At the start of the year, Certas Energy reached agreement with Bestway Wholesale to be a preferred retail partner across its independent Gulf and Pace-branded sites. Six months before that, Top 50 Indie, Park Garage Group, also allied itself with Bestway Wholesale by signing an exclusive distribution agreement.
So why the seemingly sudden interest from big companies in this independent, family-owned wholesaler? Hands up Steve Caldecourt, who was appointed to head up a newly created multiple accounts team at Bestway Wholesale in October 2015. Having spent 20 years with Safeway, 14 years with Budgens and Londis, then Booker for a year, he has obviously used his experience and familiarity with the forecourt retail network, to great effect.
"We had 20-25 independent forecourts in the business, when I arrived," he says. "Now we’ve got just short of 160. When I joined we had no business at all in multiple accounts. Darren Briggs of Crossways Service Station, who had three sites at the time, was our very first customer. But within six months or so we had our first big customer, Park Garage Group. That was a big breakthrough. Then other people started to take notice. Before that we were an unknown quantity.
"People thought we were just a cash and carry business even though we had £650m of delivered business. We have 63 depots throughout the country, split between Batleys and Bestway; of those 14 are specialised delivery hubs, which make it easier to get to the extremities of our islands we can go down to Plymouth, and up to Aberdeen. The recently updated Best-One range has 350 lines."
The company has a Best-One symbol offer, and an entry level brand - Extra Local. But Caldecourt is more interested in how best the company can work with retailers to their mutual advantage, whether that be with the symbol offer, or a supply agreement.
"Obviously I’d like everyone to have Best-One a full branded convenience offer. But in my view the most important thing is what you’re doing inside your shop. We say to our retailers, let’s get your shop looking cracking, then when customers have a good experience and look back, they’ll notice the sign above the door. It’s all about the retailer. A customer wants a store to be clean and tidy, with good availability and a fair price, clear point of sale, a good environment and to be treated nicely. They also want ease of shop, somewhere to park, a clear entrance all making it less hassle for the shopper. That’s what I aspire to in all of our stores.
"I know the commercials are really important, but the key thing for me is developing a retailer’s business with them. I like retailers who want to move on, and who you can work with and watch their progress. If they want to use their own fascia, fine."
Caldecourt and his team of four create bespoke business plans for retailers: "We start off with ’you’re going to buy this much’. Then we start looking at the mix, advising the retailer for example that they can do better by growing their chilled sales, and then creating a plan to do that, giving them category advice on how they can achieve that," he explains. "One of our big steps forward in the past year has been launching a new category management programme."
Ramsay MacDonald, retail director of Certas Energy, says: "Certas Energy has a strong and growing relationship with Bestway; they are a great partner and offer a real and very credible alternative for all forecourt retailers. They are an emerging force in all sectors of convenience and have an inspirational leader in James Hall. He empowers his people to make decisions on the ground quickly and that resonates with us and our Gulf dealers who understand the value of responsive action in the field.
"The Bestway range is substantial and flexible, pricing is straightforward and, in the main, they offer a good local delivery service through their cash and carry network.
"They are prepared to work hard to become the leading forecourt supplier and most definitely have the drive and financial backing to do so."
The Park Garage Group has seen shop sales rise nearly 7% since signing up with Bestway Wholesale. Operations manager Hemant Tandon says: "It’s worked really well for us we’re one year into a five year agreement and from a service perspective I can’t fault them. The company has a good mix of delivered wholesale and the cash and carry aspect. Our retailers have the option, if they ever need to, of topping up stock on an ad hoc basis. It’s nice to have the back-up option there for example when we had an IT issue. Bestway supplies all our 49-site network. We didn’t want the symbol operation we have our own shop brand, Park & Shop. Bestway is happy to help develop our shop business rather than push their own Best-One brand. They’re happy to work with what we’ve got and improve it, and improve our supply chain. We’ve seen a definite increase in sales but we’ve also seen a really good increase in margin as well. They support us tell us what we’re doing right and wrong it’s a great partnership."
Back to Caldecourt: "We’re good at what we do and I think we can help forecourt retailers nationwide. The company’s roots were in cash and carry, but we’re a company on the move in the delivered sector, and we’re catching up fast. We could end up being one of the very few independent businesses looking after independent retailers. It’s about long-term stable relationships, doing the right thing, and being honest."