Skills, bills and jaw-aches

Hannah Gordon looks at how a garage owner needs top level skills business savvy and be a talker to succeed

Published:  27 September, 2018

I knew starting a business would never prove easy but we don’t get anywhere in life without taking a risk or two. Having been in the industry for a few years now I have learnt that the two main attributes a successful car repair workshop needs is the skill to diagnose and repair and the ability to communicate with their customers.
    
Modern car repair facilities have seen a dramatic change in recent years with the huge advancements in computer-related faults. The main tool of repair has seen the demise of the hammer and the growth of the diagnostics fault reader. I am a hands-on mechanic and much prefer older vehicles where I don’t need to locate the OBD port before the bonnet release, but I have to move with the times if I am to succeed as a business and that is why I am looking at hybrid servicing and trying to tap into that market. It is tough for me to admit that as I love working on classics and I will still have a part of the workshop for the golden oldies but it is hard to ignore the impact hybrid and electric vehicles are starting to have on the repair market.

Communication
The car repair industry has a pretty bad reputation – lets be honest. My female friends and family dread having to buy a car or go to a garage. Communication for me is so important, as with any business it is crucial that you are able to talk to customers and listen to their concerns without belittling them. The issue with car repairs is that it is a complicated process that is difficult to explain in layman’s terms and which can alienate an individual if they don’t understand. There is also the problem of distrust. If a customer doesn’t understand the problem and how you are able to fix it you risk confusion and doubt. There are so many horror stories of people being fleeced and conned as they don’t understand how a car works that every customer feels like you are going to do the same, it takes a long time to earn a good reputation and just one bad experience to send your business crashing down.

I always like to explain as simply as possible with the work I am doing, I keep the broken part so that I can show the customer what I have replaced and what their hard earned cash has been spent on, I also take pictures and probably over explain everything. It is important for my business that I gain a good reputation as word of mouth is my main advertisement. As busy as a car workshop is always make time to have a friendly chat with your customers, especially if they have a trade, you never know when you might need a plumber!

So, this month has been busy, productive, stressful and hot (I am writing this in July) but the world of car repair stands still for no-one.

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  • Unfinished monkey business 

    It’s been a while since I’ve trawled the online job pages,  but the other day I was sent a link to a job that had been advertised. A local main dealer who shall remain unnamed was in need of a NVQ Level 3 Technician, nothing too strange about that, but as I read on the salary surprised me. The role was being offered was just £16,000-£18,000 per annum. Underneath this advertised job was a vacancy for a Warehouse Operative with a starting salary of £18,500 and no experience needed.  
        
    This is a huge problem with the automotive industry and its inability to keep skilled and experienced mechanics especially in main dealers. The Level 3 qualification requires a significant amount of work and exams that can take years to achieve, knowledge needed to work on modern cars is becoming vast and learning is continuous to stay up to date with technology.

    Shortage
    Every year I hear the problem about a shortage of mechanics. Every year the industry struggles to fill gaps in its workforce due to the lack of skilled techs. And yet, as I constructed a Twitter post about the job I had seen I found how many disgruntled ex-technicians actually exist. The tweet proved to be a sore point with certain people who explained that they left main dealers to go to independents due to better pay, some even moved completely away from the automotive sector to again be paid more and be treated better.
        
    As an industry we need to retain staff and pay them according to the skills and knowledge required to work on ever more complicated vehicles. A common problem I found was the time restrictions within which techs are expected to complete repairs. From every mechanic I have met they strive to fix issues, they want to solve customers problems and provide a roadworthy vehicle in return.
        
    Primarily I entered the car repair trade because I am addicted to fixing problems and providing a great service to consumers, hourly rates are soaring and I feel customers simply aren’t getting value for money at some establishments.

    Imperative
    As a business owner it’s imperative that the mechanics are all highly skilled and customer friendly, the garage business is all about reputation and that starts with the quality of work. There are no time restrictions, for me the most important factor is returning a vehicle that is fully fixed and safe. I believe that providing a wage that reflects the mechanics skills and the continuous on the job learning they have to complete is vital, as well as this providing them with the tools required for the job.

    I find the salary of £16,000 an insult, to pay that kind of money for a skilled individual is terrible. I hope mechanics in the area know their worth and won’t apply for it, but I also hope that soon the automotive industry can start attracting and retaining more individuals. I will leave you with the saying ‘if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.’  



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  • When the levy breaks 

    As the song goes, “When the levy breaks, I’ll have no place to stand.” Well, it doesn’t go exactly like that if you are a spelling pedant, but has the Apprenticeship Levy worked for you? Has it helped your business find suitable young people during its existence. Equally, when it was announced that it was going to be reformed, did you feel the floodwaters rising?
        
    Maybe the government did feel their feet getting wet recently. At the Conservative Party conference at the end of September, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced a number of measures to reform the Apprenticeship Levy, and a review into the scheme, which was launched in April 2017. This followed criticism from business regarding the difficulty of dealing with the system and falling numbers of young people seeking the career option.

    Strategy
    The Apprenticeship Levy was launched with great fanfare as part of the government’s industrial strategy, but it has been slogging through the mire since then. According to the Daily Telegraph, in the first three months after the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, there was a 60% drop in the number of people starting apprenticeships. This fall was subsequently partly made up, but the scheme has still not been providing the service  it was intended to give.
        
    The Open University published a report into the Levy in April 2018. It found that of the £1.39bn paid into the system by English businesses, only £108m has been taken. This would seem to suggest that businesses  have been having trouble working with  the system.
        
    On the other hand, the study also found that 84%of business leaders in England that were asked the Apprenticeship Levy in principle and, despite some negative preconceptions at the start, 54% felt more positive about the scheme in 2018 compared compared with 2017. That said, the study also found that 40% of business leaders still saw the Levy as little more than a tax, and 17% did not believe it would recoup its costs.
        
    Considering the reach of the Apprenticeship Levy, that could be a problem. It is paid to HM Revenue & Customs by all UK employers with an annual wage bill of over £3million via the PAYE process. This enables organisations in England to take funding from the National Apprenticeship Service to spend on apprenticeship training. According to the Open University, there are still a number of barriers to get over for the scheme, including managing apprenticeship programmes, associated costs and apprenticeship content.
        
    Not all businesses have to pay into the Levy, but according to the study, those that do have to pay in are more supportive of the scheme than those that do not. 92% of those in charge at businesses where they do pay in agree with the Levy in principle, but 43% of these want changes. Support for the scheme in businesses not covered is lower, with just  72% in favour, and 34% saying it would offer no benefits.
        
    While this is not exactly a hostile environment, it’s not entirely welcoming either. Did someone say ‘quagmire?’

    Flexibility
    It is in this context that Philip Hammond announced changes that will aim to open up access, and make the scheme work for businesses and employers. This would include more flexibility and expand apprenticeship courses in science and other STEM subjects. Specifically, the proposals would  allow large employers to transfer up to 25% of their Apprenticeship Levy funds to businesses in their supply chain from April 2019.
        
    In his speech at the conference, Philip Hammond said: “We have heard the concerns about how the Apprenticeship Levy is working, so today we’ve set out a series of measures to allow firms more flexibility in how the Levy is spent. But we know that we may need to do more to ensure that the levy supports the development of the skilled workforce our economy needs. So, in addition to these new flexibilities, we will engage with business on our plans for the long term operation of the Levy.”

    Widening
    It seems like a positive step. But what are the possible implications for the automotive sector?
        
    Responding to the speech, Steve Nash, Chief Executive at the IMI, said: "Philip Hammond has set out the Conservative party’s wish to be considered the ‘party for business’. And the widening of access to the Apprenticeship Levy, to those businesses in the corporate supply chain, is excellent news.  For some time, at the IMI, we have been hearing from businesses that they believed the scope of the Levy was too limited."
        
    “But we urge caution when it comes to reviewing the apprenticeship model in 2020, which was also proposed by Philip Hammond. Of course, it’s important to listen to business and address any barriers to apprenticeship take-up. But by 2020 the new reforms will be fully bedded in – wholesale change would therefore be a disaster. The last thing businesses need is to have to start all over again.
        
    “Already recruiting 12,500 apprentices each year, the motor industry is wholeheartedly committed to futureproofing apprenticeships and has already engaged as positively as it can with the reforms introduced last year. Indeed, we believe that the motor industry is one of the most engaged sectors when it comes to adopting and promoting the new apprenticeship model.
        
    “The IMI therefore urges government to stick with the new model already introduced and to focus its efforts on ensuring businesses fully understand how they can maximise the levy for the benefit of their organisation.” Steve added: “The skills gap in the motor retail sector is already critical. Young blood is, therefore, vital as the rapid development of new technology around electric, autonomous and connected vehicles changes the face of motoring, opening up a world of exciting new career opportunities.”

    Summing up
    Considering the sheer scale of the automotive aftermarket and the large number of smaller businesses within it, it’s fair to say for a great many of our readers, the Apprenticeship Levy is something that happens to someone else. Widening access to funding for apprenticeships though is vital, so the government has the right idea. It would be great if more garages were accessing the funding. Getting access to the right kind of young talent is a topic we often come back to. We look at it from the school leaver perspective, the employer perspective, the educational establishment perspective, and here we are looking at it from a legislative and political perspective.
        
    We end up coming back to the fact that there are just not enough people coming our way, so then we end up asking ourselves again, “are we paying enough? Do the teachers understand what we do?” There is the argument that apprenticeships have not been run right for decades, but of course on an individual basis there are thousands of garages out there providing a solid grounding in the sector for bright and eager young people. It’s a complex picture, but more support would definitely help.



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  • part TWO: Succeeding with succession 

    Businesses change hands for all manner of reasons, but crucially for family businesses, change has the potential to damage family harmony as well as destroy the future wealth of all concerned. But what happens should no family members want to take on the business and the business has to be sold?
        
    In this instance David Emanuel, Partner at law firm VWV and head of its Family Business team, says the family should take advice on the options. He advises seeking recommendations and says to “think hard about engaging people who work principally on a success fee percentage commission-only basis – the overall cost may be higher, although you may be insulating yourself from costs if a deal doesn’t go ahead – but there can be a conflict of interest for people remunerated only if a deal goes ahead.”
        
    One step that will ease the process is to undertake some financial and legal due diligence as if the seller were a buyer, to identify any gaps or issues that may affect price or saleability.

    Seeking a valuation
    Businesses will generally be valued on one of three bases – the value of net assets plus a valuation of goodwill; a multiple of earnings; or discounted future cash flow.
        
    Nick Smith, a family business consultant with the Family Business Consultancy, sees some families seeking the next generation pay the full market value for their interest, and other situations where shares are just handed over.
        
    “In between the extremes,” says Nick, “there are a raft of approaches and solutions including discounted prices and stage payments. There are also more complicated solutions such as freezer share mechanisms, where no sale takes place but the senior generation lock in the current value of their shares to be left to the wider family and the next generation family members actually working in the business receive the benefit of any growth in value during their time in charge.”
        
    What of an arm's length sale? Here David says: “The family will ideally want to be paid in cash, in full, at completion, rather than risk the possibility of deferred consideration not getting paid because the business gets into difficulties under its new owners, or a dispute arises over what should be paid.” However, he says that may not be possible, and there may be many good reasons why the retiring shareholders keep an equity stake or agree to be paid over time or agree that some of what they get paid is subject to future performance. Even so, he suggests starting with the idea of the ‘clean break’ and working back from there if you have to.
        
    It’s important to remember that in a succession situation, where one generation is passing the business to the next, and the retirees are expecting a payment of value to cover their retirement ambitions, deferred payment risks may be looked at differently depending on the circumstances – families will be more trusting.
     
    Tax planning and family succession
    As might be expected, tax planning is important and should always form part of the decision-making process but it should never be the main driver. That said, no-one wants to hand over, by way of inheritance tax, 40% of the value of what they have worked for.
        
    Both Nick and David consider tax planning key. Says Smith, “the most important point is what is right for the family members and the business itself.” He believes the UK offers a fairly benign tax-planning environment for family business succession so that most family businesses can be passed on free of inheritance and capital gains tax to other family members. However, the risk of paying a bit of tax pales into insignificance if passing on the family business to the next generation means passing on a working lifetime of misery and a failing business. David points out that if Entrepreneur’s Relief is available, the effective rate of Capital Gains Tax is just 10%.

    In summary
    Family businesses are peculiar entities, caught by both the need to compete in the marketplace and the need to keep familial factions onside. Whatever course is taken to secure the future of the business, one thing is certain – everyone needs to keep the lines of communication open.


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