Alec: I left school at 16 to work for a company that supplied equipment for solicitors and worked my way up to being a sales rep. It was financially rewarding, but it wasn't what I wanted, so I bought a newsagents in Upminster. I retired from the industry eight years ago, but missed the retail environment and bought a Budgens convenience store.
Chris: About 34 years ago, my father was sales director for a Spar wholesaler in the South West. He wanted to go into business and although I was working as a building engineer he invited me to run a store he had bought in Cornwall.
Harry: When my younger brothers were 15 and 16, my dad said it would be nice if I could take on a store - just for a year or so - and then hand it on to them, but somehow I ended up staying.
Sylvia: My husband, David, and I were looking to run our own business. We explored a number of options in the Cotswolds, such as coffee shops, but the sale of our house in Creaton kept falling through, so we couldn't do anything. Then the local village store came up for sale and everyone said it was meant to be!
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from your experience in retail?
Alec: I'm hopeless in the kitchen, so when I first bought the c-store I had to learn the names of all of the vegetables. Getting the locals on side was also a learning curve. Chris: Ordering the right product in the right quantity is crucial. It can be tempting to bulk buy a product that's on offer, but it's a risk because you can end up with stock that won't sell. In the same way, you have to know when to buy into a new product that's got potential to be a top seller.
Harry: You have to remain open-minded and positive.
Sylvia: Time management is really important because there's so much to do and, because we live on site, it can be difficult to close the doors in the evening. You have to be very disciplined.
Where do you look to for inspiration when trying to develop your business?
Alec: We have plenty of help from Budgens - last week we had a visit from the regional sales manager.
Chris: You need to be aware of what the UK market is doing, and bouncing your thoughts off other people can help to shape your ideas. We interview our customers when we are planning to make changes to the store and it's quite an eye-opener!
Harry: I look at trade magazines and also find that visiting trade shows can be helpful.
Sylvia: As I lived in the village for a long time before owning the store, I'm able to draw on my own experiences as a former customer. For example, the store used to close from 1pm till 2pm, which meant I couldn't shop there in my lunch break when I worked nearby. It also used to shut at 5.30pm, so I couldn't visit after work, either. Since buying the store, I've now extended the store hours so that we're open until 6.30pm.
What's your biggest priority when running a successful enterprise?
Alec: Service is key - I know my staff will offer to carry customers' bags or have shopping delivered. You want a team that takes pride in what they do.
Chris: It has to be profitable, otherwise it isn't enjoyable. The day I'm not enjoying my job is the day I'll retire.
Harry: Having a point of difference is vital, as well as making sure your customers know that you're doing your best to offer them a good deal.
Sylvia: Customer service is top of my list. Our staff are always friendly and if a customer wants a product that we don't stock then the message is passed on to me and I'll look into sourcing it.
What area of convenience retail would you like to know more about?
Alec: I'd like to know more about fresh food. I'd love to be a good chef so that I could give customers recipe ideas and serving suggestions.
Chris: I like marketing the business and it's always good when you find a new way of doing this.
Harry: I'd like to learn more about the upper echelons of management. You can fumble through using common sense, but I would rather use tried and tested methods.
Sylvia: It's hard to keep up with legislation, such as the tobacco display ban. It'll cost so much money to comply, but we have no passing trade so we're reliant on regular custom.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Alec: I'll still be busy running the store, although my daughter is planning to move to the village, so the hope is that the business will stay in the family when I'm ready to retire.
Chris: I'm fortunate in the respect that I have family in the retail business, so hopefully they'll take on the store and I can take a step back.
Harry: Sitting on a beach in Jamaica! Just kidding, what I'd really like to do is get involved in multi-siting. It would be great to own two or three sites.
Sylvia: I'll be looking to retire.
What advice would you offer to someone entering the convenience arena?
Alec: The customer comes first. If you can satisfy them then you're going the right way.
Chris: Make sure the business you're buying has the potential to expand. A lot of people, especially in Cornwall, see a store while on holiday and buy it, without realising how limited the customer base is.
Harry: Be ready to work seriously hard, and make sure that you have your finances in order. It's easy to go off track and land yourself in trouble.
Sylvia: Be prepared for the long hours and the amount of effort you'll have to put in.