Taking on the competition and winning
The secret to running an outstanding forecourt is not only being able to juggle staff, customer expectations, and rising costs, but also to keep one eye on the future for the latest trends or challenges coming down the line just waiting to disrupt your business model.
In an industry that faces considerable micro and macro pressures, Ray and Brendan Lee manage to make forecourt retailing look like an easy vocation.
Wowing the judges at the recent Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer Awards, Lee’s Centra Applegreen Charleville took home the top prize of Retailer of the Year, in addition to winning Forecourt Store of the Year in its category.
Describing the brothers’ approach to forecourt retailing as modern, innovative and entrepreneurial, the judging panel were impressed by the retailers’ enthusiasm for trying new ideas and implementing many successful initiatives. But for Ray Lee, building a successful empire is as simple as surrounding yourself with the right team.
“Number one, if you can get the right team of people in the business, then everything else will come,” says Ray Lee. “From day one we wanted to be known for really good customer service and our people. That was 15 years ago and everything we’ve done since has been about developing that culture, the people within the business, and our customer service. It’s always top of mind in terms of what we do next and we’re always challenging ourselves in that respect.”
Innovation begins at home
While many retailers and forecourt operators throughout the country are struggling to fill shop and deli positions with reliable, ambitious employees, these Cork retailers – who manage 72 members of staff between their two stores – have no shortage of first-rate candidates applying to work in their two sites.
Aware this enviable position could change at anytime; Ray believes that the business has both been fortunate as well as benefited from the rewards of creating a positive work environment that encourages progression.
“We clearly outline to people when they join the company that there is a career path for development if they want it,” says Ray. “Every single one of our management team – our store managers, supervisors, deli managers – they have all been developed internally.”
Despite his modest demeanour, Ray admits not many of his competitors can say the same.
“We always say that if you hire people with the correct attitude then straight away you’re onto a winner. All daily tasks can be taught very easily but if the person’s attitude isn’t right they won’t go far,” he says.
Empowering their employees to make suggestions and see those ideas come to fruition is all part of the process in creating a company culture at Lee’s. Eager to constantly improve on their offer, Ray and Brendan regularly take retail safaris to different locations seeking out new ideas to bring back to their business. Most recently they have travelled to Boston, Amsterdam, and in 2018 they took a team of 10 staff to London to observe food-to-go trends ahead of the site’s latest renovation.
“The challenge was for us all to come together the following day with a number of ideas that we could take back to our own stores,” explains Ray. “We try to inspire our staff to have that passion within their work to treat the business like their own. We have regular communication sessions with all of our employees and anyone within the business can have a meaningful input into what goes on. In fact, lots of the good ideas over the years have come from the staff.”
A bright future for the Charleville forecourt
The Limerick Road forecourt in Charleville opened in 2005, one year after they launched their first Centra store on the Main Street in the town. The location of the first store attracts a strong local customer base inspiring the Lee’s to put in a full-service Frank & Honest Café. Meanwhile, the Applegreen forecourt experiences a more transient customer looking to make use of the site’s excellent fuel and deli facilities.
Both sites have undergone multiple refreshes over the years but in 2018 the decision was taken to completely refurbish the forecourt site including changing fuel network.
The site, which completed its rebranding at the end of last year, now sports the iconic Applegreen colours and with additional new pump islands allowing for more fuel capacity.
While the Lee brothers have worked with Centra for many years, enjoying what Ray terms a “fantastic relationship”, the partnership with Applegreen is a brand new one for them. “Applegreen as a brand is a much newer identity here, but it has built up a very strong reputation in the fuel sector here very quickly,” Ray notes. “It has rapidly established itself as a brand of quality and one with a very strong price proposition. Applegreen itself has its own expert understanding of the forecourt and fuel sector and what the forecourt customer wants in 2019. Between Applegreen and Centra, we have direct access to the advice and support that we need as retailers.”
The move to Applegreen was one the brothers didn’t take lightly, but in the end, they were won over by a combination of quality fuels at reasonable prices, an attractive eye-catching forecourt and Applegreen’s proven growth in sales volumes.
Having been a Centra retailer since their first shop opened on Main Street Charleville, Ray believes the symbol group to be “the leading convenience retail brand in Ireland.”
At the time of the forecourt refurbishment, the store owners took the opportunity to refresh the store also. The environment was developed to reflect the new Centra, “Live Every Day” brand positioning and focused on a ‘Fast Foodie Friendly’ concept – providing exceptionally good food, the way customers want it and quickly, but with a level of service that is exceptional.
Responding to the latest trends in the last 12 – 18 months, both Lee’s stores now provide a healthier deli menu complete with vegetarian and vegan options.
“Not everybody will want to eat healthy all the time – and there is still a market for the traditional deli offer – but it’s about giving people choices and responding to consumer demands.
“We would probably be in the top 10 Centra stores in the whole of Ireland for our deli participation. Everything works hand-in-hand and there are a number of aspects driving the deli including being a destination store on the N20, having a sit-in area with 65 seats, and of course our toilets.”
Restrooms are an aspect of the facilities that are often overlooked in this type of interview, but Ray laughs as he says: “Our toilets are something that we like to shout about, believe it or not. We took a decision around 2009 – when the toilet facilities were notoriously bad on forecourts – to bring in an interior designer to create hotel standard facilities.”
On a retail safari to the UK, the brothers discovered that 65 percent of female consumers were choosing their forecourt based on its toilets so they came back to Ireland with a plan.
“At the time people thought we were off our heads putting all this money into toilets but the investment paid for itself in no time,” says Ray.”To this day we see it as important to have proper facilities that people enjoy going into. If you’re going from Cork to Galway and you know there are good forecourt facilities in Charleville, you’ll make that stop on your trip.”
Giving customers a plethora of reasons to stop at your site is one of the best ways to future-proof a business for challenges coming down the line. As Rays says, “Charleville is far away from the border but if there is a no-deal Brexit it is going to have an impact on the Irish economy and that in turn is going to effect the forecourt industry and every other type of business in Ireland.”
Facing challenges head on
Having just won Retailer of the Year in September, and at the top of their game, many may think that Ray and Brendan Lee have nothing to worry about, regardless of any potential Brexit outcome.
“You can never sit back and say we’ve won Retailer of the Year, now it’s time to relax, because the pace of change in our business is so fast nowadays, that 12 months from now your competitors have left you behind” says Ray. “It’s about constantly evolving and looking at what the customer wants and what is happening abroad; be that in America or Asia or Europe.”
A huge aspect of the ever-changing forecourt business for the Lee’s is the incoming issues of Electric Vehicles (EVs). While not currently something Ray is seeing a demand for in Charleville, all forecourt retailers know that a huge operational shift is on the horizon.
“The type of business we operate today, aspects of it will be very different in five years time. We need to be constantly evolving to keep up with consumer trends and customer demands.
“Our current forecourt model is very strong but it’s about watching what is happening in that space and how quickly you can adapt your site for the needs of your customers.
“There’s no doubt our site will have to evolve further in the coming years to cater for the customer that is coming onto the site for 30 minutes to charge their vehicle and when that happens we need to look at the facilities we have to cater to them. Right now we have the comfortable seating area, the food offer, and the coffee etc, but what other opportunities are there? While EVs present challenges in terms of fuel sales they will also open up opportunities on the forecourt and it’s up to us to take advantage of those opportunities.”
As for opportunities in the short term, there are plans in place to develop the Frank & Honest Café in the Main Street Charleville store in the first half of next year. Hoping to further capture the eating-out-of-home market in the town, Ray and Brendan are constantly re-evaluating ways in which they can maintain the edge on their competitors. In addition to their current sites, the brothers are also actively looking for more opportunities to develop further forecourts in the marketplace .
“We’re constantly challenging each other on how we can improve our stores. We can’t just sit back; we have a relentless desire to the best we can be and the next thing for us is to expand the business,” concludes Ray.