Zuber Issa: from paper kiosk to garage empire

Zuber Issa began his business career at the age of 17 running a newspaper kiosk. 19 years later, he is the owner of 73 petrol stations across northwest England.

Zuber Issa, 36, will probably never make it on to Dragons' Den. Quiet and unassuming, the owner of 73 petrol stations across the northwest lacks the brash arrogance of the BBC show's main protagonists. In fact, so modest is the Blackburn-based entrepreneur, he reckons if "you passed me in Old Trafford you'd think I was just another person in the stands. People don't really know me." And that's how this football-mad businessman, worth in excess of £90m, would like things to stay.

The son of Gujarati immigrants, who came to Blackburn in the 1960s to work in the textile trade, Issa grew up in the Brook House area of the Lancashire town, in a typical two up, two down semi-detached house. A pupil at Witton Park School, he always wanted to start his own business, although modestly admits to never "dreaming it would get to the scale that it is today". At 17, with the help of a £30,000 loan from his family in 1992, he started a newsagents in Preston town centre. "It was a small kiosk type operation, selling newspapers and tobacco", he says, and hardly likely to set the world on fire.

But having watched his father run a petrol station in the 1980s, admittedly a "shabby operation with just three pumps", he thought he could go one better. "He ran it as best he could, but he couldn't invest in it because he didn't have the capital." Looking around the Blackburn area, Issa saw that there were other "mom and pop operations that had not seen any investment for 20 years, where the owners were getting a bit tired and didn't want the hassle of investing £50,000 or so" in refitting them. "I thought if we could go in and redevelop the site, put in a convenience store, instead of the bog-standard kiosk that always charged too much for tobacco and confectionery, we could take it to the next level."

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

In 1995, Issa bought a run down garage on the Brandlesholme Road in Bury. With £150,000 raised from his family, he put in a grocery store and newsagents. "The location was great. It was on a busy road, didn't have much competition and had a lot of built-up housing estates around it." The garage "didn't exactly light the blue touch paper early on", he says, but by year-end it was making a profit of £50,000 a year on a £2.5m turnover. "It wasn't rocket science what we were doing. We just thought that if we made improvements, then the revenues would increase."

Within 18 months they opened a second outlet in Preston and by 2001 his firm Eurogarages had three garages generating £6m a year in sales. Several others in the northwest were going into receivership, so with a £5m loan from the bank, Issa bought four of them. "And once we did that, people began coming to us with more opportunities." The business had sales of £260m last year across 73 sites, and should hit £300m in 2009, although Issa isn't making a song and dance about it. "As we invest in sites, we tend to get uplifts. And the way I see it, people always need fuel no matter what, so it's not a bad thing to be in." The strategy sounds almost dull, but driven by the man who likes to "keep myself to myself", it's pretty effective.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.