Billingborough Cars and Commercials

Aftermarket heads to Lincolnshire to find out more about Top Garage 2022 winners Billingborough Cars and Commercials

Published:  08 June, 2023

Nestled in the heart of the village of Billingborough in Lincolnshire, you will find Billingborough Cars and Commercials. “We're an old school garage with a modern twist,” explained Russ Houlden, Owner-Manager and grandson of the founder.
He continued: “Our workshops are dirty; Our techs still wear overalls and we're still willing to do engine rebuilds. We're prepared to do the big dirty jobs that other people don't want to do. We're happy to do the bigger jobs, but we are also capable of doing the smaller jobs. We do pretty much everything with wheels. We've got a customer with a mobility scooter. We also do lorries, six wheelers. We do American cars. We've been known to do restorations. There's nothing we don't touch, basically.”
As well as serving Billingborough itself, the customer base extends to a number of nearby villages. With five techs, the garage has three car ramps, one MOT bay and two lorry pits. “The workshop is, generally speaking, always busy,” explained Russ. “The majority of our customers are local people. Fortunately for us, Billingborough is bang in the middle of quite a lot of villages. We also have customers coming from quite a wide area to us, mainly based on our reputation.”
Unsurprisingly for a garage serving a rural area, the business began leaning on the agricultural side, opening in 1968 as Billingborough Tractors and Commercials. “My maternal grandfather, Gordon, started it with his business partner, eventually buying him out. The garage was based on the high street in Billingborough at the time. My grandfather then managed to find some land next to the school, and it grew bigger from there. We amalgamated the truck and car side on the site we're on now, and a lot of houses have been built around us since we have been here.”
They seemed to keep recruitment close to home: “My dad joined as a technician. He had been working as a roofer, but he had a fall and injured his back. He could already do the mechanics, so my grandad said ‘come to work in the garage until you are better’, and he never left. Then my mother joined to do the financial side, and she never left. I came in about eight years ago. They said, ‘Russ, do you want to answer the phone during the holidays?’ I haven’t left either. There's a recurring theme of asking family members to help and then them just not leaving.”

Since discovering escape is impossible, Russ has found himself leading the team, and has been looking to push the garage in the right direction where it is needed: “I inherited this place along with its older garage attitude of ‘it works so we won't change it’. Training has been a fairly new experience for some of the techs that we've got here, but, it's something I'm very keen on. While there are only two EVs in the village that we know about, and we don’t see them yet, we've already got people EV trained and ready to go. Everyone is trained on the diagnostic equipment, and we can do most cars, but we're sensible with the stuff we do take on. For example, we know not to take on a Peugeot with the 1.6 engine because it's going to be a right pain. We're aware of the stuff that we shouldn't be touching. It's come from years of experience. We’re honest with our customers enough to say ‘we can fix your key - it will take us 10 hours, but you can go to a key man who can do it in 10 minutes’. It's a trust thing.”

Top Garage
The garage was a winner in Top Garage 2022 in the 4-6 staff members category. Commenting on his experiences in the competition, Russ observed: “I'll be honest with you, I never expected to get as far as we did. I entered it with the thought of, wherever I stumble, that will be where I need to improve. So, I was going into it expecting not to win, I was expecting just to enter it, find where we're going wrong and then move forward. And we obviously kept getting through and I was thinking, I don't know what's going on, I don't know what's happening with just a little garage from Billingborough in Lincolnshire, in the county that no one really thinks about. And I looked at other garages that were in it and I thought we've got no chance. We showed up to the final, and I did the interview with the judges, and I remember walking out to my sister who drove me, and I was like, we've not won it. The first interview question they gave me was, ‘what would it mean to you if you won Top Garage?’ I said, ‘it wouldn't mean anything’. They were surprised by this. Then I explained that getting to the final is already justification enough that we're doing the right things. It's already proved to our customers that we're one of the best in the country. I can already say to the blokes, everything that we're doing is sending us in the right direction. If we win it, it's just the cherry on the top of the cake. I was very shocked when we were named. My sister screamed like a banshee, like I've never heard before. Genuinely, neither of us expected it. The ironic thing for us, for both me and my sister, was that the day of the final and the Awards Evening was the anniversary of our dad passing away, like everything coming full circle.”
He continued: “We are entering it again this year. Since winning, we've hired an apprentice, which will put us into the 7-9 category for 2023’s Top Garage contest. There have been a number of other changes too, including new tyre machines, new pit jacks, more analysis, better KPIs, new CCTV, a clearer plan, an organisational chart, more defined job roles, cashflow improvements, various training days, a new website, increased social media activity, cultural development, and that’s just the start. We encourage all the techs to enter Top technician, and get our Service Advisor into Service Advisor of the year. Then hopefully we can get a clean sweep. We're hoping to make it a double or even a triple, but you never know, do you?”

Processes and systems
On what comes next for the garage, Russ added: “We've already started doing a few different things here. It's only been fairly recently that we've gone to online job cards and paperless diaries. The tidying up of the yard and the workshop and everything is another big one for us, making more space.
“We tend to focus in on one thing and then push that. We've done equipment, culture, organisation. We are currently on processes and systems. There will be more training, hopefully a new roof with the possibility of solar panels, further cashflow developments, workflow analysis and KPI improvements. For our customers, we are looking to ease the experience using video technology and email reports. For the front-of-house we are hoping for payment from an email link, with training for FOH too. Basically, we are developing the business side for this first quarter. Then we'll go from there.”

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