She’s the boss

Hannah Gordon tells us what is has been like becoming the boss in 2018 as she starts her own garage business

Published:  05 July, 2018

After learning the ropes and being on the tools for 14 years I decided 2018 was the year to bite the bullet and go it alone with starting a new workshop business.

For years I have been working for two or three different garages, enjoying a huge amount of variety and picking and choosing what days I work where. I have been extremely lucky with the people I have met along this incredible journey. Also, working for some real characters of the trade certainly doesn’t lead to a boring work life.

I have always worked for independent garages, the interaction you get with customers and the personal experience you are able to offer is for me what car repairs is all about. I love hearing how much people value their car, not financially but in a kind of ‘member of the family’ way and it fills me with a great sense of achievement when I can get their car back on the road in good working order.

Bright idea
It is not the obvious choice for a ‘young lady’ and I use that term in the lightest possible sense as I can hardly call myself a lady when things go wrong and the air turns blue, but that is another story for another issue. It isn’t a normal career choice but fixing cars is all I have ever enjoyed doing, it is the only thing I haven’t lost interest in and it is the only trade I ever want to be a part of.

So January 2018 came and I had the bright idea of starting up my own business in the village I grew up in. It has been nearly six months now and progress has been slow, trying to keep costs down I am distributing leaflets myself and offering incentives such as 10% off.

Best asset
A workshop business’s best asset is its reputation, and that takes time to build up. I am also finding out that being self-employed requires a million more hours than just turning up to a garage and working.
    
It is not that I am naive it’s just I am rubbish at paperwork, invoicing and doing all the other grown up things that a business needs. To say it is a massive learning curve is an understatement. Before January I didn’t have to bother with business plans and meetings with a bank manager, I didn’t have to spend hours at a computer trying to write down why I am worth investing in and what my plans for taking over the car repair world were.

Passionate
The car repair industry is something I feel hugely passionate about and I firmly believe that when starting a business you make sure it is an area you are knowledgeable in otherwise you will never strive to make it work. At the moment I feel slightly overwhelmed by paperwork and getting on the tools is always first priority but I am hugely excited about the future and what Spanner Tech Services has in the pipeline.

Related Articles

  • TRW's 'True Originals'  

    ZF Aftermarket is looking to help garages boost their digital marketing. With this in mind, the latest episode in the long-running TRW ‘True Originals’ campaign provides some tips on digital marketing tools and analytics, with the idea being to help garages modernise their communication techniques.

    As the company points out, digitalisation within the industry is increasing at a fast rate. Statistics showing the rising amount of time customers spend online, and how online reviews influence purchasing decisions, should be taken very seriously. ZF Aftermarket is suggesting workshops should adapt their communications accordingly.

    According to Ben Smart, Global Marketing Director ZF Aftermarket, businesses can increase sales and customer loyalty through digital marketing and social media, without the need to spend a lot of money: “By 2020, an entire generation, Generation C for ‘connected’, will have grown up in a digital world immersed in an online culture and well versed in social networking methodology. Furthermore, figures show that by next year the average person will be spending 84 minutes a day watching videos online.”
    Russ Stanley, Director of Revolution Porsche based in Brighouse, West Yorkshire is featured in a video as part of the campaign.  Russ explains how through early adoption of digital marketing he increased loyalty and managed to promote business growth: “Our interactive website means that customers can contact us outside of working hours, and social media has allowed us to grow far more quickly and easily. Every time we send an e-mail we ask our customers to follow us so it’s really easy to organically build up a good database. Sharing links to forums, exhibitions and other websites, together with engaging and relevant information about our team enables customers to interact.

    “We also practice video servicing logging, where we send videos to our customers so they can actually see what work their vehicle needs – a good way of sharing information that really builds trust and confidence. Digital marketing costs very little other than your time, but the reach and rewards can be fantastic.”

    The video can be found on #ORIGINALWORKSHOPS – a hub of advice, tips, videos and more. New web-based essays include:
     
    What is digital marketing and how can it benefit your workshop?

  • Customer first: Monksbridge Garage 

    Like many garages based in small towns, Monksbridge Garage has been a local fixture for longer than the current owners have been in charge:  "It used to be a heavy goods garage back in the 1960s," explained Craig Hewison, Manager at the business, based in Dinnington, South Yorkshire.

    Within one fixture is another, one that has found new life in a new era: "As a consequence of the garage's former life, we have got an enormous pit. This means we do a lot of motorhomes because no one else in the area can deal with them."

    Alongside this ominous-sounding but actually-useful feature, the business operates two ramps and a MOT bay. The full complement is three full-time technicians, and two part-time that work opposite each other. "We stay busy, but we don't advertise - it is primarily long-time customers that have children who are also our customers, and they are the kids of the customers we used to have."

    Efficient
    The business has been with the family for 17 years, but their connection goes back further:"My dad, Peter, has always been in the motor trade and he used to be a customer here. He came in one day for an MOT, and Geoff, who was the owner at the time, said he was thinking about packing it in and selling up. My dad showed an interest, so he came to work with him for a few years, to get to know the business and also to get to know the customers, and to get his MOT testing license and what-not. My dad worked with Geoff for four years, and when Geoff retired, my dad took over from him.  As he finished on the Saturday I started on the Monday as an apprentice. It was just me and my dad. It has gone from that to where we are now.

    "My dad is still here but he is only part time, just two days a week.” Craig laughed: “He does the MOTs, annoys everybody and goes home!"

    The business had to move with the times: "When we started the garage was like the Black Hole of Calcutta. We had the whole place rewired and everything."

    Craig moved with the times too: "Early on, whenever anything came in with a management light on, or emissions on MOT or anything, it had to go to another garage in the area- the one where the guy was known for doing that sort of stuff. Everything just got sent there. One day I said 'instead of sending it out all the time, what would it take for me to learn all this stuff? ' My dad said 'find yourself whatever you need to do' and he supported me through whatever courses I needed to go through.

    "I'm not saying I did it in the most efficient manner, I probably did the wrong courses in the wrong order, I did what tickled my fancy as opposed to learning the basics first. However, he never once said you can't go on that one. Over the years, with experience, I have learned more and more.  We have invested in quite a few of the dealer tools. Word has gotten around and now we are the go-to-place for the complicated faults." How the wheel turns.

    Different way
    While he had his hand firmly on the technical side early on, it was only in the last few years that Craig found himself on the business side of the business, and he had to learn quickly: "Four years ago, my dad had a heart attack, and he had to have about three months off work, which dropped me in it. I had to suddenly learn how to run a business, and I wanted to run it a different way. My dad used Excel, whereas I brought in Sage. We have moved onto QuickBooks since then. We moved onto an electronic diary, because just working from a paper one you couldn't work out what you've got in for a day and what you haven't. Five lines could be a 20-minute job, and one line could be a full day's job. I basically started automating a lot of things. It has changed a lot as a result.

    "I know the way round cars like the back of my hand, but I didn't know much about running a business. That is why I have started doing training on running a garage. I am on the business accelerator programme with John Batten for example."
    Craig is continuing to use technology to help the business:  "We have just had Garage Hive installed this week. Give it a couple of weeks to get used to it and it should increase the efficiency within the garage which should then free up more appointments for customers. Obviously then we might have to look at advertising to fill those spaces, but at the moment we are at capacity."
    For someone who said they didn't know how to run a business, he sounded like got on top of it pretty well: "It’s sink or swim isn’t it!" Typical Yorkshire understatement.

    Wisdom
    A little wisdom also goes a long way: "Garage Hive is new, but the ethos behind it has never changed. My dad was a good mentor. Our motto has always been 'customer first'. it is something my dad has just drilled into me since I first started.
    "Without the customer you haven't got a business, have you? Everything we do is orientated to make the customer happy. My dad taught me that from starting out on my very first day. We have never used cheap parts - we use quality ones because we don't want to do a job twice. It is messing the customer about and they might not come back. We don't bodge anything. If something is not right we sort it. If we have not included it in the quote then we stand to it - the job has got to be done right.  You can't afford to upset customers, especially when you are a small business because word gets around too quickly. Kwit-Fit can probably afford to lose a couple of customers, whereas we can't.

    "Just this month, we have taken a courtesy car on. This is because people ring up and ask for an appointment for Saturday, but we are fully booked, Saturdays are booked weeks in advance, so they go elsewhere. Now we have the courtesy car. We had a call this week; ‘Have you got a slot on Saturday?’ No. ‘Ok I will leave it’. Well can you bring it down mid-week and have our courtesy car. ‘Oh fantastic I will book it in’. It is just providing that extra service.

    "We will soon be able to take online bookings for MOTs, and we now do automatic MOT and service reminders. We are having a new website built too."

    Craig believes this is crucial: "I don't want to be like the other garages that don't have the knowledge and don't invest and are falling behind. I don't want that to happen to us. I don't want people coming in and we are not able to help them. I am trying to get it all working so it just flows.  It is better for technicians as it keeps them happy, it is better for the business as it keeps the money coming in and it is better for customers as we can provide them with a better service. My focus is to make sure that all three are right, that way the customer should have a great experience "

    Top Technician
    As well as within his own business, Craig is doing pretty well in Top Technician, year-by-year: "I have been a semi-finalist twice, and I have only entered it twice. The first one I entered out of curiosity and I ended up in the semis. I let the pressure get to me though. I don't count it as a big loss as I was a nervous wreck when I went into it. The second time I knew what to expect. I did not expect to go through to the finals because of the hybrid, so I came in a lot clearer minded and I was a lot happier with what I had done." Craig laughed again:  "I don't see it as two attempts, I see it as one and a half!

    “I would definitely recommend Top Technician. You learn where your strengths and weaknesses are.”

    The fundamentals
    Looking forward to the future, Craig commented:  "At the moment I am trying to continue improving the efficiency. With my dad semi-retired, and all this new technology coming in, we need everyone at a high level. One of my lads is my right-hand man now. He is fantastic. He can run the workshop without me, so I am trying to get him technically where I am at, that way the business can continue to operate flawlessly when I’m not here."

    Craig is also looking to upsize the workshop in the long-term: "I would like to have something double the size in the next few years. At the moment the main focus is getting everything running properly so we have a good brand out there and so that we are the go-to-garage in the area. The immediate future is trying to get the fundamentals right. It is the little details that make it look professional. They inspire confidence.  I need to get my foundations laid so I then have something stable to build on. If you have good foundations, you can build it as tall as you want."




  • Days of future past? 

    Some of us remember the 1970s, where the prevailing feeling was that automotive sophistication usually came from abroad unless one spent a huge amount of cash, that our industry was led mainly by endlessly upset activists, and that our biggest vehicle manufacturer – ‘British Leyland‘ at some point – represented what the UK was all about. This was for the most part utter rubbish.
        
    Of course, much of the above does not stand close scrutiny, but it is true that British Leyland kept giving Fleet Street a continuous supply of headlines which money simply could not buy. Red Robbo, for example was an odd man, who sincerely believed in his cause and did not apparently connect that disruptive work patterns simply made poor manufacturing processes (the cause of the dispute) much, much worse. Who could forget the geniuses who placed a brand-new manufacturing line at Cowley (now called ‘Oxford’ by the present occupiers) where the established time for people to work underneath vehicles was gloriously exceeded? Or the star who invested in the Rover 800 based on volumes of 400,000 units, yet failed to sell a fraction of that even with a facelift? Or that the very same star would later arrive to drive the rump of British Leyland (MG Rover) into the ground?
        
    It has taken decades to shake off the implosion of UK automotive manufacturing, even though in reality the companies that needed to shape up or fail were mostly shaping up. Our national preoccupation with failure seemed to eclipse the success of the UK building 1.6 million vehicles and more than 2.7 million powertrains in 2018, even though it did take quite a few years to build those volumes back up.    
        
    Behind vehicle manufacturing is a series of suppliers, and suppliers to those suppliers. When vehicle manufacturing disappears from a country – or in the case of many – was never present, the aftermarket becomes 100% reliant on imported components, as well as vital expertise. We need to be aware of what is happening in vehicle manufacturing even though the changes in manufacturing take place over several years.

    Brexit and deals
    Much is made of the uncertainty around Brexit.  Some of that is very real, but as Her Majesty’s Government knows full well the impact may be mostly concentrated on taxation. Those who remember past events will recall, the government can impose new tax levels or even new forms of tax at lightning speed. Effectively ‘such is life’.
        
    The Brexit ‘negotiations’ have taken against a backdrop of significant international financial instability, namely the USA’s insane debt bubble and the combination of China’s vast debt bubble combined with significant over extended state investment. You can add to this potent mix long-standing internal company issues. Nissan, for example, really do not like to be reminded that they exist today thanks to the investment and technology from Renault.

    Anarchy in the UK
    For fans of anarchy, we seem to have apparent utter anarchy. There were three important developments.

  • Future-proofed: Training technicians for the long-term  

    While experience in the day-to-day activities of a workshop is vital in building a technician’s knowledge and skills, it is only one piece of the puzzle. For example, a technician who has been servicing solely petrol and diesel vehicles for the past 15 years will unlikely be able to help a customer with a hybrid or electric vehicle. What’s more, given the safety concerns involved, it would be dangerous for them to try. What about servicing the latest safety-critical systems, like ADAS? Certainly not a worthwhile risk without the appropriate knowledge or equipment.

    Systematic training in new technologies is, therefore, the best way to ensure a workshop will continue to successfully serve aftermarket customers, even in times of rapid change.

    “The Auto Education Academy portal from Euro Car Parts brings IMI-approved online and practical courses together with a database of over 500,000 resolved technical queries, with an average of 600 new repairs added daily,” observed Adam White, Workshop Solutions Director at Euro Car Parts. “It provides technicians with one of the largest technical training and knowledge resources in the independent aftermarket.”

    “Training is an integral part of ongoing success in this industry,” continued Adam. “It allows technicians to further their career and workshop owners to develop a highly-skilled team of professionals.”

    While many would agree to education’s importance in principle, it can be difficult to carry out a training plan and accept lost revenue in the short-term. Online learning can provide the flexibility to bridge that gap.

    “Repairers can login to their own skills portal to view the content of more than 75 different courses, registering and booking their place on training workshops all over the country at the click of a button,” said Adam. “They can also assess their strengths and identify weaknesses in nine key areas: Petrol engines, diesel engines, engine management and emissions, vehicle electronics, hybrid and electric cars, brakes, powertrain, tyres, steering and suspension, as well as air-conditioning.

    “Results are automatically added to an interactive skills diagram, illustrating a repairer’s current skillset and enabling them to set their own training and development targets. Where gaps exist, the learner management system intuitively recommends Auto Education courses that can help increase knowledge in those areas.”

    Invaluable
    “The platform has been designed so that anybody can complete a skills overview,” pointed out Adam. “This makes the tool invaluable to workshop managers looking to monitor staff skillsets or test potential hires. Our new learning portal represents a significant investment by Euro Car Parts in helping to nurture the knowledge and skills of technicians across the country.
    “As with any profession, it is important for technicians to continue professional development throughout their career. It is also the role of managers to identify gaps in their team and commit staff to training that will address shortcomings in the workshop’s capabilities. For more immediate solutions, the programme features a technical helpline that provides fast responses to troubleshooting, repair, diagnostics and technical information queries on any vehicle, from any manufacturer.”
    Adam concluded: “For those with an eagerness to learn and evolve, it is an exciting era for the independent aftermarket. “We consider the success of technicians and independent workshops as the foundation of our industry and believe nothing plays a greater role, or makes more of an impact, than education.”

  • Tomorrow never knows? 

    Last year I wrote about the changes facing independent workshops. Since then there have been further developments, and now the rate of change is increasing exponentially. You will be familiar with today’s challenges and probably aware of some of those of tomorrow’s, especially if you are a regular reader of this revered magazine. However, the workshop of the future will need to change significantly to stay competitive as well as being compliant with both commercial or legislative requirements.
        
    If I look as some of the likely changes, they are quite wide-ranging, but together they will put increasing pressure on the management of the workshop and the business more generally. The IMI has recently stated that “management and leadership within the sector is not evolving quickly enough” and that “a skilled, competent and professional workforce, able to keep pace with the demands of new technology and changing markets and remain competitive” are necessary, which are being supported through the IMI’s ‘Campaigns for change’ initiative.

    Greatest challenge
    Looking at the workshop level first, then the greatest challenge remains the access to, and the use of, in-vehicle data. Taking the access to the vehicle first, it will be controlled to meet the needs of cybersecurity – needed as vehicles become ever-more electronically controlled on the way to fully autonomous vehicles. This also means that today’s OBD connector will be both restricted in the way that it can be accessed, already requiring electronic certificates to authorise access and to define what data/functions are then available, but also the width and depth of data which is also being reduced due to the very design of the OBD connector being unable to support the bandwidth needed for high-speed in-vehicle systems. The access for these systems will be via wireless communication, which is both faster and more secure, but also more difficult for the workshop to access – even if this is going to be possible at all. Vehicle manufacturers already deny independent service providers access to data via any of their telematics systems and are restricting the OBD port. To obtain the required electronic access certificates even for the OBD port, independent workshops have to be registered and authorised by the vehicle manufacturer before paying them for the required certificate. This is especially a requirement when working on ADAS systems, as the vehicle manufacturer needs to know if the repaired system is re-calibrated and working correctly, so access to the system, the re-coding of replacement ADAS components, as well as confirming the vehicle is working correctly again, is likely to be certificate based. All these access authorisation requirements are likely to need new legislation to provide independent access to the vehicle and its data.
        
    Assuming that access is possible, the next evolution will be the use of data with supporting partners, such as the diagnostic tool manufacturers and spare parts providers. This will be necessary to quickly and accurately identify what work is needed on a vehicle and the corresponding replacement parts on increasingly complicated in-vehicle systems. This will be done by exchanging data with these service providers to provide a ‘just-in-time’ delivery of the technical support and parts needed – without this partnership support small independent businesses would struggle to repair tomorrow’s vehicles, let alone make a profit from doing so.

    Vehicle ownership
    As vehicle ownership moves away from individuals to ‘mobility service providers’, where the use of the vehicle will be available as short-term rental (i.e. by the hour, day, month etc.), your customer becomes the vehicle provider and they will drive down prices to be competitive in their own mobility services, so workshop efficiency becomes paramount to remaining competitive in this changing market.
        
    In a wider context, the way that vehicles are supplied through authorised dealers is likely to change, as direct sales to mobility providers develops. As this happens, the authorised dealers are more likely to become service and repair points, and this is where the difference between authorised and independent repairers becomes more blurred. Both types of workshop will need similar levels of competence and be competitive for the service and maintenance they provide. This brings in another change for the independent workshop, where there will be an increasing need to have business management data reporting that will be needed by the mobility service providers to allow them to work efficiently with the workshops they are dealing with (e.g. financial and process management systems) that today is expected from authorised repairers.
        
    The very real threat is that vehicle manufacturers will either fully block remote access to the vehicle and its data (the identification of what work is needed will be conducted remotely before the vehicle comes into a workshop), or will control the access via workshop interfaces, using electronic certificates, and in doing so, control all competitors while imposing their own business models and service/repair methods. Legislators are aware of this but are also deeply concerned about the cybersecurity threat and are still investigating what solution may be needed to ensure true competition is still possible for both the mobility service providers and vehicle repair workshops.
        
    Some better news is the imminent referencing into European legislation of the ‘SERMI’ scheme, which will verify and authorise independent workshops to provide access to security (anti-theft) related data, functions and parts. This scheme is now being directly included in European legislation and once implemented, could be expanded in the future to provide a harmonised access and use of electronic certificates for other requirements. Ultimately, the SERMI could help avoid vehicle manufacturers blocking competition ‘through technical design’ – but this remains a legislative decision.

    Competitive choices
    The workshop of the future will look very different to the workshop of today. There will be much more reliance on the access and use of data. The sharing of this data will enable efficient and timely repair of the vehicle. This will also necessitate increased levels of business management to both fulfil the demands of mobility service providers, but also to ensure that the business has efficient management systems to underpin their ability to remain competitive – and to continue to offer consumers competitive choices. The future moves mechanical repairs into the digital age and the inherent IT skills that this will also require. This will demand changes within the independent workshop business, but will also be directly linked, in every sense of the word, to external partners – so choose your partners carefully, as your future business may be dependent on what they can provide and how this will impact your own business activities and efficiencies. It is also clear that your future business will increasingly be less independent and become increasingly interdependent on the requirements and abilities of others. United we stand and divided we fall – so seriously consider joining one of the UK aftermarket organisations who will fight for legislation that can support your needs. Welcome to the brave new world of vehicle repair workshops!

    xenconsultancy.com

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