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God is no man’s debtor

June 2018 | by Christopher J. Baxter

Filling station – illustration purposes only
see image info

In the 1960s I was engaged to a young lady whose father was a self-employed mechanic. He purchased a plot of land and obtained permission from the local planning authority to construct a garage complete with car showroom, vehicle repair workshop, MOT testing facility and petrol sales forecourt.

He entered into a financial agreement with the Mobil Oil Co., whereby, in return for exclusively selling that company’s petrol and oil products, Mobil would provide a loan that would cover the cost of building and equipping the garage. The loan was to be repaid through a sales incentive bonus, which required a minimum quantity of petrol to be sold each month. The loan was for a period of 15 years.

Crisis

For about 10 years the agreement worked well for my (by-now) father-in-law. However, he then suffered a severe stroke, which prevented him from ever working again. Although not an employee of the business, I had, during that first ten years, helped the family concern by carrying out various administrative duties in my spare time.

All aspects of the business were running successfully, but a key factor in its viability was maintaining a high monthly petrol sales turnover. Mobil were prepared to purchase the whole business, but at a price well below what it had been valued at by independent valuers.

The agreement that had served my father-in-law so well at the outset had become a millstone around his neck, in that it now precluded any option of selling the business to other interested parties until the full 15-year loan period had expired.

Several years later, the legality of such contracts was, I understand, successfully challenged in the courts. Our family solicitor advised at the time, however, that the contract was binding. So — having my own full-time career in local government, which I was not prepared to relinquish — I felt I had no alternative but to set up systems and procedures that would enable me to manage all aspects of the business in my spare time, that is, working early mornings, evenings and Saturdays.

Sunday closure

As a committed Christian, I was not however prepared to open the forecourt for petrol sales on Sundays, as it had been previously. The garage was located in the centre of what was, at that time, the largest owner-occupied housing estate in northern Europe, with most households owning at least one car. Sunday was by far the busiest petrol sales day of the week.

My father-in-law was well aware of this fact and was, to say the least, very anxious at the prospect of losing what was a crucial element of the business’s income. He knew that to do so would probably compromise our ability to repay the Mobil loan.

We nevertheless closed the forecourt every Sunday thereafter and found that customers merely came to purchase their petrol either on the previous Saturday or on the following Monday.

My father-in-law then realised that, not only did we now sell just as much petrol as we had previously, but we no longer incurred the very significant cost of staffing, lighting the forecourt area, and heating the parts of the garage used by the forecourt staff on Sundays. In short, our takings were unaffected, while our overheads were significantly reduced. It also meant that the family enjoyed a stress-free day each week.

As a Christian I personally believe that Sunday is the Lord’s day and, if you honour God, he will honour you. But, even for those who don’t share those beliefs, it must be readily apparent that in pure business terms there is a finite demand for whatever commodities any business trades in. To therefore incur the significant additional operating costs required to trade seven days every week, to merely sell the same volume of goods as could be sold in six days does not make commercial sense. My father-in-law quickly came to that view.

Sunday trading  

Indeed, the proprietor of the company the family garage was sold to after the 15-year Mobil agreement expired, informed me, some 12 months after the sale, that, despite reintroducing Sunday trading and extending opening hours on other working days, the business was less profitable than it had previously been, because of the increased operating costs.

When previous Sunday trading restrictions in the UK were relaxed, many businesses that did not wish to open on Sundays felt obliged to do so, in order to retain their market share, even though they realised that to do so meant incurring additional trading costs for no additional takings. But, as every Christian knows, God is no man’s debtor!

Christopher J. Baxter is a member of Stanton Lees Chapel, Derbyshire