From the black wooden beams running across the ceiling to the numerous photos depicting images both past and present, a proud sense of heritage runs through the very veins of the Nisa Local in Toddington, Bedfordshire.

One black-and-white photo shows St George's, the local church, while another shows a group of men in flat caps gathered around one of the first bus services set up in town. It's a little like looking at someone's family photos, except that the family is the village itself. "Nothing gives me more pleasure than serving this community," says manager Gary Bilbrough. "When people enter my store it's like walking into my living room I want them to feel that they can relax and stop for a chat."

With well over a decade of retail experience under his belt, Gary knows exactly what makes his customers tick, and he explains that traditional values are of great importance.

"We're constantly looking to improve our product range to ensure that it meets customers' needs. Tradition is very important in this area; we have a number of Christian customers, so I'm aiming to get a better selection of fish so that people can enjoy the customary Friday fish."

He also has plans to introduce more old-fashioned confectionery so that customers can rediscover the sweets enjoyed in their childhood. "We've been getting a lot of requests for old-style sweets, so I've got plans to get a few more of those in."

But although the store pays respect to days gone by, it is by no means stuck in the past. "We have a thriving local community and the best way to keep it that way is to support local producers," says Gary. "We source local sausages from D & E Hines family butchers in nearby Eaton Bray, and bread from Tophams bakery in Dunstable. The customers really like it, and I'm keen to take on more local suppliers," he adds.

Fresh and chilled produce is another strong area for the store. Green trays laden with fruit and bananas hanging from metal hooks give the store an authentic marketplace feel, while a selection of olives and dry cured meats add to the shop's image of quality. "Toddington is very affluent and the product range is pretty upmarket at Christmas time we sell caviar!" says Gary.

However, the store hasn't always attracted big spenders. Before it was taken over by Gary's boss convenience retail entrepreneur Kishor Patel in 2006 it was a very different story. "Originally, turnover was £4,000 when the store was branded as a Happy Shopper," he points out. "The previous owners were nice, but they had lost their way a bit.

"I've managed the store since it opened in 2006 and we've worked hard to make sure we listen to what customers want."

Since embracing villagers' desires for local sourcing and fresh and chilled produce, and making an effort to interact with them outside of the store, turnover has rocketed to a respectable £30,000 a week.

"It's so important to get the community behind you," says Gary. Like many retailers, the store sponsors the local football team, but it doesn't stop there. "Last year we took them to see an under-18 international match at Wembley they absolutely loved it," smiles Gary. "It's great to get involved with events that really make an impact on customers."

The football connection doesn't end there as during the last World Cup Gary helped to organise a tournament for local youths. "It was a five-a-side tournament involving the surrounding schools and they had to dress in the colours of whichever country they were playing for. It was a great success."

The store also provides raffle prizes for local organisations and fresh fruit for the elderly ladies who meet at the local church.

Watching Gary as he enthuses about the store's activities, it's hard to imagine him doing anything else. But he actually started his career working in public transport. "I've always liked working with people and I used to be a bus driver in York," he says. "I also ran a guest house with my wife but, unfortunately, we split up and I wanted a career change."

New direction

Having worked at a greengrocer's as a teenager, he decided to give retail a go and replied to a newspaper advert offering people the chance to run their own Balfour News store. "I had to carry out six months' training two at their head office and four at a store. Then I was invited to run my own store."

It was during his time at Balfour News that Gary befriended Kishor. "We were next-door neighbours and got on well sometimes I'd even go round for dinner," says Gary. But there was always a healthy competition between the two on a professional level as their stores were close to each other.

"Both Kishor and I had a lottery terminal and on one occasion Kishor's broke down," says Gary. "I didn't want to let down the locals, or miss out on extra sales, so I kept my shop open for two hours longer than normal so that everyone had a chance to buy a ticket from me."

While Kishor wasn't best pleased about the lost sales, he could see that Gary had a keen business sense and convinced him to leave the newsagent and manage one of his convenience stores.

"I didn't really have to think about it," says Gary. "I felt stifled at my store as it was only 1,000sq ft. I'd been badgering Balfour for a bigger store but, unfortunately, their policy favoured couples in management and the only way I could move up the ladder was to leave."

It turned out to be one of the best decisions he ever made, and 12 years on Gary is still working for Kishor.

shop profile
Nisa Local, Toddington Size: 1,400sq ft Staff: 10 Opening hours: 7am-8pm seven days a week Extra services: Lottery, PayPoint, DVD rental
A strong believer in staff progression, Kishor offered Gary a variety of challenges before putting him in charge of the Toddington branch. He also put Gary forward for a scholarship at Oxford Summer School, run by the Retail Trust. "I went to Keeble College in Oxford for a week in 2007 to do workshops in retail. When I first got there I felt out of place with the big boys, but it was really interesting and made me realise that we can do just as well as the mults."

This positive attitude may well be why Gary was chosen for his latest responsibility. "Kishor has just made me human resources manager for all his stores," he grins. "I'll be managing staff handbooks, discipline and guidance. I've worked with people throughout my career, so it will be great to put my people skills into practice with other members of staff."

And one of the key messages he'll be communicating to employees is the importance of waking up to convenience retail as a serious career. "Everyone thinks of retailers as Tesco and Sainsbury's, but we are up there with them. The more people who believe in this, the more we can progress."

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