Many retailers come in to the business from completely different backgrounds. Jonathan Finch is no different.
He worked as a qualified chartered surveyor before making the move into property development with his business partners Les Ross and Andrew Hutchinson.
Before the recession, the trio became part owners of two shops in Scotland with a view to redevelop and sell them on.
However, the market dictated otherwise and they ended up operating the stores. Whilst this wasn’t the plan originally, it has led to a successful retail business which now operates seven stores, five in Northern Ireland and two in Scotland.
Retail seems to have come naturally to Jonathan, whose grandfather was general manager of the Co-Op in the 1970s.
Speaking to Neighbourhood Retailer recently Jonathan takes pragmatic approach to retail and this has led to the stores in Northern Ireland performing very well and saw the A29 Service Station in Cookstown winning the Forecourt of the Year (Cat 1) award in 2013.
“About five years ago we took on the old station on the A29 in Cookstown and it took three years of planning before we could start work on developing the site,” said Jonathan.
“In the interim we acquired another four stores, one more in Cookstown, one in Carryduff, one in Whitehead, and another in Ballyrobert.”
Once planning permission was granted, Jonathan, Les and Andrew set about building a new Spar store and forecourt.
All the of the stores within the group operate under the Spar symbol and all have Solo branded forecourts – the Solo Petroleum business being headed up by Andrew Hutchinson.
“Working with the Henderson Group makes for a great partnership,” said Jonathan.
“We work with them across all our stores in Northern Ireland and have a fantastic relationship with the company. We are actively pursuing new stores and I am constantly speaking to Henderson’s, running information past them, fact finding, etc – they are an integral part of our team.”
The A29 store features all the typical Spar offerings, but like any award-winning business, it’s the individual ideas and innovation that make it stand out.
The store boasts a cafe which is a big draw for business people out on the road and truckers are well catered for too.
“It’s a transient site but a lot of our customers would know us now as we have facilities for trucks; a 40ft truck can pull in fuel and park and we have fantastic toilet facilities. Truckers are a big part of our business,” he said.
“Inside we have we have a sit down café, with free wifi and we are pulling in different types of customer. There’s the white van man, business people and we have a lot of local customers who call in as Cookstown can be quite congested so the A29 is easy to nip in and out at this end of town.”
The focus on the hot food offering came from monitoring how busy the second Cookstown store was in terms of food.
“When we built the new store we put a clear focus on hot food and fortunately it has now mushroomed and we are doing a lot of business,” said Jonathan.
“We brought in the Tim Horton’s coffee franchise with two machines and as it got busier so we have decided to introduce some of our own products.”
The food has become an important part of the business and the store now has got its own range called Food for the Soul.
“Now we actually have separate food production business within the A29,” he said.
“All our main hot food products made on-site in a separate kitchen. We now supply all our other shops here in Northern Ireland with all the sandwiches, hot food products and pre-pack meals. We also put a refrigerated van on the road six months ago. That’s a business that now employs four people independently of the A29. We also do some outside catering too.”
The Food for the Soul brand is working very well and Jonathan is a firm believer in brands and the positive impact they can have on bringing more business into the store.
All this has seen the A29 Service Station develop into a forward-thinking business and 2014 will see Jonathan and the team further enhance and streamline the day-to-day operations and look for new business opportunities.
“Margins are going to be tight and our growth this year may not be as high as last year, said Jonathan.
“A lot of our service stations were coming from a lower base last year but I think we have a very realistic growth this year. Our attitude is very much on efficiency, procedures and standards and hopefully the growth will come from that.
He added: “We are aggressively looking to add one maybe two more stores to the group and we will also be focusing on further developing Food for the Soul.”