Being your own boss and having the authority to make all the key decisions without anyone else's say so is one of the core reasons why many retailers choose to be independent. But four indie Spar retailers in South Wales have decided that the lone wolf approach isn't for them, and have instead gone into business together.

"Everybody has questioned our decision to join forces," says Dave Phillips (pictured right), who was already running two successful stores when he decided to unite with three other retailers. "But I had a go at running a third store on my own and it was too hard," he explains. "The staff were against me and I just couldn't spend the amount of time I needed to turn things around."

And so a couple of years ago Dave got together with fellow retailer Norman Fisher, his son Gavin, and son-in-law Richard Cotter, who own a further two convenience stores between them.

Their first venture was to be a 1,500sq ft store in Panteg, near Pontypool, Gwent. But while they were waiting for planning permission to be granted, they spotted an opportunity to buy a 900sq ft store in Gilfach Goch in Glamorgan, which they opened in January 2009.

"If I was opening a store on my own I'd have to be there 12 hours a day, seven days a week for the first six weeks," says Dave. Being part of a team saves both time and money, he says. "With four people covering the management role, I don't need to be in the store as often and I only have to put forward 25% of the investment."

While the group had been keen to get going on a larger store straight away, Dave is now convinced that embarking on the smaller venture was a better idea. "It was good because although we were friends, there were no guarantees we would be able to work together. If we'd have started with the larger store it could have been a nightmare."

Knowledge sharing

Although the basic Spar structure was the same in every members' store, each of the four retailers had their own method of doing things, so it was a case of putting the best of everyone's knowledge into the new store.

Dave explains that everyone in the group has useful skills to bring to the fore. "If you want to acquire something for a cheap price, Richard's your man," he says. "Gavin is the bakery specialist, and Norman is great with chilled food he goes mad if it's not pristine!"

And it's not just the new store that has benefited from the retailers' combined wealth of experience; their existing businesses are also reaping the rewards. "I'll be honest, I was rubbish at bakery," admits Dave. "But the others were heavily into food to go and it's given me a nudge. Going back to my own stores now, I've had a go at bacon and sausage rolls. I've gone from doing nothing in one store to selling 300 baked goods a week, and I never even thought there was a market for it."

But it hasn't all been plain sailing for the quarter. "When you're the sole owner of a business, you make a decision and that's final, whereas here it's not quite as simple as that," says Dave. "We haven't had any major arguments, but we've had fairly heated discussions."

One of the biggest debates the group has had is over corned beef pasties. "It sounds like a minor thing, but it's probably our biggest seller," says Dave. "There are two companies that supply them, both at the same price, but we can't agree on which supplier's product is best."

Heads have also clashed over how to take the business forward, claims Dave. The geographical report for Gilfach Goch said it should turn over £14,000, but it's currently only managing £10,500. "It's caused us a few financial problems and we're trying to decide whether or not it's achieved its purpose," Dave explains.

"Two of us think we should sell and two don't. Norman has this idea about nurturing the store, but I think you've got to be a realist. If we had someone there 15 hours a day, there's no doubt that the store would perform better, but we just can't afford to do that. It's at a point now where we have to decide whether to cut our losses and run."

But Gilfach Goch is small fry compared with the new Panteg store, which finally made its debut in December 2009. "This store is a little more complicated," says Dave. "At £160,000 it's a much bigger investment, so we've really got our necks on the chopping block."

More than a few hurdles

The Panteg store has been a challenge from day one, taking two years to open due to a series of setbacks. "The council were a nightmare," sighs Dave.

"We only had about a dozen objections but it's taken two years to get it sorted out. I know cases where a Tesco Express was opening and received 4,500 objections and they were all done and dusted in five minutes."

It took the group 15 months to gain planning permission for the store, during which time they had to contribute towards a pedestrian crossing outside the store and reassure the council that the store would not increase drinking problems in the area.

"There have been a few times where we've all inwardly thought: 'what the hell are we doing?' But the geographical report for this store is £30,000 a week, so it will be worth our while if we get there," says Dave.

But he isn't in the convenience game solely for the money. Having worked as a project manager for gaming business Rank Group for 10 years in Canada, South Africa and the UK, he had no plans to join the retail sector.

It was only when his parents, who owned two stores in Dinas Powys and Caerau, ran into problems that he returned to the family business to help out. "I came in with the intention of sorting things out and then doing something else, but here I am 15 years later. I stayed because I liked the fact that you could see direct results from the changes you made and it gave me a real buzz."

And making alterations in order to get results is a concept Dave is still experimenting with. In general, he feels that Spar needs to up its game in the fresh meat department, and he is determined to lead by example. "We have a dual temperature chiller so that we can keep meat at a cooler temperature to everything else," he claims. "Usually, you'd go into a Spar store and see two shelves of meat, but we have a whole section."

The group is also making changes to the way in which it sources suppliers, having realised the bargaining power of owning six stores. "Our hot food suppliers are falling over themselves to give us deals," says Dave. "It's amazing how people change when you have six stores instead of two. We're now looking around to see what other suppliers will offer us."

And there are no plans to stop at six shops. "Our aim is to open two a year," says Dave. "It might be a little ambitious, but we'll see. If we can survive in the current climate then things can only get better."
shop profile
Spar Panteg, Gwent

Size: 1,500sq ft

Opening hours: Mon-Sat 6.30am-10pm, Sun 7am-10pm

Extra services: PayPoint, mobile top-ups, National Lottery, food-to-go section