Conor McGettigan’s new state-of-the-art Applegreen forecourt in Lifford, Co Donegal, is proving a major boon for the local area.
Lifford’s modest population of 1,700 fails to reflect the pivotal position of the town.
Resting on the River Foyle, marking the Northern Ireland and Republic border, the town is a popular conduit for thousands of border-crossing motorists every day.
As the only bridge between the rickety route through Clady and the convolutions of Derry’s one way system, commuters, hauliers and holiday makers often favour the no-fuss crossing Lifford provides.
Little surprise then that Conor McGettigan’s greenfield plans sparked so much interest among the island’s leading forecourt brands who vied to partner with the Lifford-born builder and entrepreneur before its opening in June.
While it may be his first forecourt, Conor’s experience at the helm of a successful construction firm helped him spot the potential of the site, and the gap in the market for a high-spec forecourt.
“All the main players were clamouring to talk to me after we bought the site,” Connor said. “I knew it had potential.
“It was the bright and clean branding of Applegreen and their strong image that led me in that direction, and I really liked the concept they have.
“I met their representatives and struck up a good relationship with them and liked them. Liking the people you work with is really important in business, and we went from there.”
Connor added: “The big advantage is that Applegreen’s branding makes people stop. People are very familiar with the brand and there’s a very positive association with it. It’s very clean and attractive, and it really takes things to a different level.”
The potential of an Applgreen forecourt in Lifford had not only piqued Conor’s interest, but also that of the public, who applied for jobs at the site in their droves.
“We really didn’t expect the amount of applications we got,” Conor said. “We expected the number would be huge, maybe around 100 or 120, but didn’t think for a second the numbers would hit 400.”
According to Conor, the high numbers revealed the continuing issue of low employment in the Lifford area, while many of the applications also came from Strabane, just walking distance away on the other side of the liquid border.
In addition to the initial construction work and 20 jobs in-store, the site, which opened in May, has generated a number of spin-off enterprises, such as the onsite Joesoaps car wash.
The forecourt itself features a spanking new Centra store, using the symbol group’s latest show-stopping format, and is replete with facilities.
“It looks absolutely great inside,” Conor said. “I’m delighted with it. The black tiling and modern look is really professional – it’s really state-of-the-art.”
A sophisticated deli counter is strengthened by an attractive seating area – a source of detectible pride for Conor – where diners can enjoy the free WiFi, ATM access, and modern bathroom facilities.
The 24 hour site has also recently earned a licence to sell alcohol, adding another string to its already significant bow.
Meanwhile, hauliers have been given special consideration with the inclusion of large truck rest stops, and an outdoor payment terminal for late-night quick stops.
It also accepts DCI cards; a major incentive for commercial drivers to use the site regularly.
“This forecourt is on the main route from Donegal to Dublin, and there are few if any truck stops anywhere near here,” Conor said.
One of Connor’s most successful aspects of the 2,000 sq ft store is the inclusion of the Frank & Honest coffee concept, with his store being the first outlet in Northern Ireland and the Republic to try it out.
“We’ve seen a really high volume of sales for our coffee,” he said. “Forecourts are now all about coffee, that’s where the margins are. I don’t know how fuel and coffee have become so synonymous with each other, but they now just go hand-in-hand.”
The success of the store so far has been in contrast to the predicted doom of the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union, which many had predicted would be especially disastrous for border businesses.
So far, the weakened pound and speculation that the actual international decoupling is more an ‘if’ than a ‘when’ has largely left business at the frontier untouched.
“I was interviewed by Radio Foyle over the same issue recently,” Conor recalls. “But last week our sales here were at their highest level so far. We haven’t experienced any drop in sales; in fact, we’ve seen huge growth.”
With the Euro remaining relatively strong against the dollar compared to Sterling, Conor believes Ireland is likely to maintain its competitive advantage in fuel price over the short to medium term. That is good news for his Lifford forecourt and its customers.
Speculation over the ‘hardening’ of the border still plagues the border regions, however.
But Conor points out that late July’s comments from Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British Prime Minister Teresa May that Ireland is a “unique situation” has given him confidence that border arrangements are unlikely to be changed.
Conor is rightly proud of his latest venture, especially in terms for what it has done for the local area.
Not only has it brought vital employment opportunities, but it has also bolstered enterprise in the area, raising the bar for other entrepreneurs to aspire to.
More importantly, it has demonstrated Lifford is open for business. If that alone is the site’s legacy, then it has already achieved its most commendable ambition.