Change is nothing new for David Sands, and the company is constantly evolving to remain competitive. Its chief executive, also called David Sands, claims that as far back as he can remember the family was aware that larger retailers would become a threat.

"Back in the day there was less competition from the multiples, but we knew it was going to happen sooner rather than later," he says.

Initially, the Sands family had planned to develop mini supermarkets, but they soon realised the strength of smaller outfits.

"In 1992 a Presto supermarket opened in Kinross and we took quite a battering," says Sands. "It was clear that smaller stores were less of a gamble and seemed less affected by large store openings."

But even with a smaller format, there were times when Sands thought about cashing in the chips. "The big decision really came for us five years ago," he says. "A lot of c-stores were selling up and it would have been easy for us to take the money and leave. We thought long and hard about our options, but felt confident in our abilities to move forward."

Grand designs

The company cemented its faith in the sector in 2005 with the opening of a £1.5m head office in Kinross. "It was a big chunk of money and at the time we were operating 15 or 16 stores," says Sands. "We knew we had to ramp up our numbers."

The plan was to get the office up and running and operate 25 stores, he says. "It was probably the only point in my life when I didn't sleep well at night but it was obviously the right decision."

The David Sands empire has exceeded its original target, and is now made up of 26 stores across Kinross-shire, Fife and Perthshire, but Sands has no intention of stopping there. He has just announced plans to invest more than £2m in openings in the next year and reveals that there are new stores in the pipeline, including a new-build in Dunfermline and a former car showroom conversion in Markinch, Fife. "Our head office has the capacity to go up to 50 stores," he says. "We also have the option of enlarging the building, so we're future proof."

Branching out

Sands concedes that with 26 stores under its belt, the retailer's senior team was stretched. "With the extra stores we had bought, we needed to look at bringing someone else in."

Once he had decided to take on a chief operating officer, Sands claims that finding the right person was fairly straightforward and in September he appointed HIM's former client director Ewen Chisholm. "Ewen will be instrumental in allowing the business to enter its next phase," claims Sands. "He was a natural choice - he had close ties with us and lived in the area. Above all, he understands the industry and our business."

And what did Sands' father Lindsay, who is the firm's chairman, make of his son's decision to appoint a non-family member, especially given that the company has been in the family since 1846? "My Dad and I never fall out about ideas on how to move the company forward," says Sands. "If you grow a business, then you've got to trust that the people on your team can do a good job - you can't be looking over their shoulder."

The new appointment has allowed Sands the chance to assess his own position. "It has given me an opportunity to think about my own role. I like trading and finance, and I'm still very much interested in developing strategies and new stores," he says. "But we're not so big that I can ignore what's happening day-to-day."

In fact, Sands is eager to remain hands on. "I'd hate it if I wasn't going into our stores on a regular basis and getting a feel for what's working and what's not," he says. "We have a notice up in stores providing a customer phone line. It's important that if customers phone, that they speak to Mr Sands."

He is convinced that maintaining a close relationship with customers will always be a top priority. "Some 40% of our customers use our stores every day," says Sands. "If we get it wrong, it will be a costly mistake."

However, he predicts that other factors within the c-store model will change dramatically over the next five to 10 years. "Alcohol and tobacco - the key drivers of our industry - are going to diminish," he says. "I don't think the demand for tobacco will stop overnight, but there's no question that it's on a long-term decline. Maybe 20 or 30 years from now, nobody will be smoking in the UK."

Sands is determined to tackle the issue by finding new strengths within his business. For him, the holy grail is food to go. "There's a huge opening if we can get it right," he says. "It's a big challenge and it could really give us a point of difference from a Tesco Express model.

"We still want our stores to be able to offer the same core ranges and have good availability, but we want to stand out from competitors."

Although Sands clearly has growth plans for the business, it's quality, not quantity that's the order of the day. He says: "What I'm certain about is that whether we operate 30 or 50 stores, I want each to be the same high standard they are now."

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