Independent retailer Paul Gardner certainly isn't afraid of a challenge. His 5,500sq ft Budgens store in Islington is the third largest of its kind in London.

A first-time owner, Paul bought the former corporate store 18 months ago and in that time has already completed a full internal refit and implemented a tough new working regime.

However, when you learn a little more about his past, it's easy to see where Paul gets his confidence and motivation from.

As the son of stalwart independent retailer and C-Store Champion Alec Gardner, he's grown up with a keen understanding of the industry. He also gained a raft of experience when he worked alongside his dad from the age of 18 to 26, before deciding to join the police force.

Paul spent nine years in the police, working at first as part of a response team before going on to pass his sergeant's exam at which point he decided that a life in the force wasn't for him, after all.

"I just got a little fed up with it all by the end and decided it was time to change. I don't feel that it was a waste of time, though. I learned a great deal in the police, especially about dealing with people and diffusing confrontational situations. Those types of things have been really useful to me in the store."

Paul's renowned hard line on crime means that shoplifters and trouble-makers don't make a habit of targeting his store and the extensive CCTV coverage and uniformed security guard at the door helps a little, too.

"This isn't a high crime area, though," says Paul, "but it does have an incredibly diverse population. We've got £1m houses down one end and a bail house down the other!"

And Paul's hotchpotch customer base is reflected in the range of products that he stocks. "I try to make sure there is something for everyone, from the elderly people who do their weekly shops, to the council workers who pop in for a sandwich, and also the locals who stop in at the end of the day for dinner and a bottle of wine."

And unlike some of Paul's high street competitors, sales of organic produce in his store are flying. "I've heard all the reports about pricier organic ranges struggling in the recession, but I've not seen that here," he says. "In fact, I haven't noticed much of a downturn in sales at all."

One of Paul's best-selling ranges is a premium fresh meat offer from The Wild Meat Company. He was reluctant to order large quantities of the pricey packs of rabbit, quail, and venison at first starting with a modest £50 order, but just five weeks later and he has put in an order for more than £300-worth.

So, 18 months on, is Paul happy with his decision to leave the force and set up shop? "Absolutely," he says. "It's tough, but it's definitely worth it.

"It's also been good having my dad for advice. Even though we are quite like-minded, it's always interesting when he visits the store because he picks up on things that sometimes I've missed because I'm too close to it."

Although Paul confesses to not spending as much time as he would like on the shop floor (his office is two floors above) what time he does have he devotes to doing what he loves most merchandising.

"I just love coming up with an idea for a display and making it happen," he says. And he's a real stickler for detail: "I like things to be neat and tidy. I can't stand seeing a badly merchandised store, or a job half done. It's a waste."

On more than one occasion during C-Store's tour of the store Paul stopped to straighten products, even breaking away at one point to advise a staff member on how to use the floor cleaner correctly.

And Paul's quest for perfection was certainly put to test during the store's recent refit, which included new flooring, a beer, wines and spirits section, and a vastly extended hot and cold food-to-go counter.

"The flooring just had to go; it was an old and quite uneven tiled floor before and there had been a few unfortunate accidents on it," he says.

The ceiling in the main aisle was also raised by more than a metre a relatively simple job which has made the store feel instantly larger. "Customers keep complimenting me on the extension, but the store is no larger than it was before, it just feels like it," Paul says.

Two large checkout desks with conveyor belts which had been at the front centre of the store have also been ripped out and replaced with a more compact till area.

Paul's even taken a "bit of a gamble" and installed a self-serve olive bar next to the freshly baked bread at the rear of the store, and so far, he says, the risk is paying off.

Work on the store was mainly completed overnight so as not to disrupt trading. "The whole process ran surprisingly smoothly," he says.

As a someone who likes to be in control, Paul admits to having felt mildly concerned over the way the refit would be managed by the Budgens store development team, but any initial doubts he had were soon swept aside.

"I was a little sceptical at first in case they took over, but that wasn't what happened at all. Their advice and experience was invaluable, and it made the whole project much less stressful and ultimately very successful."

Store sales are increasing with each passing week, and are now significantly higher than they were one year ago.

But a huge refit is not the only thing that Paul has had to manage in the past year. When he took over the former corporate store he also took on responsibility for the 50-strong team of staff.

"Suddenly I was in charge of this huge team, and it was pretty daunting at first," he says. "One of the hardest things was getting to grips with the human resources (HR) side of things, so I decided to out-source it to an independent HR company called People Time. At first I was going to them all the time, but I'm much more comfortable with it now, and happy to deal with an increasing number of things myself."

Just over half of the store's current team are former corporate employees, including the store's manager. "It has taken time for us to get used to one another and our different ways of doing things but we have learned to work together, and we're a strong team now."

And at no other time is teamwork put under a greater test than when the one lift used to carry stock up to the first floor stock room breaks down. "We then have to form a human chain all the way up the stairs and pass the stock up manually," laughs Paul.

Paul's next challenge is to set up a home delivery system, however he's still got a few things to straighten out before then.

He's made it to the second round of the Budgens Store Of The Year Awards 2010 and he wants to re- merchandise the boxed chocolate and spirits section before the judges pay him a visit.

Something tells us he'll get the job done just right.

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