As a former mechanic, Ian Smith is no stranger to getting difficult things up and running, and his skills are certainly not restricted to motor vehicles.
In the past couple of decades, the businessman has bought no fewer than three different tracts of empty land and then successfully navigated the complex process of building large service stations on them.
His latest project, the Caltex Cameron Park Service Centre located in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, opened last October and the early indications are that Ian’s track record of success is set to continue.
But, as he freely admits, it has not been an easy road.
Back in 2015, Ian had only recently sold the Shell service station he had developed at Nulkaba, also in the Hunter Valley, when the 7,000-square-metre greenfield site at Cameron Park caught his entrepreneurial eye.
Located just off the M1 Freeway near to its junction with the new Hunter/Newcastle Link Road, it was the only site in the vicinity where building would be allowed, and it was surrounded by new residential developments.
Mr Smith said: “I could see immediately that it ticked all of the boxes”.
“The only problem was that it wasn’t actually for sale, and it was not easy to find out who even owned it…all in all, it’s safe to say it was not easy to get.”
Once Ian was finally able to acquire the site, he admitted he had to pay a premium to do so.
And that’s when the hard work really started.
“It took 12 months to get all the various permissions and get ready to go as there are always issues, whether it is about trees or nature strips or many other things,” he said.
“And these are things you can’t really hurry…you set them in motion and you have to wait maybe six or eight weeks to get answers or decisions.”
It was a full two years after first noticing the site and ‘living and breathing’ the project for all that time that Ian finally finished the Caltex Cameron Park Service Centre but he says it was most definitely worth the wait.
The site features a Caltex canopy offering three types of petrol and two diesels as well as Caltex Ad Blue, along with a full range of motor lubricants and bulk oils. There is also one automatic and three manual car wash bays, and a Tru Blu Dogwash.
There is also a full convenience range and a UCB cafe eroma with a seating area. Three fast-food tenancies make up the rest of the site. One is occupied by a Domino’s Pizza, one by a Subway, and the third is currently awaiting the result of a bottle shop application.
While the site is ideally located to pick up the freeway traffic and people travelling to the Hunter Valley and the Newcastle area, there are also huge residential developments and small villages around, ensuring a strong local customer base.
“I would say that 60-70% customers live in the area and 30% or so are commuters,” Mr Smith said.
“It’s still early days but so far we are exceeding sales targets and are getting around 8,000 customers a week, which is fantastic.”
Despite his experience in setting up other service stations and his confidence that this one was on a perfect site, Mr Smith admits that it was still a relief to see customers coming through the doors.
“Although I had done this before and I was 90% confident we were onto a winner, there was always that 10% at the back of your mind worrying that you might have missed something,” he said.
“However, it is all looking good and we know it will take 18 months to two years for the site to fully mature.”
The service station is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and has 12 staff. He has appointed a manager whom he will be working alongside in the early days before stepping back a little from daily operations.
Operating under the UCB Fast&Ezy brand, the shop boasts all the convenience store offers that would be expected of a site such as this.
“All of the traditional things have gone well and as you would imagine,” Mr Smith said.
“Having said that, I have actually been very surprised at just how well the pre-cooked dinners have been selling as so many people come in to grab something easy on their way home.”
Another important element to the site’s success has been the presence of the UCB cafe eroma.
“The customers see us as in the ‘coffee food business’ and not just a pie heater with pies for sale,” said Ian. “We have seating there for 10 people which helps make us a destination, although most people are still ‘get and go’ customers.”
The fact that there is also a car wash and a dog wash helps attract customers at times when the site is not traditionally busy, such as on weekends.
Similarly, the Domino’s Pizza and Subway outlets generate additional traffic and bring more people to the site.
“Our cafe offer compliments the additional site fast food outlets and having more than one offer makes the site a destination for food, not just impulse purchases,” he said.
“I am still confident a bottle shop will take up the remaining spot and that customers will then be able to grab a bottle of wine or other drink to have with their pizza or whatever when they get home.”
So, after all the hassles and the effort required to bring a major project like this to fruition, would he ever be tempted to do it all again at another site?
“This is the third time I’ve done it and it seems like a waste not to ever use the skills and the contacts I’ve acquired again, but it’s also so hard,” he said.
“It would be easy to say ‘never again’ but I must admit I did say that the last time and then look what happened!”