Simon Turl, the chief executive of Roadchef, knows a thing or two about motorway service stations and life on the open road. He has spent almost his entire career in the industry, from his first job, aged 17, as a petrol pump attendant at the Trowell service station, Nottingham, to taking the helm at Roadchef – the operator of the iconic Watford Gap and 18 other motorway service stations – in November 2007.
In his free time, Mr Turl is the proud, leather-clad owner of a red and black Harley-Davidson motorbike, which he frequently uses to visit service stations in the UK.
He also visits those beyond these shores, and this year he and his wife joined 18 other riders on a "Saga Harley" tour for two weeks and travelled 2,800 miles across Austria, France, Belgium and Germany.
Although he jokes about his "archetypal mid-life crisis", the 49-year-old's leisure and career experience no doubt influenced the strong shift in strategy which Roadchef unveiled last month. As part of its continuing business improvement programme, Roadchef is to spend most of a £12m investment in overhauling the catering facilities at its 10 key sites over the next two years.
After extensive customer research in 2008, the company – which is the UK's third biggest operator behind Moto and Welcome Break – found such changes were required.
Mr Turl says: "One of the things we identified was that people visiting a motorway service area [often] don't actually make a purchase. They come into the site, visit the toilet and leave."
More specifically, only about 60 per cent of visitors to its service stations make a purchase. Mr Turl's belief is that Roadchef's competitors fare better.
Customers cited two main reasons for not buying anything: a lack of "strong brands" inside Roadchef's service stations, and the fact that its free-flow, or trail rail, restaurant was looking "quite tired". And the way the restaurant was set up meant that by the time customers got to the till their food "could be, to say the least, tepid", says Mr Turl. He adds: "I just felt there was a huge opportunity for the business."
The company, which turned over £244.5m last year, set out to tackle these weak areas with a trial at its Strensham South site, on the M5 near Worcester, which started in July 2008. Roadchef retained the popular, franchised Costa Coffee outlets, but replaced the Wimpey restaurant with a McDonald's.
Vindicating his decision, fast-food sales have soared since Roadchef put in McDonald's. Mr Turl says: "Clearly McDonald's is a much stronger brand and more recognised by the public." Last month, Roadchef unveiled a 20-year franchise agreement with McDonald's to replace Wimpey in all 19 of its sites.
Following on from the Strensham trial, Roadchef has also "killed off" its former Rest Bite free-flow restaurants, replacing them with its own Hot Food Company, designed in-house, which provides a quicker and more modern service.
All the food is prepared in the kitchen next door, which customers can see through the window. Roadchef also has a new menu, which offers everything from fish and chips and chicken to chicken tikka masala.
Roadchef is spending the remaining £1.5m of its £12m investment on its Costa Coffee franchises, notably on improving the seating areas. The combined effect of these initiatives is that Roadchef has "transformed the service area from what it was before", says Mr Turl.
Certainly, the early results from the trial are positive. Mr Turl says that "trading volumes" jumped by 20 per cent from day one at Strensham and continued to rise by 5 per cent in the second year.
The first of the new generation of Roadchefs goes live on one side of the road at its Clacket Lane site on 24 November and the remaining nine sites will be upgraded by Easter 2012. Overall, its £12m investment comes at an appropriate time in the recovery story at Roadchef, which is owned by the Delek Group, an Israeli energy and infrastructure company.
For the year to 2 January 2010, the service station operator made a pre-tax profit of £7.9m, compared with a loss of £0.9m for the 66 weeks to 3 January the previous year.
Mr Turl may be serious when he is discussing business matters, but he has a good sense of humour and clearly loves his motorway service station trivia.
For instance, the typical gap between UK service stations is 28 miles, although on busy motorways, such as the M1, the gap can close to between 12 and 14 miles. The company's busiest site is Norton Canes on the M6, which attracts 96,000 visitors a week during the summer, but its most famous site is Watford Gap, the first motorway service station in UK, which opened in 1959.
Mr Turl waxes lyrical when recounting how some of the UK's most famous rockers, such as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, were spotted at the servery at the Watford Gap during the 1960s.
While he accepts that there is still room for improvement with British motorway service stations, Mr Turl says they have come a long way since those rock-star days and that "a lot of people's perception of them is "stuck in the 1970s and 1980s".
He also doesn't agree that operators on the Continent are better than in the UK, explaining that they often don't face the spikes in traffic volumes that Roadchef's 2,000 UK staff have to cope with.
Certainly, Mr Turl passes his fair share of traffic, travelling between 25,000 and 30,000 miles a year as he visits Roadchef's service stations. He announces about half of these visits in advance, but says: "The most interesting ones are when I go in on the motorbike because people are not expecting you to go in in the leathers," he says.
Whatever he wears for these visits, Mr Turl is on a mission to prove that Roadchef is investing in its services and improving them. "Things are changing at Roadchef and we just ask people to give us a try."
Turl's career journey
Before joining Roadchef, Simon Turl had three years running the UK airport business of Select Service Partners, the food service business. Previously, he had spent almost his entire career at Granada, the former motorway service station operator that was rebranded Moto in 2001. He started at Granada as a petrol-pump attendant but progressed to be its commercial director. Mr Turl then became the managing director of the Travelodge hotel business which the group then owned.
Boys and bikes
He bought his first bike, a 50cc Yamaha FS1E, at the age of 18 but now owns a Harley-Davidson. "It is a way of switching off from work the minute you put the helmet on," he says. He has two sons and lives in High Peak, Derbyshire, with his wife Jenny who he has been married to for 26 years. He is currently reading Stephen Fry's autobiography.