Having worked as a commission operator for 20 years, Nalliah Thayaparan (known as Thaya) thought he would have a go at owning a petrol station himself. So in 2012, armed with his considerable knowledge gained operating 12 sites for various UK leading independent forecourt companies as well as running six convenience stores he set up NTS Retail Ltd.
A year later he had bought his first forecourt, a Texaco site in Petersfield. Then he learnt his first hard lesson about actually owning a forecourt as opposed to running one: "I started out as a com-op in 1993 and ran sites for Save, then Snax 24 (which became Rontec), MRH and Murco," explains Thaya. "I had run sites for so many people, I thought why can’t I buy one? The goal was just one. It was a steep learning curve!"
When he bought the site it was branded Total, a brand that had all but disappeared from the UK (Total UK’s retail assets were acquired by Rontec Investments in January 2012). But no one wanted to supply him with fuel. "We called everyone. It was a 3mlpa site, but no one wanted to supply us because we were new," explains Thaya. "Eventually Texaco was happy to supply us. So this first site was a good learning experience for us. We learned about all the things we hadn’t had to deal with before." The experience didn’t put him off at all, as he soon realised the potential of the business.
The site had a small, unbranded shop which was expanded by knocking down the wall into the store room. Thaya put in an off licence and Paypoint. Turnover rose from £1,700 a week to around £8,000. From a bad start it was onwards and upwards: "We were successful because we extended the shop and increased the range and availability of products, which sold well in a local store," says Thaya. "After that, I began to make so much money from that one site. I had run 12 sites as a com-op and didn’t make that. So I thought ’this is the way to go’ and started looking for more sites." His second site was a bankrupt Texaco forecourt in Newport, Wales, which he acquired in 2014.
"The site had been closed down so we were starting everything from scratch. That one had water contamination in the tanks, so that cost me another good learning experience! However we had similar success, building fuel sales to 3mlpa and shop turnover to £15k from zero."
The next site was acquired in 2015 from Rontec another Welsh site, in Llanelli; followed by Beacon Service Station in Richmond, London, bought from BP. Since then NTS Retail has acquired one or two sites a year, until last year when it bought five sites three from MFG and two independent sites. In recent weeks it has also just acquired its 15th site, Oldbury Hill Garage in Didmarton, Gloucestershire. Now the NTS Retail network stretches across the south of England and Wales, including sites in Norfolk, London, Dorset and Cornwall. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing there were other ’learnings’: "We were opening the store on our site in Cornwall and our shop supplier Palmer & Harvey went bust towards the end of 2017," says Thaya.
"We struggled to get goods for the store, and eventually went to Booker for help. Then all our sites went to Costcutter, but it didn’t work well for us, so by May 2018 we moved the stores to the Londis brand. We now have 12 Londis and three Premier stores on forecourts, plus one Premier convenience store."
Another site, Beccles Service Station in Suffolk which Thaya acquired from the Co-op, has not gone as well as expected, despite an investment of £750,000, including knocking down and rebuilding a modern 2,000sq ft store; and putting BP on the forecourt. "We’re now doing 2.8mlpa fuel volume, but the store is not doing much more than £7,500 despite suppliers suggesting it would do twice as much. We opened with Budgens, then changed to Premier and we’re now seeing a gradual improvement. The problem is it’s surrounded by competitive supermarkets. Another learning experience!"
A big success story is the company’s redeveloped BP site in Dock Road, Calne, Essex, which Thaya acquired in March 2019. "We started to work on it from October last year and completed the project at the beginning of December. Turnover is showing a 45% increase. We’re now doing £12k in the shop, with fuel having grown from 1.5mlpa to 2mlpa.
"We’re really pleased and pleasantly surprised with the shop turnover increase and it’s looking good for continued growth. The customers are a mix of local residents and workers from industrial units nearby; plus there are more residential developments planned around us. It’s a good convenience store offer and is busy morning to lunchtime doing food to go. The area was in need of an offer like this people have really welcomed it.
"We are in a very strong position with the company now," says Thaya. "We’ve just completed a new fuel supply deal with BP on three sites and two with Jet this year. We now have eight sites with BP, as well as two with Jet; three with Esso; and two with Texaco."
Always on the lookout for new ventures
Acquisitive: "I enjoy the business, and am always looking to find new ventures," says Thaya. "The forecourt brings the customers in. If you have a big forecourt the customers can park; plus the opening hours are long; with a great availability of key products at competitive prices; and other services such as parcel services. It’s very convenient for customers."
Difficult times: Of course times are difficult at the moment with fuel volumes collapsing, and opening times reduced across the network. On the plus side store business at NTS Retail is up 20% and Thaya is doing his bit to help the community, offering 10% discount on fuel and shop sales for all NHS staff and UK emergency services staff. "It’s costing us, but we want to show our appreciation for their hard work and dedication in this difficult time," he says.