A life in selling

Terry Cosgrove knows how to target his market and turn a profit.

His Mobil service station in Petone (Wellington) is smack bang in the middle of an industrial and commercial area. There’s a steady stream of local workers and commuters flowing past. It’s also a stopping off place for the plumbers, electricians and everyone else servicing the area’s industries and businesses.

After 40 years at the pumps and a member of MTA, Terry has now sold up and is retiring, leaving a thriving service station and a few words of wisdom behind. “It’s all about the gross profit – knowing what will sell and making sure you get paid for it.”

Terry started out as a vacuum cleaner salesman back in the 60s, moved into real estate and bought the Seaview Caltex service station in 1976. “I wanted to own my own business, and was prepared to work seven days a week to get ahead in life.”

Several years later, the lease on his Seaview site ran out so he bought the Mobil service station down the road on the Petone Esplanade. The Mobil supply relationship became liquid gold.

“Mobil had a big plant down the road and people used to turn up trying to buy lubricants. They didn’t want to get involved, so they sent the customers down to me. Over the years, because we’re open seven days a week, we’ve built up quite a big business selling Mobil oils – a lot of commercial people like coming in here after hours to stock up.”

When Mobil stopped selling its branded baseball caps and beanies, Terry saw another opportunity for profit. “I knew the company down the road that made them, so I took over the supply and started selling them myself to the Mobil service stations.”

mobil terry cosgrove

In the early 1980s Terry branched out and bought the Lower Hutt Mobil Auto Maintenance site in Lower Hutt. “The service station was open 24 hours and the business included a parts shop, workshop, tyre outlet, a large shop and a CNG plant. It was a very big business.”

When the industry was deregulated a few years later, competition between oil companies to own their own major sites in busy areas became fierce. Terry’s Lower Hutt site was fought over by both BP and Mobil – Mobil won and in 1991 Terry walked away with a healthy profit. The site was levelled and a new 24 hour service station opened.

Things have changed a lot since the 80s. “There was the oil crisis, prices were really high. Muldoon bought in carless days and we had to close the pumps off on a Friday night for the weekend. There wasn’t any point keeping the shop open so we closed that too.”

CNG (compressed natural gas) fuel has come and gone. “That was a Muldoon Think Big project – it cost over $300,000 to put in the plant at each site but you got cheap loans through the DFC (the government-owned Development Finance Corporation). I did think it would take off, but it was expensive keeping up with compliance and maintenance costs, and then the oil prices dropped.”

The stock in his shop has changed over the years – fan belts, radiator hoses and points have been swapped for novelty lines that appeal to petrol heads and last-minute gift buyers. A frequent traveller to Australia, Terry keeps his eye out for items that may appeal to his customers. Just before he sold up, the shop included Elvis prints, decorative number plates and novelty ashtrays.

Cigarettes and tobacco are an important earner for service stations. “We would sell about 100 units a day, if we didn’t then we wouldn’t sell the lighters, papers, fuel and drinks that often go with the purchase.”

But cigarettes come at a cost. Terry has had to install grills on his window, alarms, panic buttons and cameras to deter thieves. “The place is like Alcatraz.”

But this month (July) all that will be behind him and Terry, at 75, will be spending time at his holiday home on the Gold Coast with his wife Jenny and leaving the winter behind.

His last advice to those in the industry is to “Keep looking for opportunities to make a profit. Know who you customers are and sell items that are different to the businesses around you.”

The new owner of the site, Allied Petroleum, takes over in July.

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  1. Damian Fleming

    Terry is always a gentleman and I have looked up to him for years.
    Well done Terry and congratulations on a great career.
    Damian Fleming, Bayride Motorcycles
    (Formerly of Format Print)

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