As I arrive at Exelby Services’ new £6.5m filling station and truck stop just off the A1M at Leeming Bar, I am greeted with a broad smile the type of smile that reflects a great sense of pride and relief that this state-of-the art facility is finally up and running and proving its worth.
It belongs of course to Mike Exelby, managing director of Exelby Services Ltd. The company has a total of five Shell-branded sites, including two sites on the A19 South of Teesside; a site at junction 42 of the M6 at Carlisle; and a site at J31 of the M62 near Castleford. It handles 120 million litres of fuel a year 100mlpa of it being diesel for its bunkering operations, through which it services major transport, distribution and fuel card companies.
The Leeming Bar site, called Coneygarth, opened last November after many years of frustration not to mention great expense. It is a hugely impressive facility designed to meet the refuelling and rest needs of HGVs and their drivers, with its 85 secure truck parking places; and extensive refuelling facilities. But it also caters well for the motoring public with its spacious forecourt, modern Mace-branded convenience store; and Subway and Costa Coffee offers.
"When it finally opened, it wasn’t a celebration, it was a relief," says Mike, and when he launches into the saga, it’s easy to see why.
Exelby Services was established in 1976, although the origins of the business go back to the late 1940s, when Mike’s father Ron ran a small repair and filling station in the village of Londonderry on the A1 in North Yorkshire. Ron became the founder of the bunkering business when plans for the A1 dual carriageway threatened to bypass his operation, which involved repairing the many trucks travelling up and down to Scotland. One Scottish transport company suggested he store fuel for them, word got around, and the business grew from strength to strength.
Roll on to the early ’90s, and yet again plans to upgrade the A1 posed a threat to the business.
"The Highways Agency first announced it was going to upgrade the A1 to a motorway in 1991," explains Mike. "We were informed we would lose access off the A1 junction to our site at Londonderry (two miles from Leeming Bar) which is where we’d been since 1947. That’s when we knew we had to move. We approached the farmer at the Leeming Bar site about purchasing the land for development, but Welcome Break had got in before us and secured an option to buy the land to develop a motorway service area. So we did a deal with Welcome Break to do a joint venture they would do the motorway service area and look after the cars; and we would do the truck refuelling, forecourt and secure truck park."
But that all came to nothing in 1995 when the then Conservative government announced the scheme was being knocked on the head. So it was back to square one. Then in 2001 the Labour government said it would go ahead with the upgrade. "At that time Welcome Break had disappeared off the scene," says Mike. "So we did a deal with the farmer direct, and took an option on 22 acres of land and the farmhouse.
"But we were cautious in waiting until they started building the road in 2008, because we didn’t want to go through the whole palaver, for the government to knock it on the head again."
Once the bulldozers had started digging, Exelby Services did a deal with the farmer and took an option to buy the land subject to planning.
"We submitted a planning application in March 2010. We’d already had discussions with the local planning department at Hambleton District Council," says Mike. "They were quite amenable to us relocating from Londonderry to here and it was going to go through the normal planning process.
"But then I received a letter from the Yorkshire and Humberside regional government department which said our plans may ’conflict with national policies’. It was taken out of the hands of the local planning department and got chucked in with all the applications for motorway service areas in this stretch of road, of which there were four.
"It emerged that the only people objecting to our plans was Moto the company has services at Scotch Corner and Wetherby and obviously didn’t want anyone in between."
Mike had to employ a lot of specialist consultants plus a barrister, which very quickly gobbled up about half a million pounds. The initial inquiry started in November 2010, and finished in February 2011. The inspector then had some queries and re-convened the inquiry at the back end of 2011. It didn’t really involve Exelby Services but delayed the whole process. That ran into early 2012. "We finally got the decision in October 2012, which gave us permission to go ahead. Moto hadn’t proved its case that no other services were needed."
After that there was another eight-week wait to see if anyone would object. That left the Exelbys with just one week in which to exercise their option to buy the land. All of 2013 was spent lining up a bank to help fund the deal. "That was another eye-opener," says Mike. "We’d banked with Barclays for 50 years and wanted to borrow £4m. But ultimately they weren’t very helpful, and didn’t seem bothered when we moved all our banking to HSBC. As it turned out we only needed to borrow £1m, we funded the rest through profits and reserves."
Next, having chosen Clugstone Construction as the builders, everything was in place to start construction on January 6, 2014. Then the rain came, which held up works in the truck park. But by November 750 truck-loads of concrete later the site was ready to open. "Sadly Ron had passed away by then, but at least he did see work start on the new site," says Mike. "The Londonderry forecourt closed the same day as the new site opened.
"We pulled back the barriers, turned on the lights, and the customers came in." And they haven’t stopped. The shop has already broken £20,000 a week the year-one target was £10-15,000. Diesel volume was pitched at 18mlpa, but is already on target for 24mlpa.
Despite all the hassles and expense, Mike stuck with it because he knew it was the ideal plot. "We’re familiar with the area; the site is next to the Leeming Bar industrial estate; and only two miles from our Londonderry site, where we still have engineering services.
However, work isn’t quite complete yet there are plans for a dedicated driver’s café; a truck wash facility; and maybe a dirve-thru restaurant or accommodation unit. And then there’s another bypass to be built but don’t worry this one will improve access!