talks to Dorset retailer Jim Leese about life after jumping ship
Jim Leese runs a tight ship. Maybe that's because he spent 21 years in the Royal Navy before opening his first c-store in July last year, or more likely it's down to his conscientiousness and determination to make the store in Charlton Down, Dorset, a success.
His Londis store is the one and only shop in the new-build village, the first phase of which began construction in 1998 and the last phase of which is due to complete any day now.
That he got the store at all was down to a lucky twist of fate. He explains: "It was all part of the developer's planning application that there had to be a shop and a pharmacy, which is where they came unstuck," says Jim. "This building is not big enough for a pharmacy and shop - it was never going to be viable. So another developer bought the shop, plus a piece of land, and applied to build a 108-bed nursing home. Part of the planning permission was that they would have to put the pharmacy in there and sell the shop."
But gaining ownership of the store proved to be a test of Jim's perseverance. "When I heard the rumour that the shop was going to be up for sale I was at a crossroads in my career, so I expressed my interest. I wrote every month and one day I got a call from the estate agent, who said the building was going on the open market. There was a bidding war and I was competing with up to 10 people. No one knew what the lease was so it came down to who would take the greatest risk."
As it turned out, the lease was 97 years. "The price would have gone up if people had known how long the lease was," says Jim. "The whole thing was madness. The parish council and village residents' association wanted each of us to submit a proposal for the shop. I knew it would have to be a convenience store format."
Running the store might sound a far cry from Jim's previous career as an aircraft engineer in the Royal Navy, but it isn't quite as removed as you might imagine. "Everything I did in the forces is transferable to any job, and certainly here. If an aeroplane needs a radio or a bit of engine, you need to get it there at a certain time and at a certain place, and make sure there are people to fix it and get it going. That could be toilet roll and the flight deck could be the shelf. Here we've got to get product in the right place, at the right time and have the people to sell it."
Speculate to accumulate
Budgeting is a different matter, though. "In the forces you never look to invest to make money, you spend a budget, or spend to save money in the future - you work to a budget and that's it. Here, I'm willing to go beyond a budget to make money in the future. Commercialism is the only thing I didn't get experience of in the forces."
It was the search for a better work-life balance that sparked Jim's career move. "I wanted to be my own boss - I make the strategic, tactical decisions here. I was working away from home a lot, but now I can walk to work and walk home. I spend more time with my family - I have two daughters, one aged 10 and one aged six - and in the past six years I've worked in Dartmouth, Portsmouth, Bristol and Yeovilton. I would leave home Monday morning and come back Friday night. When I hit 40 I started to wonder whether it was all worth it, and that's when I decided to come out of the forces."
But for someone as seemingly organised and ordered as Jim, it's difficult to believe that his decision to pursue the shop came quite so lightly. "I was in the pub with my mate and I'd had a few beers. I said 'Shall I go for the shop?'. Because I was on a year's notice from the Royal Navy I had to work out when I would be in a position to open it if I did buy it. So I handed in my notice in November 2005, not knowing whether I had secured the shop until the end of January. I was a bit nervous about that for a while."
Before Jim opened the Londis store, the nearest convenience outlet was three miles away and it was a seven-mile drive to Tesco or the town of Dorchester. "I decided we would be part of a symbol group because of the support and the one supply. I didn't want to go independent because I knew nothing about retailing.
"Spar was my initial choice because it offered attractive help in converting the concrete shell to a shop, but the garage three miles away was Spar and the retailer objected. So I looked at all the other symbols."
Charlton Down is a conservation area, so the fascia and signage was a big factor for Jim. "I liked the look of the Mace shopfit, but I didn't like the blue signage. Premier's prices were fantastic and the override discount was phenomenal, but the signage was quite in your face. Londis' prices were between Mace and Premier and I liked the cluster meetings. The area manager invited me to one; I went along and liked the idea of a forum to be able to air your views and get things sorted out - that's what swung it for me.
"I met other retailers through those meetings and one guy in Weymouth invited me to his store to do a day's training," adds Jim. "I'd never worked in a shop in my life so that was very useful. The people I've met through Londis I now see all the time; we all have the same problems. The best thing is that Londis does listen. For example, we said we needed to see pictures of own-label products, so Londis responded with pictures in the next own-label brochure."
Jim signed with Londis in April 2006 and then set about refitting the store. "All the symbols said they could do a shopfit in a week, but having been heavily involved in project planning in the Royal Navy, I took that with a pinch of salt.
"I followed Londis' advice and we worked on the plan and layout together, and used the recommended shopfitter, but if I ever did a shopfit again I would do it myself.
"You pay a premium for them to project manage and they went over my budget, even though I took quite a lot of work away from them by doing bits myself. But having never done this before, I was happy to let them do most of the work."
Londis also sorted all the planning permission - "I just twisted the council's arm," adds Jim. "There was pressure building in Charlton Down for the shop to open so we had to put pressure on West Dorset District Council to grant the planning permission. That's a big organisation and it took a lot of effort to get the process in motion. I had to chase them fairly regularly."
Permission was eventually granted - four days late. "Planning permission was promised in six weeks and when you're on a shopfit schedule, four days late is painful."
When it came to recruiting a team, Jim's priority was to recruit a manager with plenty of retail experience. "I recruited a guy who had several years' experience in retail, but not necessarily in management. I had experience as a manager in the Royal Navy, but needed someone who knew how a shop works.
"Things like having a float in the till had never occurred to me. Londis offers a training course and so I paid it to do inductions for all my staff.
"I spoke to anyone who could help me. Business Link was really helpful. It has a booklet of all the people to talk to if you're opening a shop. I did a licensing course and a retail course, which the Navy paid for. I had dozens of meetings with the Londis regional manager to refine what was going to be in the shop, but I knew the kind of people who live in Charlton Down and what they would want."
After a long slog, the store opened on July 8 last year, and the first day's takings were £2,500. Weekly turnover is now about £11,000. "I didn't want to advertise a grand opening and end up opening late, so I decided to just open. We had a great response; we opened at 10am and had queues out the door."
Jim's determination and competitive spirit is evident in his views of certain service providers. He's not happy with Camelot, for instance. "We've got a petition going for the lottery," he says. "When I called Camelot to request a lottery terminal it just said no. I understand that it has X number of machines and is going to put them where it's going to make most money, but I know I could offer a better return than some other stores because we have a captive audience here. The lottery is my main priority for 2007."
He also wants to get PayPoint and a post office. "We need to give people lots of reasons to come here. Our mobile top-up and cash machine get people in, and there's scope for a post office. When I spoke to the Post Office it was undergoing a review of rural post offices. In a five-mile radius we have two, but I know that I can do more than them because I have higher footfall. The PO just needs persuading so I'll put together some hard facts - I can do that now with some experience."
There are plenty more challenges ahead, too. "Money is tight because we're a new business. I look at the outrageous bank charges and I try not to spend too much on stock, but I've got to manage availability and waste. The legislation you need to look at before you can open is phenomenal. And there's all the people stuff - pay, rights, holidays. But I believe you've got to look after your people otherwise business is going nowhere. I also believe that a clean shop is a happy shop - I like a sense of order."
So with eight months' experience behind him, does Jim wish he was back in the forces? "I miss the camaraderie, although I have a good camaraderie here. I miss not thinking about work 24 hours a day and being able to walk away, but there's no regrets yet. Will I open another store? Ask me in a year's time - this is bloody hard work."
Store: Londis, Charlton Down, Dorset
Size: 1,100sq ft
Weekly turnover: £11,000
Staff: 11 part-time
Opening hours: 7am to 9pm, seven days a week
Services: off licence, cash machine, mobile top-ups