A recent visit to the Hammond Group’s stunning Three Elm site in Tonbridge, Kent, filled with Co-op-branded products, prompted further investigation into the Southern Co-op’s Welcome franchise.

I am greeted by a familiar face franchise business manager Mike Fitton (pictured above), who has long experience working with independent forecourt retailers through his previous roles with the Budgens, Spar and Nisa brands. Prior to that he spent many years working with supermarkets. He joined the Southern Co-op in 2012 and heads up a team of operations managers who are responsible for the physical side of opening new stores; supporting them onsite for three to four days a week for 12 weeks through the initial opening period; and thereafter providing ongoing support. It’s a job he relishes, and takes particular pride in ensuring Welcome retailers are well supported.

His work with leading forecourt retailers such as Philip and Lesley Tout, Robert and Hugh Fraser, Simon and Andrew Lawrence and John Ryeland over the years has left him with great insight into the dynamics of running a forecourt.

"It was working with these retailers that I first started to realise what it is to be independent, and to understand the support they needed," stresses Fitton. "It’s the professional ones that want that support and they’re the ones that are still in business. It’s all about customer service people don’t forget that. So I know a fair bit about fuel and have great enthusiasm for the forecourt sector the fast-moving excitement around the sites; plus the retailers are full of ideas."

Hence I find myself on another recent forecourt signing, the extremely impressive Welcome store on Southwater Service Station, a Texaco-branded site in West Sussex, owned by Visvanathan Ragunathan. The Southwater store opened at the end of January and showcases Southern Co-op’s Welcome franchise brand which includes the renowned Co-op own-label products. The 2,600sq ft store formerly a car showroom includes a food-to-go selection with takeaway coffee, an in-store bakery, plus a variety of regionally-sourced products including a specialist frozen food range made in Chichester Gourmade. The focus is also on fresh food and a commitment to support the local community. Impressive sales have shown that customers are enjoying the store, the quality and ethical stance of the Co-op, with fresh food sales exceeding expectations. Fitton explains that the main Co-operative group is based in Manchester, plus there are 18 local co-operative societies, of which Southern Co-op is one of the biggest. It is an independent regional business owned by its members membership costs £1.

It was established in Portsmouth, Hampshire over 145 years ago, and runs more than 250 community food stores and funeral homes across 11 counties in southern England south of the M4 from Kent to Cornwall. It also has 20 standalone high street Starbucks stores. Its values and principles support sustainable business practice and it is committed to making a difference in its local communities. It has proactive partnerships with its members, suppliers, local communities and partner organisations for the benefit of all.

"When I joined Southern Co-op my job was to look at Welcome," explains Fitton. "We were using Manchester’s epos system, which was a company-owned store system and not suitable for the independent sector, so initially growth was slow."

Then two years ago investment in a new till system meant the organisation could link with BP and anyone with a Gempay system. "Independents need to have such things as information about margins, cost of goods, the ability to change pricing, a range of reports, which were not available before," explains Fitton. "The new system gives all our franchisees the opportunity to be able to do what every other independent retailer in the country does. Since then we’ve started recruiting new stores we did four last year, and so far this year we’re up to six and by the end of this year we’re hoping to add another six or seven. We’re currently running at around 32 sites, including seven forecourts."

However, it’s not about numbers, stresses Fitton, but quality. He is looking for professional fuel retailers aiming to grow their business to the next level; with stores of a minimum 1,600sq ft and an achievable turnover of £25k a week. But high standards of operation are key. A quick walk round a store or even the back office will tell Fitton all he wants to know about suitability.

"We’re going to be local, we’re going to look after quality retailers and we would hope that every Welcome store you go into would have very good standards but you won’t see us everywhere," stresses Fitton.

"When we put Welcome above the door, we enable the retailer to be a retailer," says Fitton. "They’ve got the best of both the overall brand of the Co-op and the support that Southern Co-op and my team gives them in Welcome. But at the same time they can still be an independent retailer. They can bring in local products; they can change pricing they still need to stick to our promotions, but they’re really good so why wouldn’t they? And if they want to develop their fresh food offer, they aren’t going to get better than the Co-op."

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