When the stars align: Robertson Gemini

Aftermarket visits Robertson Gemini Ltd to find out how an independent garage is showing the rest of Dumfries and Galloway how it is done

Published:  13 December, 2018

You know you are doing something right when you are doing something that is not the central part of your business, but you are doing it more successfully than those who have made it their main focus.
    
This is the position that Castle Douglas-based independent garage Robertson Gemini Ltd finds itself in. The garage is a six-ramp repairer with a dedicated MOT bay. It offers all the usual services in terms of alignment, diagnostics and the rest. Meanwhile, it is also has a line in used cars, where it is doing very well.  
    
Director David Butler explained: "We are trying to grow car sales. We have talked to some of the main dealers in Dumfries and they are having a hard time, being asked to do all their showrooms, but their sales are pretty static at the moment. Meanwhile, our model is actually working well for us. I am looking at a 65 plate Focus going out now, and a 67 plate Toyota. We have quite a few getting up to just one or two years old. That is where we are trying to be. That is the kind of image we are looking at."

Focus
While this will keep the business warm on cold nights, the main focus for the business remains servicing and repairs. Being in a largely rural area, the catchment area for customers is quite large: "Goodness me, they come from all over the place," exclaimed David. “They come from Castle Douglas itself, Dalbeattie, almost as far as Stranraer as well. It is quite a rural setting. We are a market town with quite a big hinterland. There is a lot of farming, forestry and that kind of thing. We even get people coming down from Edinburgh, people that are associated with the town here."
    
The company provides a broad offering, but is looking to concentrate more tightly on the upper end of the market: "We are a  general garage, we take all makes of cars. Jaguar and Land Rover, which is the upper end of the market is where we are heading.  We have invested quite heavily in all the diagnostic equipment for Land Rovers and things like that, so we are getting more and more of that now, which is great. We are trying to move away from old bangers. We are not really interested in that end. We do a lot of Ford, it used to be a Ford service centre until quite recently, but ultimately we decided to sever that relationship."

Evolution
The business is now in its 97th year of operation:  "It opened in 1921," said David, "and has always been owned by the Robertson family." Any business that exists for almost a century will go through a great degree of change. For the business now called Robertson Gemini, this included being a franchised dealership for the Rover and MG brands, but it survived the collapse of Rover and went on to evolve into its current independent form.
    
Names change over time too, with the branding of the business developing a cosmic angle thanks to a brainwave by Stewart Robertson, the late husband of owner Caroline Robertson: "The name Robertson Gemini came about for an interesting reason," revealed David. "Stewart, who unfortunately died in 2010, had another garage in Dalbeattie, so two garages. In addition, in the family, Caroline and Stewart had twins, with Gemini being their starsign. So that is where the Gemini came in; twin garages, twin children, starsign. That is how Robertson Gemini came to be named. That was Stewart's little lightbulb moment."
    
David came into the business following Stewart's passing: "Caroline lost Stewart and I lost my wife, we both lived in Kippford and we are now business partners. We are both directors in the business. I was not in the automotive sector before. In addition, Caroline was married to Stewart but had very little to do with the business. The garage was thrust upon us – just circumstances. So
we have had to pick it up and drive it forward."

Excellence
From 2015, Caroline and David took on the day-to-day management, and the business has not looked back: "We've had to do a lot of learning, but we are rather fortunate in that we have some excellent staff here, who have guided us. They have been fantastic.   

"We have got five full time mechanics. We have just taken on an apprentice as well, who is excellent, and we have also taken on an autistic lad called Thomas as our valeter. That was something that Caroline and I wanted to do. We took a gamble but it has been very positive for us. We are quite pleased about that. It came through a programme run by Dumfries and Galloway council called Total Access Point. It is about employability for all. We went to an open day to find out about it and we  thought 'we want to have a go at this.' We are absolutely delighted with what we have achieved, and what Thomas is achieving. That has been a good venture for us."

Toolbox Sessions
According to David, the key is enabling the staff to pass their knowledge on: "We have two guys who are experts on Land Rovers. The rest are all very good mechanics too. We have started doing what we call Toolbox Sessions in the workshop. Each of the mechanics is running a topic. We have done one on all the MOT new legislation very recently. Yesterday we had one on electrics.
    
"What we are trying to do is spread the skills across the workforce, so it is not just one individual that keeps getting the same old jobs all the time. We have got someone lined up for the next one, which will be on vehicle health checks. That's going well and we are all enjoying that. Each mechanic is being left to do their own little session. That is stretching them a little bit, which is good."

Top Technician
When you are spreading knowledge around a business, it helps to have staff members who know their stuff. Luckily for Robertson Gemini, one of their team is a regular Top Technician finalist, namely Neil Currie, who was in the final five in 2017 and 2018.
    
"It was Neil who did the Toolbox Session on electrics," explained David. "That was the first of his sessions. It was good. He enjoyed it as well. He will be doing one on diagnostics before long."
    
David said he was pleased to have a Top Technician regular on staff: "It is great for us as we can promote it for a start, and it really gives the other boys something to aspire to as well. Neil is good at spreading his knowledge about. From our point of view that's great. If he is on Top Technician, we like to think that the company is benefitting as a whole. This is why we are doing these toolbox sessions. I think we are quite progressive on that side of things and it has certainly motivated the workshop team. I sat in on a couple of sessions and I have been very impressed with what they have done.  I'm delighted with it."
    
At this point, Neil himself popped his head round the door: "I have been here three years," he explained. "I regularly get training, and they helped me with the cost of going down for Top Technician, paying for the hotel, so they have been very supportive that way. David has looked to us to help him with equipment, and he has certainly invested in what we have asked him to, dealer-level equipment and oscilloscopes, all the kit we need so we can keep up to date with the technology. We specialise in Land Rover, so he bought the equipment for that as well. It allows us to do more things."
    
Commenting on the Toolbox Sessions, Neil observed: "We started that recently – it saves money on training courses and time, in terms of  having people out of the door. We just put some time in the diary and shut the workshop door. The guys will come in and one of us will talk about a subject, just trying to pass on some knowledge. Instead of going away on a two day training course it is all kept in house."
    
Taking part in Top Technician was inspirational for Neil: "It has inspired me to try and push the industry higher. You meet guys with the same aims and goals as you and you want to aim for the best. It is about bringing the trade up and trying to improve everyone's skills. I'm all for it. There is definitely a need for more talent, especially up here in Scotland. I just want  to help people and keep it going."

The future
Looking forward, David commented on plans for the future at the business: "We have put in so many new procedures – a new management system, which is absolutely brilliant in terms of giving me an on the pulse feeling of what the company is doing on a daily basis. It starts from the customer coming in, all  the details, job cards and invoicing. It is all interlinked, so it is tremendous. We are getting to grips with all of that. We are just about to take on a new fleet of brand new Peugeot 2008s courtesy cars, they are coming next week."
    
David added: "We are running at 110mph at the moment!" Long may it continue.

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