Rise like The Phoenix

Peter McCool takes us on a tour of his highly-regarded Ballymena forecourt, The Phoenix, and reveals why he’s investing while all others worry

How long does it take to build a shop? I mean, a real shop, with a deli counter, huge fresh food offer, over 3,000 square feet… that sort of shop. Eighteen months, a year?

Try 17 weeks. While trading.

Comparison to The Phoenix’s eponymous bird of Greek myth is irresistible, the Centra shop and Maxol forecourt all but literally springing from rubble into its current glory.

phoenix_0198Owner Peter McCool (pictured above) told Neighbourhood Retailer: “It was a very exciting time. We served customers right the way through the build. There was so much going on at any one time… it was very engaging.”

If you haven’t guessed, Peter McCool is a man that likes a challenge.

It’s likely his fortitude came from his father, who built the first incarnation of the Ballymena service station in 1972 following over 20 years in the local pub trade.

Peter, who entered the family business in 1981, recalled how different the forecourt industry was back then.

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Some of the delicious food on offer in The Phoenix

“I had to do the filling, and customers would come in and ask, ‘fill her up, clean the windscreen, check the oil and tyres.’ It was like a three-point service every time someone came in.

“When it first opened, my father could only sell petrol. Slowly he started getting the small shop stocked up, with the main focus on car components. He erected a canopy later, but it had no shielding effect; it was just something to hang the lights from. We steadily kept reinvesting in the premises over the years.

The turn of the millennium would see the station undergo its most radical change, and with it, Peter’s most difficult challenge.

He bought the family home adjacent to the old petrol station and razed both sites, building the current facility from scratch – petrol tanks and all – in just over four months.

Now, the station has grown to an award-winning presence on the Antrim Road in Ballymena, winning a raft of awards for both the store and Peter’s Post Office located within the store. This culminated in  taking the lofty Neighbourhood Store of the Year Category 2 title during last year’s Neighbourhood Retailer Awards.

It was a proud night for Peter, who also owns McCool’s Supervalu Ballymoney. It too made an award-winning appearance, bagging a brace of prizes for Store Manager of the Year and Training Initiative of the Year.

“I’m extremely proud of the work and effort that’s gone into both stores. McCool’s Supervalu Ballymoney has just undergone a huge reinvestment, and has been on a great journey.

Inside the modern store

Inside the modern store

“We’ve also introduced a comprehensive training scheme – the Steps programme – to ensure our customer service is at the highest standard. I tell all our staff that huge, impressive modern fittings and fixtures don’t matter if a shop has bad customer service. How people are treated is what they remember.”

Peter’s dedication to improving the in-store shopping experience led his business to achieving a Northern Ireland first in retail – winning an Investors in People Gold Standard accreditation.

“We’ve won quite a lot this year,” Peter said, adding the business also won two gongs during the Causeway Coast & Glens Business Awards 2015.

Asked if he was running out of room in his trophy cabinet, Peter said: “Our second one just arrived today, actually.

“We like to share our achievements with our customers.”

He’s right to do so, and after plastering his success at the Neighbourhood Retailer Awards 2015 on a full-size billboard in the middle of Ballymena, if anyone had missed the news, they know now.

But while focussed on creating North Antrim’s ultimate shopping experience, Peter has left some room for giving back to the community that has supported him throughout the past decades.

Peter said: “The Ballymoney store has raised some £25,000 for charity in 2015, and the Ballymena Store has managed £6,000. We held some coffee mornings recently at The Phoenix and raised £900 in three days for Multiple Sclerosis.”

Peter also spoke about the Supervalu store’s impressive trolley push from Ballymoney to Belfast, which he said took place in “lashing rain and even snow at one point”.

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Hungry customers line up for some good food

He added: “We’ve a fully committed charity scheme for next year too, and I’m very proud of the teams at both sites that have put in a lot of effort into the fund-raising events. I have two great managers in Ian Elliott in Ballymoney and Kevin Killough in The Phoenix. It’s never down to an individual, it’s a team effort, and they all have done very well.

“Neither business would be where they are today without the dedication, passion and commitment  of all the staff. It all needs a team effort.”

The positivity among staff at both stores is, however, in stark contrast to the outlook at large by Ballymena’s retail industry, who face uncertain times following shock news that two of the town’s biggest employers will soon close their doors.

After stumbling during the new millennium’s economic recession, the North Antrim market town was badly maimed by the 2012 closure of building firm Patton’s – somewhat ironically, the same firm that erected The Phoenix. However, announcements by JTI and Michelin that their respective plants are to close in the next few years may have chopped the legs clean off the local economy, and could take a million pounds a week out of the local economy from lost earnings.

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Fresh coffee on tap

“The town was shocked and rocked by the news,” Peter said. “It is an extremely tough trading environment at the minute. You’ve got the UK government talking about ‘slow and steady recovery’. but we are still waiting for the ripple effect to reach Northern Ireland.

“The extra costs we’re facing from auto-enrolment, rates increases and myriad government schemes and inspections; it’s incredibly difficult. And it’s getting increasingly complicated to work in the business with the amount of legislation – but we are always up for the challenge.

“All we can do is be as professional as we can and provide the best service we can.”

Peter has a well-worn mantra that is key to his success in retail and one that is sure to help him survive the challenges on the horizon.

“At the heart of everything is constant improvement and development, and relentless focus on customer service,” Peter said. “There is no such thing as standing still, If you’re not going forward, you’re going backward.”

And to that end, The Phoenix is about to emerge anew once again as Peter has lodged a planning application to expand his Centra by building a seated eating area and refocusing on the fresh food offering.

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The Phoenix at night

The plan follows from the success of the store’s deli and hot food counters, which have made a storming trade selling pre-packed meals – averaging 70 per day.

“We’re really growing our fresh and food production side, and using the facilities we have, it’s a natural progression to move into food service,” Peter said. “We’re going to build a dinner-style sit-down eating area, with room for 28 diners.

“The documents are with the planning service at the minute, and we expect a decision by the end of January. Hopefully, the whole project will be completed by June 2016.”

If he can build a store in 17 weeks, then five months to see the next incarnation of The Phoenix should be a relaxing walk in the park.

1 Comment

  1. Stephen

    May 11, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    “Peter McCool takes us on a tour of his highly-regarded Ballymena forecourt, The Phoenix, and reveals why he’s investing while all others worry”

    Actually The Co-op is investing hundreds of thousands of pounds into its stores, we continue to grow at a growth in double digits, which far exceeds all competitors, so I don’t agree with this statement at all…

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