Lee Spirit: How Lee’s Centra Applegreen Charleville has weathered the storm

Lee Spirit: How Lee’s Centra Applegreen Charleville has weathered the storm

Lee’s Centra Applegreen Charleville was named Retailer of the Year at the IFCR Awards in 2019, weeks before the country went into lockdown. IFCR catches up with Ray Lee on how the company has weathered the last couple of years.

Ray and Brendan Lee were flying high after taking home the ultimate gong from the IFCR Awards in 2019 – and so was the business.

“Lee’s Centra was trading exceptionally well at the time, prior to the pandemic,” says Ray Lee.

“It was ticking all the boxes, and then of course first lockdown hit, and that was a hugely scary time for us.”

At the time, the company owned two stores, the Lee’s Centra in the Main Street of Charleville and the newer Lee’s Centra Applegreen Charleville on the outskirts of the town on the main Cork to Limerick road, which had just undergone a major redevelopment.

Hardest hit

It was the latter that was hardest hit in the first stage of the pandemic, thanks to the tight restrictions on travel.

“Once we got through the first lockdown, we found as we were going into the summer of 2020, we actually had a very good summer,” Ray says.

“Business seemed to come back very quickly – I suppose you had a lot of people that were traditionally travelling out of the country were all staycationing. Certainly, staycationing over the last two summers would have significantly driven our business.

“So once we got through the shock of the first lockdown, we just adapted and I think it was a turning point for us personally and for our business in that it probably made us become more resilient.

“Probably like all retailers in Ireland we’ve had to adapt and become more resilient and be able to react quickly to big changes in our macro environment, so it really made us step back and say ‘OK, in the midst of all these challenges, where are the opportunities for our business’?”

Spotting potential

A former general manager with SuperValu in west Cork and Kerry, Ray spotted the potential of the Centra store in the heart of his home-town of Charleville and bought it in 2004.

“Then in 2005, my brother Brendan joined the business and an opportunity came up to acquire a forecourt on the main Cork to Limerick road, just on the outskirts of Charleville,” he says.

“There was a very small forecourt shop and a lot of untapped potential because at the time forecourts were starting to evolve into destinations.  We could see the opportunity because at the time, if you travelled from Cork to Limerick and onto Galway there were very few good forecourts on that road, so we saw a huge opportunity there to become a destination for consumers on the N20.

“Back then it was very much a trial store for a new forecourt format for Centra – it was one of the early Centra forecourt stores to have a sit-down area. So we put a huge emphasis on sit-down, on deli, and on coffee – which at the time was starting to become a big part of the business so we really focussed on getting the offer right in these key categories.”

Flush with success

Another area where the Lees set themselves apart was in the provision of the humble WC.

“We put a lot of money into developing really top standard customer toilets because again we could see that any forecourt you went into back then, it was a walk around to the side door where you found a dingy old toilet – whereas we saw an opportunity, because of the amount of female consumers that were on the road, in particular, that weren’t stopping at forecourts because of the toilet facilities,” Ray says.

“We had seen in the UK where 67% of UK female consumers at the time chose their forecourt based on toilet facilities and we saw a huge opportunity to really tap into that. It became a destination stop and then we had a good deli offer, we had a good sit-down area, we had a good coffee offer and we had customer friendly toilet facilities. Nowadays you expect that in every forecourt but back then it wasn’t such a luxury.”

Evolving situation

In the meantime, the store has undergone three refurbishments, plus the addition of the Applegreen brand in 2018 which Ray describes as a “significant development”.

“The biggest and most recent development would have been in 2018 when we completely redeveloped the store, adopted the Centra Live Every Day brand positioning and brought the best of what Centra had to offer into that store and further enhanced our deli and sit down areas,” he says.

“We brought in the Applegreen brand also in 2018 and that was a big positive for our forecourt business.

“We added two additional pump islands so we went up to six pump islands – that would have led to growth in our fuel sales prior to Covid of probably 20-25% volume.”

Varied customers

The forecourt attracts a varied customer base, primarily transient customers passing along the main road, he says.

“You’re on the main N20, one of the busiest national roads in the country, whereas the store on the main street would be primarily local customers.”

As the first shock of the pandemic wore off and lockdown lifted, the brothers began to look at how they could further innovate within their business.

“We started to really innovate within our business, so for example we have our own bakery and it produces an entire range of both chilled and ambient bakery products, all branded Lee’s. We produce them from our store on the main street and it supplies the other two stores as well,” Ray says.

Catering at home

“At the time we saw opportunities in areas such as catering at home, all these occasions that people still wished to celebrate when the whole hospitality industry was locked down. We took on a head chef in November 2019 and we set about creating a whole at-home dining offer, ranging from everything from one-off occasions, like cheeseboards, meal kits, pizza kits and afternoon tea.

“Our head chef Declan has really upped our food credentials. He has developed a whole range of at-home dining solutions so we have a full range of restaurant quality chef-prepared meals, that are made from an in-store production kitchen using only the best local natural ingredients. That has done exceptionally well and has given us a point of difference over our competitors with a full range of these “Lee’s” branded ready meals to take home from our stores.

“We had also established a bakery prior to the pandemic and we do a lot in terms of occasion cakes and birthday cakes. So during the pandemic we needed to find a way to get to the market a bit better so we developed an online solution, lovelees.ie.

Marking the occasion

“Before, if you wanted an occasions cake, you had to come into the store, so we took the opportunity to look at how we could make this easier for our customers. Now you can go online on your phone, and build your cake to your requirements, upload a picture you want on the cake, pay and then collect two days later.

“We took advantage of the opportunities that the pandemic presented and we also used it as an opportunity to focus on improving the customer experience. We were always strong on areas such as the customer experience, but now we certainly are much stronger than we would have been prior to the pandemic.”

During the pandemic, the business also offered deliveries focusing on the more vulnerable in the community and working closely with community organisations such as the GAA to support people.

Seeking value

Ray admits the business is operating in a particularly challenging environment post-Covid with relentless inflation ultimately fuelled by the unfortunate crisis in Ukraine.

“The focus is back on value for money where it might not have been for the last few years, given the significant challenges around inflationary pressures,” he says.

“But we’ll work through these challenges, we’ve been through similar challenges in the recent past such as the financial crisis, and we believe that ultimately, we’ll get through the current challenges by working closely with our brand partners.”

Another focus for the business has been on sustainability, a journey which has been ongoing for the past five years for Lee’s.

Green journey

“It was something that we could see in our own locality and from talking to the younger generation in particular that sustainability was going to become a big issue,” Ray says.

“So we had been doing a lot of work on that – we had introduced segregated sustainability bins into our stores to try to encourage customers to think before they threw stuff in the bin on the forecourt. We were on a journey already encouraging consumers to think more about what they’re wasting in packaging and bins.

“Centra have been very proactive in this space in terms of starting to introduce initiatives such as compostable cups and compostable shopping bags etc. From the point of view of the actual stores we have introduced full LED lighting to our stores in recent years along with highly efficient refrigeration.

“But no doubt it’s going to become a bigger issue into the future and it’s something we all have a responsibility, I believe, to get behind and ensure that we leave the world in a better place for the next generations coming along.”

Branching out

One long-held ambition for Ray and Brendan – to bring more stores into the fold – has just come to fruition with the acquisition of the Centra / Circle K at Pallasgreen, Co Limerick on the N24 Limerick to Waterford road in March of this year.

“Certainly we have ambitions to grow the business further, so I suppose a lot of the work we have been doing over the past few years has been focussed on putting the resources and skillsets in place to allow us to scale the business, when suitable opportunities arise,” Ray says.

“Again, we’re really focused on the things that make us different from our competitors, so the likes of our production kitchen for meals, our chef-prepared ranges, and our bakery is a huge contributor to our business, so we want to continue to innovate with new products and customer solutions, and ultimately roll those out to new store locations.”

Ray is quick to point out that huge credit is due to their teams in their stores to whom they owe all their success to date.

“Myself and Brendan are very fortunate to have great people working in our business, and they have embraced all the challenges the last few years have presented us and they have been instrumental in ensuring our business continues to thrive in challenging times,” he says.