In the space of five years, Paul Wilks has made the switch from being a Musgrave area manager to the shrewd owner of three c-stores. Sarah Britton finds out how

Paul Wilks has worked in retail for 25 years, so the fact that he runs three thriving Budgens stores won’t raise too many eyebrows. But what makes his story more unusual is that he bought his first store just five years ago.

His retail career began when he decided to enter the Budgens’ management training programme after working at a store part-time as a student. A natural leader, he became an area manager, before being promoted to regional controller, and then head of development and maintenance.

But despite his success, Paul felt that something was missing. Fascinated by the world of convenience, he wanted the chance to make his own fortune, so he opted out of the boardroom and onto the shop floor. “My heart was at the coalface and I decided I wanted to buy a store,” he says. However, even with two decades-worth of Musgrave know-how, setting up and running his own business raised a number of challenges. “From a retail point of view I was confident I could do it, but from a business perspective I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea what a store would cost or how you would fund it,” he says. “Budgens was very supportive, but as for going into a bank I’d never been into before and asking for a million pounds nothing can prepare you for that!”

Whatever Paul said to the bank manager, it must have worked because his request was granted and he purchased Budgens Bedgrove in 2006. “It was the store I wanted from the word go. I knew what was involved and while there were challenges, I knew there was a good, settled team here.”

The strong team has proved its worth as the store has had to fight hard to survive among a sea of competitors. “There’s a 40,000sq ft Tesco superstore three-quarters of a mile up the road; a Co-op and a Spar half a mile away; and a Tesco Extra, a Sainsbury’s and Morrisons within three miles,” says Paul.

And it isn’t just rival stores that make life difficult. Youths congregating outside the shop were also an issue when Paul took over. They intimidated locals and put people off shopping there. Paul tackled the issue head-on by joining the local action group, which included police, councillors, the church, and local people.

“We installed a Mosquito system and worked with the management company of the local square to ensure that the lighting was working and to make the area safer. We were also involved in installing a multi-use games area to give young people something to do.”

Joining the group made Paul aware of local issues and he quickly realised that working within the local community could make a real difference, both to the area and his business. “I firmly believe that being involved with the local school and hospital and going the extra mile is what keeps people coming to our store.”

Throughout his time as a c-store retailer, he has embarked on numerous fundraisers. “At Halloween we dress up in costumes and give out sweets and fruit to children in the local hospital,” says Paul. “And at Christmas we have the Cubs packing bags in exchange for donations to Florence Nightingale Hospice.”

The store donates a penny to the hospice for every carrier bag a customer re-uses.

Paul is also a governor of the local school. “It’s good for me to get a good handle on children’s education as I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old of my own,” he says. “Plus, it’s been great to bring school kids into the store to learn about the food they eat.”

Pupils come in to see how bread is made and look at the deli counter, and the store has also worked with them on a poster project to raise awareness of British food.

“I know many of the customers now through our work with the community,” says Paul. “We get young mums coming in because of my involvement with the school, and Bedgrove has an elderly population so we get more senior customers in, too.”

And making customers feel welcome is by no means a one-man job. Paul ensures that each member of staff offers sterling customer service. In fact, sales assistant Josie Brown, who has worked at the store for more than 20 years, was a finalist in Convenience Store’s 2008 Sales Assistant of the Year Award.

Budgens Bedgrove has been such a success that Paul was able to purchase the Grange Park store in Northampton in 2008, followed by Cranfield in Bedfordshire 2010. But even with two newer stores to look after, he is still looking at ways to improve Bedgrove.

Shop profile

Budgens Bedgrove, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire 
Staff: 55, 45 of whom are part- time 
Size: 4,200sq ft 
Opening hours: 7am-10pm Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm Sunday 
Additional Services: deli

He explains that the shop has been a trial store for Budgens’ latest fresh produce concepts. “We’ve changed the look and feel of the fixture. For example, we’ve put produce in wicker baskets for a more grocer-like feel, and we’re bringing in interesting and different vegetables and offering samples,” says Paul. He has also installed an external fruit & veg display so that customers can see how seriously the store takes its fresh produce even before they enter.

Staff in this section now wear different aprons to better define the section and have been educated in product origins and processes. “Through both our staff and pos, we’ve started telling a story about the produce where it comes from and what it can be used for. The assistant manager and the head of fresh produce went on a two-day course, part of which was seeing the products come out of the ground and the process of farm to fork.” The project has had the desired effect with fresh participation up 0.5% to 8.5%.

Paul’s investment both in the community and in the store is clearly paying off with the store boasting 13,000 customers a week and a healthy average turnover of £75,000, up 7.5% from 2009 to 2010.

But Paul isn’t stopping there, and plans to develop his meat and bakery sections before embarking on a full refit. “Once we have the latest concept for these in the first aisle it’ll be the time to refresh the rest of the store,” he states. “I’m looking to spend £100,000 it’ll cost less than usual because I’ve renewed much of the refrigeration as part of the fresh trial.”

He’s also eyeing up future properties: “When I first started out, I thought three stores would do me; now I’m thinking five or six.”

However, he doesn’t want to grow too big. “The best bit of the job is being on the shop floor. I thoroughly enjoy what I do and I wouldn’t want to lose touch with the people side of things. I’m convinced that the work we do with the community is what’s kept the momentum going in this tough economic climate.”