St George’s Service Station, Church Way, Doncaster was a site in decline with pump volumes falling to two million litres (from four million at its peak), weekly shop sales of less than £5,000, a forecourt full of pot holes and a canopy leaking like a sieve. Lack of investment over a number of years had taken its toll, staff morale was understandably low and the town centre location was no longer on the radar of motorists or pedestrians. It looked like the site’s days as a petrol filling station were numbered.
Then, in August 2012, along came the Sharma Corporation (part of the Sharma Falcon Group, number 35 in our Top 50 Indies), owned by 39-year-old former accountant, Rakesh Sharma and partner Mohammed Wasim. These Coventry-based entrepreneurs and experienced petrol retailers were looking to purchase another freehold forecourt to add to their existing group and, despite the negatives, could see potential for this spacious site in the heart of a thriving town. Within two months they had purchased St George’s and set about its rejuvenation.
"Our first objective was to demonstrate to motorists, shoppers and our staff that we meant business," explains Rakesh. "We immediately set about improving the existing facilities, re-surfacing parts of the forecourt and refurbishing the canopy. We also replaced BP with Gulf and became the first filling station in the UK to receive Gulf’s European-spec livery, complete with nine metre pole and illuminated canopy fascia."
The company wanted a strong fuel brand that was committed to the dealer market, prepared to support its dealers and with ambitious plans for the future.
"We looked around and Gulf stood head and shoulders above the rest," Rakesh continues.
"We had to have a fresh image that would ’wow’ motorists and let them know that we were serious about petrol retailing. On my travels I had seen very impressive Gulf-branded forecourts in Europe with illuminated canopies. We told them what we wanted to achieve and told them that we had new, exciting ideas and would present the Gulf brand at its best, be a proactive partner to further our business and support their growth plans in the UK. Gulf bought into it, they have delivered on everything they said they would and we are reciprocating."
The Sharma Corporation also made cosmetic changes to the inside of the shop, introduced new shelving and improved the choice for convenience shoppers. With 380sq ft in its former configuration, the forecourt shop had limited potential. However, the firm recognised that if the store was well presented, with a more complete product range, new revenues could be generated. Staff training programmes were also introduced to further strengthen the customer proposition.
"The site suddenly looked alive and inviting," enthuses Rakesh. "We became more price competitive, opened 24 hours and started to attract new customers."
By January 2013, with notable gains in both fuel and shop sales, stage two was implemented in collaboration with Premier; the redevelopment of the existing building to incorporate a 790sq ft convenience store.
Double the size
The redevelopment project involved gutting the insides, removing and relocating storage areas and office space, as well as introducing completely new flooring, ceilings and lighting. At a cost of £65,000, the shop is now more than double the size; which has meant more space for a wider range of products including groceries, hot and chilled foods. Recent additions include an ATM and the jewel in the crown, an off licence.
"I started petrol retailing at 23, running a series of franchises for oil companies across the Midlands and over the years have built a strong rapport with Premier Stores," explains Rakesh. "Just as Gulf has proved to be an ideal partner for fuel, I knew that Premier would serve us well in Doncaster. Their product ranges and style of operation suits our customer base. There is also a willingness to share knowledge and support our investment programme with time and resources.
"It was essential that we stopped the decline and we did within weeks. Then we started to climb, slowly at first, but surely. Since the shop redevelopment, we are climbing at a rate of knots which has justified our decision to invest. We have a Morrisons supermarket just a mile up the road and that presents an ongoing challenge but we have taken the fight to them. Customers tell us that the difference is the service, the chit-chat and immediacy with no long queues to either the pumps or the tills."
New customers are now discovering St George’s, attracted by convenience shopping, easy parking, strong weekly offers and high standards of service. Fuel volumes are up 30% and weekly shop turnover is already over £10,000 and growing week-on-week. Off licence sales currently stand at 15% of shop turnover.
"Our staff have responded well to the changes and the training programmes, and there is altogether a much greater emphasis upon the customer," says Mohammed.
"Across the sites that we are involved with we work hard to keep staff and develop their talents. It is an environment that relies upon a real team effort and continuity is always good for business.
"The philosophy of empowering staff and developing their understanding of customers to deliver the service is something that Rakesh and I learnt early in our careers.
"We also learnt the importance of financial controls to manage costs in every area of the business."
The immediate priority for the pair, as they look to nationwide expansion of their petrol retailing activities, is to prove the potential of their latest asset.
Further development of the Doncaster site is set to follow along with more freehold acquisitions.