a lot of support from the Gloucestershire community; then the permission was challenged by the nearby M5 motorway services Welcome Break (Michael Wood) and Roadchef (Strensham), which was quite tortuous and caused an 18-month delay.
"Gloucester Services is about equidistant between the two other service areas the stretch between Strensham and Michael Wood is 33 miles, which is longer than required in the Highways Agency Circular of the time, which specified 28 miles. We’re in the middle about 16 miles each way.
"One of the main strands of the argument for us was that if someone was travelling from the end of the M50 down to Michael Wood, it’s 53 miles, which is too long for anyone to go without a break. The appeal was dismissed in half an hour, so I was then able to talk to the banks. It was all systems go and we started on site in March 2013, having raised £20m of debt!
"It’s been a great year we opened northbound on May 7; and we started on southbound in March, with a view to opening in May 2015. The traffic at Gloucester is 40,000 vehicles each way twice the traffic at Tebay. We’ve recruited 150 people for northbound and will do the same for southbound."
New fuel deals this year have seen Valero confirmed as supplier for Gloucester, while Tebay is Esso-branded, supplied by Greenergy, as is the unbranded J38 truckstop site.
"The beauty of joining a closely managed family company like Westmorland, is that I made my own role, and that included running the fuel side. You only need to go through one deal to understand the key issues in a retail contract," says Laurence.
"When I joined the company we had Total at Tebay, with a new deal due in 2010. Total was still streets ahead of everyone on price, so we stayed with a break clause as we had bigger fish to fry with the Gloucester development. But by the end, when Total was being dismantled cards withdrawn and so on it was difficult. We went out to the market and the Greenergy/Esso quote came back quickly, and for Cumbria was the best one. Esso is an older brand with a modern twist, I think people trust it we’re up 8% year-on-year in the first two months. But Valero was the most competitive in Gloucester.
"Motorway pricing has been a contentious point, and the only thing it has led to is reduced volumes," says Laurence. "We have an ongoing customer offer if customers spend £30 in our services on anything, they get 10ppl off."
Fuel contributes about 15% in terms of profitability to the company, but it’s not the core business. "We’re a roadside catering and retail provider who sells fuel," says Laurence. "A million cars a year turn into each side of Tebay, and on average two people get out that’s two million people each side, visiting our shops and cafés."