Chipping away in Chippenham

Declan McCormack Vehicle Repairs was one of the winners of Top Garage 2019. Aftermarket stopped by to see how the business came out on top

Published:  28 November, 2019

Three years after he moved into his current garage on an industrial estate on the edge of Chippenham, Declan McCormack is still unpacking: "I have all the tooling and equipment, I am busy all the time, and I have a pair of two-posters ramps, but I've still not had chance to get organised."  

The evidence says otherwise. In 2018, Declan McCormack Vehicle Repairs was one of the finalists in the initial run of Top Garage. In 2019, his garage was named as the best business in the new 1-5 staff members category. Not only that, we were here last year, and we didn't think he was disorganised then either.

For those of you who don't have a complete set of Aftermarket back-issues to hand at all times, Declan briefly reiterated his story: "I started in 2004 in a van, and I did three years of that. From there I went into a little workshop with a huge yard. Then we moved into a site in the town centre, and finally here. I wanted this unit 12 years ago and I missed it by about a day."
Declan's is a one-man operation, although his wife Jan does pop in to help with the books, and to remind him to come home occasionally.

"About 80% of the customers I have now I have had since I first started out,” said Declan, “Not necessarily from the van, but certainly from the first garage."

He puts the loyalty down to communication: "Being transparent is very important, showing them what's wrong and taking the time to actually explain it to them. I think that makes all the difference. I would say that I convert 90% of my quotes into work along the way."

Declan contrasted this with the approach he’s heard about from other garages: "There are some guys who have no interest at all. They just want to get the work in the door and get it out, they are not interested in the customer. I think that’s what really makes a difference, especially the older people – they like to know what's going on."

He doesn't just talk though: "Every now and then I have a customer that is away. If it's a big job I will do a video for them. I do them on my mobile phone. All I do is go to the front of the car, show the registration, and then take them round the car and then send it to the customer."

Aftermarket can take some credit for showing Declan the power of video: "I won a competition in Aftermarket about six or seven years ago. the prize was the system. They came down and set me up a Samsung tablet and all the various bits and pieces."
After a while, Declan found he could do it just as well his own way: "Rather than paying a subscription to somebody, you just need to show your customer. It is just as easy with your mobile phone.”

This is just the kind of tip we want to give our readers. You have a mobile phone?  You have email? Then you can do videos.
"It is a simple as that," reiterated Declan. “Usually people have their mobile in their pocket, making it much easier than if you have to go and get a tablet, and then you have to power it up. Using the mobile just works for me. The last one I sent was with a Kia I had here. I went around the car, showed it to the customer, and then we had a joke about it as it was a bit long-winded. There were so many things I had picked up on. When he came in he said 'I know nothing about cars - I am a video editor. For me the video you did was brilliant'. Then he said 'go ahead'. It works, but I don't do it for every car."

Of course, for this to work, it helps if you are observant and methodical: "If I have a car, I will inspect it front to back. I'll check all the ball joints, all the steering, I won't go to the extent of checking levels and that side of things, but I look at all the tyres, I look for wheels out of shape, I look for noises. Once you have the car on the ramp it takes seconds.
"I do it in a tongue-in-cheek way. A lot of garages pick up on things and then start pushing it. Then people don't want to do it because they think you are just upselling. I put it on the invoice and then I just explain to the customer 'look, while i was under there, I found this. You are going to need to do that first, that is going to want doing in the next month or you need that maybe before the next MOT'.

"By not pushing it, most people come back to you. I did one on Saturday, with a car that came in for an oil leak. New customer. I put it on the ramp and had a quick check round. It needed an inner track rod end, it had a few other things. When he came in I left the car on the ramp until he came in and then I showed him. He is coming in next week for a full service and to do the work that I showed him. It does work, but there is a fine line to not be pushy. You have got to show them, and when they can see it they will start to trust you."
Declan won his section of Top Garage, competing against businesses that were 400% bigger than his one-man operation. With this in mind, we wondered how he operates so efficiently. He laughed: "I have no idea! Along the way you see what needs doing, you do it, and then you have a plan. I probably work better under stress than I do if I have not got anything in the workshop. If I have one job and it takes five minutes I will do it five minutes before 5pm. However, once I am under stress I am fine."
Declan explained it is about compartmentalisation: "If I know I have something coming in that is a bit bigger or will be more involved, like some of the electronic stuff, then I will leave it until an evening. Then I will shut the door, switch off the phone, and just get my head into it."

One of the reasons Declan was a winner, was because the judges were particularly impressed with Declan's clarity of vision. However, Declan said this was an inevitable by-product of working on his own: "Because I am a one-man band, everything comes through me. If you are a garage with employees, you have got your front-of-house people, others to the side, cleaners, mechanics. I think half the stuff gets lost in translation along the way. With me, when something goes wrong, It’s only me that could have made it go wrong, and then I have got to work five hours extra to sort it.

“Also, because you know your customers, you know if a car will be ok until tomorrow, while that other car will be wanted back. If you know your customers you can jiggle things about. It is just the whole package. If you are a bigger business, there are so many people involved. Also if you have employees, most of the time in the garage trade, when 5pm comes employees switch off and are out the door. I can't, or won't do that."

Top Garage
Will Declan McCormack Vehicle Repairs be defending its title in 2020?
Declan thinks so: “Top Garage is the only way I can benchmark myself. I don't think I can measure myself against garages here.
"With customers, they’ll usually let you know if you have done something wrong. If you do things right though, you are never going to know about it. You only know because they are coming back. The problem is you can get into doing something and unless somebody tells you it is wrong, you will just carry on doing it. That's why it is quite nice to go to Top Garage."

Looking ahead
Declan likes a challenge, and his next one is to work out where to take the business next: "One of my long-term goals is to take on a second unit next door dedicated to electric cars. The problem is the market is so up and down. I am Level 3 qualified, I want to do Level 4. If I go that way I will need to take on staff, as I would need someone to run this side while I run the other. I would want charging points as well.

"In this trade, you can't stand still. If you do you will be left behind, and then if you do want to catch up you'll never be able to manage it. If you stand still, give it five years and you are out of it. You either look ahead and move with it, or you do some discs and pads and then go and push some trolleys at Lidl. I don't want that to be me. I like what I do, I've always wanted to do this and now I am doing it I want to keep doing it."

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