Just before midnight on July 29 last year Simon Wheatley was in a friend's garden, relaxing after two weeks of record-breaking trading at his Londis store in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire.
Then his phone rang and everything changed. It was his mother. "You'd better get down to the shop," she said. "Your bins are on fire."
Simon wasn't too worried as he drove into town - local kids setting fire to his rubbish was an old irritation - but when he arrived at the former forecourt site in Kingsway and saw the five fire engines in attendance, he realised to his horror that this was different. The arsonists had pushed the burning bins under the eaves at the back of the building and the fire had spread to the roof before sweeping through the store.
By dawn the next morning the extent of the disaster was clear. "There was a huge hole in the roof, and I quickly realised that the parts of the store which had not been directly destroyed in the fire had been damaged by smoke and water from the fire service's hoses. They'd also had to break in through the frontage to reach the blaze - it was a real mess."
The fire officer in charge allowed Simon to crawl through the wreckage to retrieve vital papers from his office, and then the site was cordoned off until it could be declared safe.
"I was in a daze," Simon says. "I just did what I had to do." His first phone call was to his brother, Mark, who in turn contacted their insurance company. Simon then rang Londis HQ, who took care of alerting their suppliers - although this didn't prevent one bakery delivery driver leaving the following day's bread order next to the charred, smouldering ruin.
Then there was the staff, who turned up to work to find a blackened shell. Their initial shock was made slightly easier to bear by the revelation that the insurance company would pay their wages while the store was rebuilt, giving them the happy prospect of several months' paid holiday.
As soon as the structure was declared safe, the Health and Safety Executive had performed its risk assessment and the loss adjuster had inspected the site, the clean up began. The Wheatley family rallied round to help, spending the first few days removing all the perishable items into a special skip. Six members of staff volunteered to join in the process, and between them they filled six skips with rubble and unsalvageable stock.
"It was horrible," Simon says. "The smell - you can't describe it: red wine, shampoo. And, of course, everything was smoke damaged. We had to buy special protective clothing for the job, but we still got filthy. The girls looked like they'd just finished a shift down the pit."
Fortunately, the store room was not damaged, but there was a lesson to be learnt here. Within days local vandals tried to break in through the wrecked shop in search of alcohol and cigarettes.
Simon and Mark immediately began planning for the future. "We thought to ourselves, 'What shall we do?'" admits Simon. "Shall we close the business? Shall we sell up? But we decided that we owed it to the other businesses around here to keep trading - and our customers needed us, too."
Eventually, they set themselves a target of four months to get the doors open again. Co-ordinating with the insurers and a project manager is a job which other retailers in a similar situation have passed on to an outside agency, but the brothers - who own other property in the town - felt they could tackle the task themselves. "Mark's an excellent negotiator, and Lawrence Taylor, the project manager, was great to work with," says Simon.
"He stood up for us against the loss adjuster who questioned some of the material costs of the rebuild. I think we did a good job, and I wouldn't have wanted to hand it over to someone else."
Work progressed on the site through the autumn, with a demolition crew gutting the premises and a contract cleaning team coming in to remove every last trace of smoke from the walls and ceilings. Local residents, forced to walk into Kirkby town centre for their supplies, fell into two groups - those who accepted the closure as the accident it was, and those who were really quite angry with Simon for the inconvenience they were facing.
"There's another store in town, but it's a bit of a walk for older customers," says Simon, "And we have always had plenty of parking here, which suits people in a hurry."
Simon also decided to take advantage of his staff's unexpected free time to brush up their skills. They all took a one-day National Lottery training course and Londis' in-house customer service training, with some going on to study for a health and hygiene qualification and the First Aid at Work certificate.
Once the initial shock of the fire had worn off, Simon began to see unexpected positives in his predicament. It gave him a chance to catch up with some jobs which he had been putting off, and he brought in some of the staff to wade through years' worth of paperwork and throw out anything that did not need to be kept. It also enabled him to look at the way the store and its staff operated and think about how things could be improved.
"It was a perfect opportunity to draw a line under some inefficient practices that had slipped in over the years and say "This is how we do things now,'" he says. "I talked to each member of staff individually and we all agreed that we would make some changes when the store reopened." Of the 14 staff employed before the incident, 12 are still with the company.
The other upside was the chance to go back to the drawing board with the store layout. The 2,700sq ft building is unusual for a convenience outlet. Built in the '80s as a car showroom, it is shallow and dog-legs around the former petrol forecourt which it shares with a chip shop, a hand car wash and an office furniture supplier. The new layout has been configured around the Londis Genesis II redevelopment, an upgrade which Simon, ironically, had been planning to invest in anyway.
"The new alcohol section really catches the eye," says Simon. "It has a dropped ceiling and different flooring, and the change in lighting makes it feel like a store within a store.
"It's a far smarter-looking store now. We've got new refrigeration and a huge dairy room. It's all in one long run now so it looks more impressive," he adds. Other changes include better lighting throughout and the installation of a Country Choice Bake 'n' Bite unit. The improved counter area gives more floor space, but it's a bit of a squeeze behind the tills, and one bottle of vodka has already been knocked off a shelf by a bustling member of staff.
By early December the store was ready to welcome back its customers. Recalling the original opening ceremony in 1995, when actor Ken Morley, then best known as Coronation Street's Reg Holsworth, came along to cut the ribbon, Simon decided on a slightly smaller-scale approach. "We had a lot of people here then, but I felt it was all about the star and not the store," he says. "This time I wanted people to notice what we have to offer them."
So on December 7 the staff handed out treats to local children and took turns to lure passing drivers into the car park by dressing in a rabbit costume (the warmest place to be, apparently). The fire engines that attended the blaze four months earlier turned up and their crews attracted a lot of attention, and the odd saucy comment, from the girls on the Londis team.
Now that it is up and running, the store is starting to win back the customers it lost during the closure. A month after reopening it was turning over 75% of last year's figure, a result which, Simon says, he is reasonably happy with.
"It's been a bit like starting a new business," he says. "We've had time to think about what we wanted the business to be, and it's much easier to put things right when you're shut. I think the only way to deal with something like this is to look for the positives. Over time we would have made changes, but this has given us the chance to start again from scratch. We've taken that opportunity and are bigger and better as a result.
Londis regional director Michael Spencer, who joined in celebrations at the rebuilt store's opening day, says the group has helped several retailers to recover from similar disasters to the Kirkby-in-Ashfield fire.
"Within our business, we aim to support the retailer where possible as best we can and ensure their interests are put first at a very stressful and difficult time," he says. "We have an escalation procedure which we tailor to each incident - for example, for one of our members in North Yorkshire we fitted out a temporary store as soon as we could after the fire for him to continue trading.
"In Kirkby-in-Ashfield, retail sales manager Matt Elliott worked with Simon Wheatley to create a specific action plan to get him back and trading, incorporating all of our support services, from development to training."