Darren Briggs can remember the day that, aged 38, he had to borrow £2.50 from his mum to buy deodorant before he could go and sign on to the dole.
These days he’s in charge of a company turning over £200m and takes helicopter piloting lessons every Friday.
He is flying high, literally, as director of one of the fastest-growing companies in Wales which is set to make £12m this year. But, just 13 years ago, he was at the lowest he’d ever been.
Nearly 40, crawling cap in hand to his mum, he'd lost everything – his job, his business, and his relationship. "It was pretty grim," he said.
Pembrokeshire has always been Darren's home and he started out as a civil engineer after leaving Haverfordwest College. He grew up in Milford Haven where his mum ran a small paper shop called Pam's Newsagents in Gelliswick and his dad worked as a roofer. It was a "lovely community shop" where he'd hang out as a kid and where he was coerced into doing the paper round.
Travelling around the country as a young engineer the death of his father from cancer aged just 55 "knocked him for six" and Darren decided to come back to his home county. That's how he came into the oil industry: first with Elf Oil and then Total UK.
Thanks to his experience with Total UK, where he worked his way up to strategy executive, Darren spotted a gap in the market for providing independent petrol retailers with oil price data. He created a web site called BigOil.net which helped petrol retailers choose the best time to buy their supplies. The site was designed to give every user a unique insight into fuel pricing for their site and he secured a lucrative deal with BP. He sold that business to the Petrol Retailers Association in 2007 and continued to work with his Pembrokeshire-based Big Media Group Ltd, which was centred around digital ads and which he'd built alongside BigOil.net.
But Big Media ended up in a big mess after Darren was forced to put it into voluntary liquidation in 2008. It had debts of more than half a million pounds and Darren personally lost £250,000. He refused to go bankrupt, however, because of a personal guarantee he had to fill. It took him eight years to pay back what he owed and all that time his life was on hold, he said. That was the moment he signed on the dole.
He slowly rebuilt his career, and his confidence, by working as a consultant and was able to build his credit rating back up.
"I missed the industry," Darren, 50, said about those difficult years. By 2011 he was back in business having taken on Bush Hill garage in Pembroke – the first forecourt in what would become the Ascona Group. A second garage in Pembrokeshire swiftly followed and Darren slowly built up a mini forecourt empire.
But in 2015 he was sued by a major PLC and a lengthy and expensive legal battle ensued.
"I thought: 'Do I roll over or do I fight?'," he said. "I remortgaged whatever I could and hired the best barrister I could."
After two years of fighting between barristers the case was dropped before it went before the High Court in London – but not before Darren had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal fees.
"You've got to pick yourself up because if you don't you're in a very dark place," he said about that time. "There were moments when I thought: 'What do I do?'. The litigation was incessant and there were moments where I'd be driving over the Cleddau Bridge and thinking: 'Do I just stop the car?'.
"But I do have the drive and the passion to do it and I was determined not to let those people get away with it."
So in 2017 he decided to go for high growth and generate as much money as he could to pull himself back out of another hole. He developed a business strategy for growing his portfolio of forecourts but was lacking one crucial thing: money.
"I had no money, I just sold bacon and petrol," he said, able to smile about it all now. What he really needed was a financial director and a property consultant. He found them in some former colleagues and acquaintances Shane Higgon and Duncan Morris.
Most of us will give little thought to driving onto a garage forecourt and filling up our cars with fuel. But for Darren it's all he thinks about nearly every hour of his waking day. It's not helped by an app on his phone which shows the real-time performance of every single one of his 59 garages across the UK.
Making millions out of garage forecourts isn't rocket science, Darren insists. "It's about the right product at the right time at the right price," he said. "If you do that then you're halfway there."
Even so, how do you go from a few forecourts in west Wales to nearly 60 across the UK in just four years – especially when you factor in a global pandemic which effectively took most cars off the road for months on end?
His answer sounds simpler than it is: good people and money. His top tip for business success is to remember business is easy and only people make it difficult. But it was the banks that looked set to scupper his plans before he'd even had the chance.
Having agreed £5m seeded debt from London investment companies to fund his strategy Barclay's pulled out at the last minute saying his business plan was "too ambitious".
Darren headed back to London and secured more private investment. He had millions to spend when an opportunity presented itself to buy the family-owned Cornwall Garages, which had 17 sites all over the country. The 95-year-old owner had been on a Caribbean cruise when he choked on a piece of steak and subsequently suffered a heart attack. It was written in his will that upon his death the business would be sold.
Darren snapped it up for £13m and just 12 months later it was valued at £28m. He's "Ascona-ised" it, he said.
"Sales went through the roof because we are good at what we do," he said. "It's about what you do and how you do it."
He's gone from those first two sites in Pembroke to 59 with a 7.5% growth over just three years. He employs 676 people and sells 3m litres of fuel every single week. Off the back of that he raised another £13m with Octopus in London. Then Covid came along.
Sales volumes over the first four weeks of the pandemic plummeted by 85%. His cash position went from £4m to £200,000. He battened down the hatches, spent £100,00 on masks, screens, and sanitiser and rode it out by managing cash flow.
"The whole industry was the same," he said. "Motorway services were hit even harder."
Even worse, his supplier started sending everything they had to the supermarkets and stock availability went down to a quarter of what he needed. He changed suppliers and things improved drastically. That's especially important when you consider the revenue is split 60/40 between the garage shop and the fuel pumps.
That retail bias will only increase as the country moves to electric vehicles, Darren says. "Filling up at the pump takes just a couple of minutes but with EVs the dwell time will be 20 minutes," he explained. "I want to make the forecourt a retail experience."
The future of electric vehicles is still in its infancy, Darren thinks, which is why all his forecourts are set up with the right ducts to supply electric charging points when the time comes. But right now the technology is developing rapidly and is still not at a point where it's feasible.
The biggest challenge will be the fact the country will need to find the equivalent of eight power stations to generate enough electricity to fuel the switch to EVs and the National Grid needs a major overhaul to deliver that supply, Darren says.
Because of Darren's success and his undeniable knowledge about the sector people started sitting up and noticing what he was doing with Ascona and especially how he negotiated on legal transactions.
"Half the sites that come to us now are off market," he said, a testament to his way of doing business. There are 30 more sites in the pipeline from Bournemouth to Scotland.
"We look for an unloved forecourt," Darren added. "60% of independent garages are owned by families and there comes a time they want to sell or retire. There's plenty out there. The challenge is having the money to spend."
He's secured a further £120m worth of seeded debt, half of which he's already spent as he looks to have 300 sites in the next five years.
The sums he's talking about are vast even for Darren. He still owns 100% of Ascona and he's sitting pretty, he admits. There may come a point where it's big enough to float on the stock exchange.
"The best thing I ever did was offer growth shares to the directors," he said. "In 2008 we had no money and now we have an EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) of £15m and are worth £180m. It's easy with the right team with you.
"It's hard to comprehend sometimes when I think about how I started out, literally with nothing. But it's just numbers the accountants come up with. Put it this way – I don't have £100m in my account.
"The money is secondary really – the numbers are so big it doesn't seem real. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and ask: 'Is this real?'."
He could even afford to buy the company who took him to court. He's not too bitter though as it was that experience that was the turning point that turned him to high growth.
"I have no regrets," he added. Ascona Group has just been shortlisted for two awards at the 2021 Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
Nowadays he's waiting to buy a plot of land at the Pembrokeshire Science and Technology Park in Pembroke Dock so he can build a new Ascona HQ. His 29-year-old daughter, Jess, works alongside him in the business. Every Friday he takes helicopter-flying lessons – partly because he can but partly because he reckons he can put forward a business case to buy a helicopter for Ascona to save on travel time and costs between his sites.
Having fun is part of life at Ascona, Darren says with a twinkle in his eye. Maybe because of all he's been through he doesn't take life too seriously any more. He works hard but it's important to play hard too. "If you're passionate about it then you have fun," he said.
He's 50 now and is confident that by 55 he'll be able to see Ascona reach 300 sites. He might consider retiring then. For now he's focusing on transforming the family home since 1974, perched on the cliffs above Gelliswick, into a modern glass-fronted pad.
The new place will be where he finally settles with his partner Claire, and their two children Charleigh, seven, and Jackson, five, knowing he's made it.