When a fire devastated their store, Jill and Paul Lewis refused to give up. With supplier support they are back trading and rebuilding their future
In the early hours of 3 April 2015, a fire broke out at Jill and Paul Lewis’ 3,000sq ft Spar forecourt store in Pentraeth, on the Isle of Anglesey, burning it to the ground.
“The fire was caused by an electrical fault in the roof. It started at 4am and by 4.45am the whole store was ablaze. We had just finished redeveloping it, too – we were really proud of it and Spar would often showcase the store to people,” Jill says. “So it was really soul destroying see it ablaze.”
Faced with such adversity, it would have been easy to throw in the towel, but the couple immediately set about resurrecting the business. The following day they met their insurers, and a couple of days later the couple started constructing a temporary store on the driveway of the house next door, which they own.
The support they received from their suppliers, Blakemore Trade Partners (BTP), was invaluable in the aftermath of the fire. It first offered an interest-free stock loan while the couple waited for the insurance payment to come through, and then helped them completely refurbish their new temporary site.
Jill says: “I was really impressed by the speed of response from BTP. Within just hours of us contacting the team, they had set to work helping us with a plan to re-open. They kitted out our temporary store with a great range and all the necessary shelving and refrigeration completely from scratch.
“The incident really highlighted the benefits of backing from a strong symbol group. Without the support of BTP and the stock loan they provided, our forecourt could have been closed for months, but the whole site was back trading after just four weeks.”
Blakemore also helped with the new fascia and in providing signage free of charge.
On Thursday 30 April, Lewis Forecourts re-opened in its temporary home, managing to stock a substantial number of lines including grocery and chilled ranges, food to go, local products and fuel – in addition to a post office and lottery terminal which Spar helped to re-install.
Given that the 1,000sq ft temporary unit is a just third of the size of the original forecourt store, turnover was obviously down, but the locals came out in force to support Jill and Paul. Furthermore, all of the staff were able to keep their jobs.
“We’re the only store in the village so we’re a vital service to a number of locals. In the days after the fire a number of elderly people had to take the bus three miles to the next village to do their grocery shopping. It was really hard to see,” says Jill.
While the community can now shop locally thanks to the temporary shop, the previous store is essentially being recreated on the original site, with the added benefit of a Subway counter. “We were able to salvage some of the walls from the old site, but it’s more or less a complete rebuild,” says Jill. “We used the insurance money to partly fund it.”
Jill advises other retailers to get professional help with insurance. “Get a surveyor to value the site for insurance purposes,” she says. “Make sure everything is up to date or the insurance company could try to get out of it. For example, electrical certificates need to be up to date, as well as service records of air conditioning and fire extinguishers and so on. These are the kind of things insurers will ask for in the event of a claim.”
Fortunately, Jill and Paul’s house was in order, so to speak, and in the event they were happy with the payout. “The insurance company acted fairly,” she says.
Jill also praises Blakemore for their “unbelievable help and enthusiasm for the rebuild” and unexpected support for her staff. She explains: “We pay less than £1 a week into a benevolent fund, but before the fire we didn’t really know what it was for. However, within two months of the incident we were told that all the staff who had been with us for two years or more would receive between £500 and £1,000 each. Paul and I got £3,000 between us, which we gave to those who had been with us for less than two years.” Special mention also goes to her business development manager, Jo Redding, who was “always there for us from the beginning”.
BTP says it treats any incident on an individual basis depending on what level of help the retailer needs. Neil Mercer, Blakemore Trade Partners sales director, says: “BTP provides a huge support system ranging from immediate operational needs such as delivery, restructuring, replenishment and merchandising, through to emergency shop redesign or refitting.
“The financial implications can be overwhelming so financial support may be provided by BTP through short-term stock loans or temporary credit facility extension, and the Meridian & Welsh Guild Hardship Fund offers on-off lump sum interest-free financial support.”
The National Guild Benevolent Fund can also provide one-off financial support, he adds. “As a family business, the health, wellbeing and needs of our retailers is always our number one priority and our business development managers will be there every step of the way to provide one-to-one support, advice and guidance.”
Meanwhile, Jill and Paul are looking forward to unveiling their new store in April or May. But their initiative during the months they have been operating in the temporary store have earned them the respect and admiration of the industry – and resulted in them winning BTP’s prestigious Baldwin Trophy for 2015.
Fellow Spar retailer and Meridian & Welsh Guild vice-chairman Amarjit Bhdaal, who judged the award, said their positive attitude and their ‘phoenix from the ashes’ story “just blew him away”.
“After four weeks, most retailers would still have been grieving the loss of their site, but they were back trading, having identified the need in the village,” he said.
“They even got Lotto and a Post Office installed, along with a Costa coffee machine. They have sweated the assets of the site to ensure every tiny piece of space delivers and they have juggled shifts across their three sites to keep all of their staff in jobs,” he added.
With the help of comprehensive insurance cover and a strong symbol group, Jill and Paul were able to raise their business from the ashes. But, of course, without their remarkable determination and passion none of it would have been possible.
Use a broker to navigate the insurance minefield
When it comes to insurance, both insurers and retailers agree that brokers are key to finding the right fit for your store.
A spokesman for a major shop insurance company says: “Buying on price is not an indication of what to expect – it’s all in the wording and not the sums. The retailer can’t be expected to know what’s best themselves. Find a broker who really has the knowledge of the industry, with a dedicated team,” he says. “People buy on price and assume everything’s covered. But if the insurer doesn’t know you have an ATM and they don’t cover it, the policy will be null and void. A typical high street broker won’t have that knowledge.”
Retailer Mike Duffy has experience of ATM theft, as thieves ram-raided his Spar store in Binfield, Berkshire, and stole his ATM last April. He says insurance is “clouded with confusion, legal speak and subjectivity, which only becomes apparent when you need to claim”.
He highlights how retailers need to fork out the money first and reclaim afterwards in the event of disaster. “This can easily run into tens of thousands if your tobacco has gone or you’ve lost your refrigeration,” he says.
He points put that insurers usually insist on three written quotes for all work and ask for police proof, photographs, stock loss reports, invoices for the last three months and evidence of resupply. “Claiming for loss of trade is a nightmare and insurers will ask for three years’ audited accounts, trading performance reports for three months before the event and trading reports after. Be prepared for a long wait,” Mike adds.
“My advice would always be to use a broker. They know the market and can help by making informed choices. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.”