You’d need a book to properly relate the life of the colourful character that is Peter Hockenhull, managing director of Leicestershire-based Top 50 Indie Hockenhull Garages. He has a great many stories to tell after 50 years in the fuel retailing business and that’s before you get onto his forays into other business ventures in sports, country pubs and insurance; his farming, butcher’s shop, ex-merchant navy, and ex-army background; as well as his love of animals, tennis, his wife, seven children and 11 grandchildren.
At 71 years old, he initially told me he was stepping back from the fuel retailing industry, and letting his son Joseph who has been working in the business for four years take over. Except that with his enthusiastic description of his plans for the future, it doesn’t sound like he’s stepping back from anything.
"I’m semi-retiring," he explains. In recent years he has sold a chunk of his sites to Euro Garages, and more recently handed back the last of his Total cogop sites to Rontec. He is left with a few Shell dealer sites and a Shell multi-site operation (MSO).
"When we’ve sold some land we’ll be back on the acquisition trail but slowly," stresses Peter. "I want to develop the company again but as a smaller unit than before. I’ve found it hard pulling back, but plan to spend about 50% of my time on the forecourt business.
"I’d also like to give something back to the industry. I would like to help anyone that would like my help and advice. I’m not saying I’m the best thing on the block, but I have a great deal of experience and I would share it with anybody. I might also do something with the Petrol Retailers’ Association. Retailers probably think they can get all the benefits of the PRA without joining. But that’s completely unfair because if retailers’ don’t support it, it won’t be there in the future to support them."
Peter started his career in the petrol retailing industry in 1963 when he joined Shell Mex BP in Manchester and became a representative, equivalent to a territory manager today. He was interviewed by a man with a three-piece suit, a bowler hat and a fob watch that was the image in those days: "When I joined there was no such thing as self service and no canopies," reflects Peter. "There were just linear islands where you would have Esso, Cleveland, Shell, BP, National Benzole and Regent pumps all on the same island. Different companies all supplying one site. You would have six CFDs cash-following-deliveries which meant you paid for your first delivery when you had your sixth, so retailers would have all that credit."
Another aspect of oil company operation that amazes Peter in comparison with today was the structure. "You had six regions in the country, and each region had a regional manager. Each regional manager had his own staff internally a retail marketing manager, sales supervisor, lubricants supervisor and so on, as well as his secretary and admin staff. Each region had three area managers and each one had his own secretary and staff in the area office. Each area manager had a minimum of six reps so in the NW region alone, where I was based, there was a minimum of 18 reps. There were also a lot of specialised people who handled the engineering side and so on. There’s no way it could have been profitable."
Not long after the de-merger of Shell Mex BP in 1976, Peter decided to go it alone rather than uproot his family from Leicester to Leeds to take the role of area manager. "It was a huge deal because the only thing in my favour was my age," he explains. But with his good contacts in the industry he began operating a number of BP licensee sites, until he could see the writing on the wall in terms of profitability. The deals tightened and, having always been a good saver, he was able to move into dealer operation helped by the fact oil companies in those days offered what amounted to interest-free loans in the supply deals. "We started buying sites from companies that had gone bust sites for developing. Don’t ask me how, but we never made one mistake in an acquisition or development. We were lucky." In fact his main regret was signing up for the Total cogop sites at one stage he had about 30. "The principal of cogop sounded good, but Total controlled the retail price at the pump which governed the footfall into the shop. Retailers complained about what an atrocious deal they had, but nothing was done. We lost about £250,000. It was a painful exercise!"
However, he still loves the business and his advice to anyone is that you’re only as good as your sales assistant.
So it’s off to semi-retirement... Almost as an aside he mentions his involvement with an insurance brokerage; his country pub with extensive adjoining land; and how he’ll continue to play tennis four times a week at lunchtime!
Jimmy didn’t fix it
As a sports fanatic Peter jumped at the chance of buying Admiral Sportswear when it was in trouble. "Because I was successful at petrol retailing I thought I had the Midas touch!" He signed up Jimmy Saville for four years and supplied him with a Winnebago. "It had Admiral written on it, so when he went to all the marathons and so on, it promoted the company. I can only say I found him very peculiar but he was a face in those days. I sold the company four years’ later, but not at a profit."
Peter bought The Old Greyhound pub (above) three years ago and is redeveloping it. The attached land is home to his precious goats and donkey.