Coronavirus: The view from the workshop - part two

Fields Car Centre

Published:  03 June, 2020

We continue to speak to garages right across the UK about how they are reacting to the COVID-19 situation

An open and shut case? Unfortunately, it is more complicated than that. For most businesses, there is a lot to consider when looking at the options during the current situation.

Capacity

2017 Top Technician winner Karl Weaver is co-owner at Bull Lane Garage. Based in Boughton-under Blean in Kent, the business is open in a limited way, running at a much lower capacity than usual: “What I have been doing for the last two weeks,” explained Karl, “is opening two mornings a week, just for emergencies and key workers. It is strictly appointment only, where I am just doing a few bits on my own, just keeping it ticking over. The rest I am running from home via the phone and anything else. That is where we are at the moment.

“We are all aware of the health risks. My business partner is 70, so it was a no-brainer for him to be furloughed once that option became available. It didn’t seem right that he be there when he is considered a higher risk.  Also, as work was getting quieter anyway, it made sense to furlough the rest of the team at that point. It seemed silly to be paying people to stand around and increasing the risks to their health. This included my wife, whose role is in the office. She also needed to be at home to look after the children. I know that’s not how you decide from a business point of view, but from a personal perspective and family point of view, it made sense.

“The initial plan was to furlough myself as well and just shut the doors, then I was just going to operate from home. Then as the rules around furlough became clearer, it became apparent that I can’t even answer the phone or do any work for the business, if I am furloughed.”

Communication

Explaining how the business is staying in touch with customers, Karl said: “We have an internet phone system, so I can access the phone from home and take calls there. It is very quiet though, maybe two or three calls a day. We are posting on Facebook, and also trying to drive our Facebook awareness up as well. “

Karl is keeping in touch with businesses in the area too: “The other garage in the village has a slightly different business model to ours. They are also a filling station as well, and the village post office is incorporated too. They look after several fleets, including the Post Office vans, so for them it is better that they stay open albeit with skeleton staff. We are on good terms with them and do some of their diagnostic work. I have spoken to the owner several times over the past few weeks and I feel it's important to stay in touch.”

On the parts side, Karl observed: “Both of the factors we use are open, which is very helpful. As for dealer parts, TPS have been very good, and have been very flexible and accommodating in the current situation. Barretts, a multi-brand franchised dealer in Canterbury, have been helpful as well. They are running with a skeleton staff, all their actual dealerships are closed, but their parts hub is active. I have managed to get parts from there as well. So far, the only ones I couldn’t get hold of that I needed was Mercedes-Benz. Let’s say 70% of our parts supply is still there. The biggest issue for us is making sure I am at the garage to receive parts when they arrive.”

When we spoke to Karl, there was a lot of talk about exit strategies. We wondered if  Bull Lane Garage has plan for a full reopening? Staggered? Full re-opening?  What’s the thinking we asked: “I’m all for having plans,” said Karl, sagely, “but this thing is changing all the time. It changes so much. The plans and thoughts we had at the beginning of this, they are different now because the goalposts moved. There is constant change so I don’t make any set plans. I have ideas and I adjust them as we go. Our exit plan is that I will stay definitely closed for another three weeks, just operating as I am, following the government guidelines.”

Responsibility

Looking at how the business is playing its part in the national effort, Karl commented: “Finances have a bearing and I can’t risk losing the company, but I would rather reduce the company and do my part in not spreading this. The more people do stay at home, the quicker we can come out of it. If we work hard now, it will pay off in the long run. The more people go to work, the longer this is going to drag out, and the more long-term financial damage it will have. I am all for making sacrifices, big sacrifices short term in order for us to get on track.

 “I think we will be prepared to fully re-open when the government lifts the lockdown. We will probably stagger it slightly, it depends on how much work there is. I’ve got a list of customers waiting for work, but it is non-essential. As soon as we are ready to go back, I can fill the diary for about two weeks. Rather than have two weeks mad rush and then go quiet again, I would rather spread that out, operating with reduced staff or hours.

“The most important thing for us now is that now we have done our cash-flow forecasts, making adjustments where we can, saving money where we can, that is pretty much in place now. It is more for us about making sure we have all the correct safety measures and procedures in place, which we were using before we closed – wiping cars down, seat covers, key drop-off, all that kind of thing. We need to get some concrete systems in place that everyone needs to be fully aware of before we even think about opening the doors again. That is my next plan, business-wise. “

Beneficial

While we are all stuck in our silos, technology means communication is still possible, and Karl has taken full advantage of this: “One of the things for garages that have been very beneficial through this have been the various support groups. Bull Lane Garage is one of about 50 businesses have completed John Batten’s business development course recently. He has been absolutely amazing through this. We have been having multiple group webinars week every week, which he structured, it has been amazing.

“Then there are those on social media, particularly Facebook. There are generic ones for businesses and COVID-19, but the best one for me is the Automotive Support Group, set up by Andy Savva, Andrew Crook, James Dillon, David Massey and Tom Denton. This has been very helpful, giving business owners the opportunity to discuss ideas and legislation that is coming out, assistance in getting grants, etc. That has been a lifesaver for a lot of garages.”

 Karl added: “Between all of them they have all gone that extra mile and given their time. I believe they have made a huge difference.”

Decision

Mike Field is Director at Fields Car Centre, based in Woking. When Aftermarket spoke to Mike in late March, they had just decided to close up. “It was one of the hardest decisions we have ever had to make. We have tried to keep it open, but looking at what the government had been saying, and the likelihood of this getting quite serious, we made the decision that we would close.

“On parts availability, all the franchised dealers where we are have shut, the local tyre centre has shut. We were concerned. It is all very well getting key worker cars in, but if you get a car on the ramp and you can’t get a part, it will be stuck there. On this basis, we made the decision to shut.

“The decision was one that we were all led to. It was not that I sat down and made it, or my senior colleagues did. We were regularly talking about it, and we were laying out the situation to the guys, getting their feedback, and everybody was supportive of it. There are always those who will say ‘I want to be off for three weeks,’ but most mechanics want to work. They want to get on. They don’t want to be sitting at home.”

Mike said recent events had really brought the business together: “The most important thing in the whole of this crisis last week, and probably more in the coming weeks while we close, is the relationship with the staff. They are scared, they are worried, they are anxious. They are asking questions about pay – questions I can’t give answers to at the moment. We have reassured all our staff that thankfully the business is in a very strong financial position. We have always been careful with money, and we have always had a contingency fund for something like this, so I am not over-concerned on that side of things.”

External support is important too: “I got all my staff onto the Facebook page of the Automotive Support Group, because they can read what’s going on out there in other garages, and that there is great encouragement out there for staff. “

Magnitude

We wondered if Mike though that this will change businesses going forward: “We don’t know the financial implications. Yes, we are getting grants from the government, but money does not grow on trees. It has got to come from somewhere, and it will come from future taxation. You are going to see in the next few years huge, huge debt that we as a country have got to pay back. That is going to have a knock-on effect on businesses.

“In terms of relationships with the staff, hopefully you are seeing in other garages as well as our own, an increase in the communication between staff and management – a pulling together. The very fact that the staff want to get in and work – we are not like a pub that has to close – we can open but we have had to weigh up factors like health and safety.

“The one thing I have been trying to encourage people about on the forums is to keep communicating with staff. We have set up a WhatsApp group.

That’s interesting, we thought. “I wake them up every morning at 7am,” said Mike, with a sparkle, “making sure everyone is ok.”

What are they using if for?  “They are swapping jokes, there is a lot of banter going on. I sat down and wrote them all a letter about the situation and what I wanted them to do. I wanted the technicians to start looking on the internet for training, and for things to take their mind off the situation. Other staff have been given other tasks. Some of them can access our TechMan files, so they have been going in there and having a clean-up. I am literally emailing them every day with something. The other thing we said was ‘go away and think about our situation. Don’t wait for us to make a decision, have a think about what we should be doing as a business’.”

Unity

There is a larger picture of course, beyond the group dynamics of Mike and his team: “The unity coming in there, where it is not a case of the bosses coming in and telling you how it works, it is us making an informed decision together. I have asked every single one of them to write to me by email, to tell me where they are at, how they are feeling, how they are doing. The human side of it is that some people could be struggling anyway financially, let alone with the current situation. They have got family situations going on. You know what mechanics are like, we put on a brave face, we don’t talk about feelings – the whole mental health issue. For one or two I know it is going to be tough being isolated. “

Mike added: “We can’t solve those problems but we can at least be there to lend an ear and just say that we care and that we are looking after you. If you are an employee, that’s all you want really. You want the company to look out for you.”

Balance

With the situation being so fluid, we spoke to Mike a month later ,at the end of April, discovering Fields Car Centre had just reopened:

“We reopened on 20 April, “he confirmed. “We had a lot of work booked in, certainly during last week and the beginning part of this week. Some of the work was rescheduled from the period that was closed down. Right now, the phones are very quiet. The work that is coming in is ticking over, but not enough to keep all staff busy here. It looks like we will have to furlough a couple of people off.  The difficulty is just not knowing how long this is going to go on for. If you know it is going to be a fixed period of time, you can plan for that, but we really don’t know how much longer this will go on for.”

It is a balancing act as far as Mike is concerned: “The government are hopefully going to be easing slightly off soon. We all understand that, but we also understand the risks of a second peak. They have got to do what’s right, but businesses just want to get on and work. We can’t do that if people are told still to stay at home, and obviously they are not using their cars.”

On parts, Mike added: “Parts supply seems better, although some of the main dealers are not delivering. What we are hoping is that in the coming weeks they will start to come back and start to open up more, albeit with all the restrictions of social distancing.”

Bull Lane Garage

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