Tony Start is an unreasonable man. He freely admits it and, what's more, he happily goes into the office every day to work with a large group of other, equally unreasonable people. But that is the way of the Martin McColl management these days - it's all about devising impossible plans, and then making them happen.

Put new soft drinks chillers and cigarette gantries in all 1,300 outlets? They'll do it this year. Change the fascias on every store? They'll do it by October, only 10 months after they started.

"Internally, we tell ourselves that we have to be unreasonable," says trading director Start. "Converting 1,300 fascias in 10 months is not a reasonable thing to ask, but we're going to do it."

This dynamic version of Martin McColl was created last September when, as TM Retail, the company was subject to a management buyout. Ownership of the group is now shared among about 25 managers, from senior executives down to regional manager level, and they knew what they needed to do as soon as they took possession of the chain, which includes Forbuoys, Dillons and More stores as well as Martin's and McColl's.

First to go were the old names, as part of a complete rebranding exercise. From now on the CTNs will be called Martin's, the c-stores will be called McColl's (RS McColl in Scotland) and the company name will be Martin McColl. Simple stuff.

"We had 26 different versions of fascias out there, and even the company name TM Retail didn't mean anything to the man in the street," says Start. "We originally considered having just one brand, but we've accepted that two is the right way to go."

Suppliers are playing a key part in the rebranding exercise, with logos for Walkers, Mars and Stella Artois sitting proudly on the new fascias.

"There aren't too many powerful retail brands in the c-store market, and we felt that ours were not potentially strong enough on their own," explains Start. "So instead of just saying 'beer' we now say 'Stella' - it speaks more loudly to customers."

Seven major manufacturers have been appointed 'category champions' to work particularly closely with the company on ranges and new equipment. For example, GSK is providing open-deck chillers for soft drinks and well over 1,000 new units have already been sited. New gondola end chillers are currently being rolled out and, eventually, Martin McColl aims to have 3,000 new cabinets installed across its estate.

Operations director Paul Taylor explains: "We did a test comparing double-door chillers with open-fronted ones in the same space, and the open chillers sold 9% more.

"It's fair to say we're playing catch-up in certain categories, and we knew we were behind the market in soft drinks. But now all stores have open-deck chillers and we're in front."

All 1,300 stores will also have new cigarette gantries by the end of the year in a project supported by Philip Morris, and the group is working with Cuisine de France and Country Choice to install 200 food-to-go centres, based around in-store bakeries, within a year. Fresh and chilled is also set to grow, with 32 of the group's stores already supplied by Nisa and Kerry Foods providing additional advice on equipment, planograms and chilled ranges.

Taylor adds: "Our electronic replenishment system is very effective, and works particularly well for chilled. We were told it was difficult to use such a system for chilled, but we were determined to remove the complexity from the business and it's paid off."

Beers, wines & spirits is also a key category for development and the group aims to increase its current 220 alcohol licences and boost sales at each licensed store.

To this end, Martin McColl is running a trial with Wine Cellar's Booze Buster brand at 10 stores, offering cheaper prices, special case deals and increased spirits participation backed up by new pos material.
"Using the Booze Buster effect, we can get to our targets quickly and at cheaper prices," says Start. "The great thing about us now is that we can run a small test and apply the results to 100 stores straight away."

This last point marks a key difference between the old TM Retail and the new Martin McColl.

On one hand, it is a massive chain of 1,300 outlets, 15,000 employees and a turnover of £1bn. But since the MBO it is owned by the directors, so they all have, as Start describes it, a "small company mentality" and a dynamic, even aggressive, way of doing business.

He says: "We want our share of the business, and we want it as quickly as possible. I bleed if we miss our targets! Since the MBO everyone knows the priorities. We have regular meetings and someone always brings along a gem. Suppliers see a willingness in us to get things done - our trading teams talk about our 'offer' and the operations team delivers it. Where we were once unclear and undeveloped, now we have a clear strategy.
"There's no confusion now. We offer volume, scale, all the big brands, and can do national promotions," he continues. "It is a big source of frustration to us that some suppliers, chiefly in grocery and alcohol, don't see the opportunities."

The rate of progress is set to continue, with updated epos and new counters featuring integrated confectionery displays set to be introduced across the estate. 

"For many companies, replacing all the counters and epos would be the main project for the year. For us, it is one of many," says Start. "The first three years will be all about getting the basics right - range, availability, equipment, procedures - but also we have an opportunity to get ahead of the market, and the new counters will help that."

And the already large storeholding is destined to grow even further. "We are currently buying two or three stores a week, usually from independents, and we expect to add about 80 outlets in 2006," says Start. "We want to expand our c-store estate and we would be interested in buying a chain, but it has to be at the right price. We won't overpay.

"We're not after the same sites as the likes of Tesco," he continues. "Tesco needs £40-50k weekly turnover, while we work to a different size. We can put a c-store into 800sq ft."

Start adds that it is looking to acquire more neighbourhood stores and CTNs, too, and is working on a 'news and booze' store concept for next year. And it is shortly to unveil a 'model store' to set the standard for future development.

"It's all about finding big wins," he says. "It's our business now and we want it to be as good as it can be, as soon as it can be. We need to take more money, and make more profit."

There's no sign of the rapid pace abating, either, given the energy of Start and the other directors. "When trying out a new concept, we ask ourselves will it work? What numbers will it give us? If it doesn't work, we discard it; if it does, we do it faster.

"Where there once was uncertainty, staff are now secure," he adds. "Buyers are fighting for space, while managers are seeing something positive happen in their store. And, first and foremost, it's great fun!"

Brand scale 

"Everywhere a customer looks, they see a brand," says Tony Start of the in-store theatre
at Martin McColl.

The promotional programme has been changed from a four-weekly schedule to three-weekly, with positive results. He says: "All promotions have their biggest uplift in the first week, so this is an obvious way of getting more first weeks."

Promotional pos material has been restyled, and independent auditor The Brand Company carries out compliance checks to make sure promotions are being implemented correctly.

"It checks 60,000 items every three weeks and produces a report that goes to suppliers at the same time as us," says Start. "This gives suppliers confidence, and helps cement our relationship with them."
Ranges and planograms are controlled centrally and replenishment orders are created automatically. "We need to find a process for everything and take out the complexity," says Paul Taylor. "With 1,300 stores you can't manage it all by personality."

He adds: "Electronic replenishment has meant increased availability, and is a tool we've used to drive the right stock into our business. It even works for ice cream where we've seen improved availability and double-digit growth. It will also help us manage our way out of the season."