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Keeping the wheels turning

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By Nicola St Clair, Editor

At the time of writing, we are entering the fifth week of lockdown. We are being urged not to relax the social distancing to prevent a secondary rise in infections but the public demand for an exit strategy is growing. Aftermarket analysts GiPA has been tracking the activity of 420 UK workshops to analyse the impact of COVID-19 and have just reported that 46% of the group are currently open for business and experiencing a significant fall in custom, as drivers settle into the lockdown routine and use their car only for essential travel. However, it is worth noting that this surveyed group also includes franchised dealers and fast fits.

The unprecedented financial support offered by the government has been a lifeline for workshops and the challenge of investigating complex faults has been replaced with navigating a way through the process of furloughing staff, applying for the Small Business Grant fund and for business rate relief. Accessing this funding has been somewhat of a postcode lottery and the Independent Garage Association (IGA) has written a follow-up letter to the Secretary of State regarding the inconsistency of local authorities’ classification of independent garages within business rate relief legislation.

Stuart James, IGA Chief Executive, stated: “We have spoken with many garages throughout the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic, and access to this rate relief* makes a difference to the length of time their business can survive with reduced or no income, despite being designated by the Government as an essential service. Although most garage premises are classed as industrial rather than retail, all member businesses are open to the public and offer services such as MOT testing and vehicle repairs, and goods including replacement parts. It is vital that garages remain open to ensure that key workers have safe and reliable vehicles, therefore they should have the same benefits as any other retail outlets.”

Stuart concludes: “We are working hard to obtain further clarification from the government, and in the meantime encourage members to cancel their direct debits and challenge their local authority.” *Two business rate relief documents, plus links to a wide range of resources for independent garages, can be found here.

A NEW WAY OF OPERATING

In the last issue, we spoke with Edward Grigg of Swanley Garage Services, who still had plenty of business booked in and had started to offer a contactless collection. We caught up with him to see how things had since developed.

“When the government announced the lockdown, I was faced with a difficult decision. Immediately my staff were asking if they should be coming to work the following morning. I asked everyone to come to work as normal so we could make a decision together. When it was confirmed that garages could stay open, we decided to let the reception staff work remotely from home by diverting the phone lines. The technicians were spread out over the two units, with two technicians in each and our collection and delivery driver was willing to continue on a ‘contactless’ basis. He would ask the customer to leave the key somewhere safe and before driving the car, he would clean all touch points and fit the appropriate VPE, including a seat cover, steering wheel cover and floor mat. He was also supplied with the appropriate PPE – gloves, masks and fully protective overalls.

“The first week of lockdown was still fairly busy for the garage. I think there was a sudden influx of customers wanting to get their cars repaired, serviced and MOT’d as quickly as possible. From the moment they announced the MOT 6-month extension, the business went very quiet and we received cancellation after cancellation. As a team, we decided to stay open for just five hours per day between 9am and 2pm and we’ll continue to operate like this until the lockdown is lifted. The five hours per day has allowed us to keep the key workers of Swanley moving. We have also had people visit from nearby towns as quite a few garages have shut their doors. We are only conducting work on the outside of the vehicle. We have been offering free MOT’s for NHS staff, which has received great feedback. Many of the customers are key workers and they are all very grateful for us staying open.

“Financially, we have not taken advantage of the furlough scheme, but we did receive the government grant and free business rates for one year. We are hoping that the grant, along with the reduced daily takings, will keep us going until the MOT’s are back to normal.

“I have seen a lot of debate online within the automotive community about whether or not to stay open and I have seen businesses being criticised for remaining open. I feel that it is not for people to judge but rather support. Nobody knows each other’s circumstances, so I think each individual business should just do what feels right for them.”

HELP FOR OWNER-MANAGERS OF LIMITED COMPANIES

In amongst the raft of help being provided by the government, there is one group for whom there is very little support; owner-managers of limited companies. A4G Accountants in West Kingsdown reports that in 2014/15, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated there were 1.8m people

in this category and over half of them earned less than £50,000 (the limited set by government for helping the self- employed). Most company owners structure their businesses by taking a small salary, paying Corporation tax on the majority of earnings and drawing dividends. Dividends are ignored for the purposes of support and is causing huge concerns for many of those people. A4G offers this advice for those of you in this position…

VAT deferral

If your business is VAT registered and have a VAT payment due between 20 March 2020 (Feb 2020 quarter end) and 30 June 2020 (April 2020 quarter end) we have been advising clients on the option to defer the payment until a later date in order to help manage your cash flow. It has been confirmed that HMRC will not charge interest or penalties on any amount deferred. If you decide to defer your VAT payment, you do not need to tell HMRC, but you still need to file the VAT return and you must catch up your debt on or before 31 March 2021.

If you normally pay by direct debit you should contact your bank to cancel your direct debit as soon as possible or cancel this online if you are registered for online banking.

Furloughing your small directors’ salary

Most directors take a tax-efficient salary of £715. If your company has no work for you to do other than basic statutory director responsibilities, you can furlough yourself and the company can claim back 80% of this cost. If you have a partner or spouse on the payroll this will double your entitlement (you will receive 80% of each salary rebated).

It would be usual for this amount to increase in April 2020 but abuses of this are likely to be challenged. Those whose companies are still trading but are concerned about how long that will be, need to consider very carefully their salary levels in April and beyond. See the highlighted box above for a link to HMRC’s guide to furloughing.

Company dividends

If your management accounts show you as a solvent company with retained profits, you are still able to draw dividends even if you are making no profit now. This will of course deplete your cash and affect your credit rating. That doesn’t stop you re-introducing all or part of it to the business as a director loan owed to you at a later date.

Personal mortgage holidays

For the majority of people, your mortgage will be your biggest outgoing each month. You should contact your mortgage lender to arrange a payment holiday. Even if you are able to continue making mortgage payments, it is worth taking advantage of the mortgage holiday to be able to put some money aside as a safety net, as we are unable to predict how long this will go on for and these holiday periods may get extended if this is to continue longer term.

Director expenses

Many directors are poor at keeping a record of their expenses and miss out on tax-free amounts. With time on your hands, ensure that you can claim for all your business expenses. This will then be money owed to you from the business tax-free, which will help maximise your personal income.

Personal saving tips

To save as much money as possible during Covid-19 it is important to maximise income and minimise spending. For more information and tips, please see our article on reducing your personal expenses at www.a4g-llp.co.uk/ blog/reducing-personal-expenses.

Applying for universal credit

Universal credit is a monthly payment to help with your living costs if you’re on a low income or out of work. To check if you are eligible and to apply visit www.gov.uk/universal- credit. Please note there are queues within the application process, so the quicker you apply, the better!

Business banking overdraft

One of the quickest ways to get your hands on some extra funds will be speaking to your business bank about increasing your overdraft limit. If you are registered for online banking, most banks will allow you to apply for this online.

A PROBLEM SHARED

We spoke to garage owner James Etherington at VDS Performance in Redhill who, like many others, found that he was entitled to very little government support, but has found online support invaluable during these challenging times, particularly the Automotive Support Group on Facebook.

“When lockdown was first announced, I must admit I was worried. Ironically, not for my own health but for the long-term health of my business. Anyone who runs their own business knows just how hard it can be normally, let alone faced with the situation we now find ourselves in. My immediate concern like most business owners is how am I going to stay in business long term, pay the bills, pay myself even? There was a lot of questions that needed answering.

“Five weeks on we find ourselves living the ‘new-normal’. Being a one-man operation has its limitations on a normal day but right now, I count myself lucky I do not have the staff, overheads and complications of a multi technician, big operation workshop.

“For me, the transition to the new-normal has been relatively straightforward, in part, due to the immense support some of the industry’s experts have shown during this time. There have been Facebook support groups, webinars and chats amongst technicians and business owners alike, which I think has really helped reassure me (as well as others I’m sure) that this difficult phase will pass and with a little careful planning we can limit the financial impact this has on our businesses.

“I decided the best solution for me was to remain open but work fewer hours, so that I was still available for key workers and regular loyal customers who genuinely needed a repair doing and also to be able to contribute to my overheads to ensure the business survived. Unfortunately, despite the various government pay out schemes I, like many other limited company directors, found myself entitled to very little.

“So, it was business as usual at VDS then? Well, not quite. A few changes were required to limit the risk to myself and my customers, all jobs were to be collected (reducing the traffic to site and subsequent contact) and each job was wiped down before and afterwards, with vehicle protection being used throughout. Overnight it had become a contactless operation, invoices were emailed at the end of each day and payment made by bacs or over the phone.

“Although it is a lot quieter than it usually would be, I am hopeful that the decisions I have made (reduced hours, payment breaks, doing a cash flow forecast etc) will allow me to recover quickly when lockdown is lifted. Also, the extra time I now have on my hands has allowed me to sort out all the odd jobs that I am usually too busy to do, as well as spend a lot more quality time at home with my family in-between jobs.

“I would just like to take this opportunity to thank James Dillon, Dave Massey, Tom Denton, Andy Savva, Andy Crook and Steve Scott for their efforts and time spent in setting up and contributing to their Facebook ‘Automotive Support Group’. Likewise, John Batten of Auto IQ for his supportive posts and words of wisdom. I believe they have helped a lot of people to navigate their way through this difficult time. To all of Autotechnician’s readers –

I’d just like to say, stay safe. Together we will get through this. See you all on the other side.”

SUPPORT FROM SUPPLIERS

Two weeks after the lockdown was announced, the Alliance Automotive Group stepped up for its AutoCare and United Garage Services network members, by providing a two-month payment holiday. Trading Group Managing Director Bob Ackroyd said: “Whilst the vast majority of garages appear to be remaining open, many are on reduced hours and skeleton staffing. It is therefore more important than ever that we do what we can to support them.” AutoCare and United Garage Services continue to provide its technical helpline, online training courses and approved garages lead generation.

The Parts Alliance was also quick off the mark to freeze membership fees paid by its national garage network, Servicesure. This proactive offer was received very well by workshops who had been in the process of trying to reduce monthly outgoings, experiencing varying degrees of success with aftermarket suppliers. Colourspray Auto Services in Merseyside offers MOTs, servicing and bodywork, and took the difficult decision to close the business on 28th March. “It’s not about the amount of money saved, it’s the fact that Servicesure offered it unprompted as a way of supporting us,” said owner Graham Young. “The support we’ve had from Servicesure, CES and The Parts Alliance has been great.

It’s easy to make promises when the going’s good, but it’s times like this when you really know who’s there for you. Graham reiterated a sentiment that resonates for all of us I’m sure: “I know we’ll come out the other side of this and we’ll remember the people who stood by us and supported us however they could.” www.servicesureautocentres.com/become-a-servicesure-garage.

HELPING THE CAUSE

The silver lining to the current pandemic is seeing how people have pulled together during a crisis and the number of people going above and beyond to help family, friends and complete strangers. The aftermarket is no exception, with manufacturers and distributors contributing their resources and expertise to help with the challenges COVID-19 has presented. Here is a brief overview of just some of the ways our industry has been helping out:

Battery manufacturer GS Yuasa have supplied its VRLA batteries to NHS Nightingale hospitals, which will be used as standby backup power in Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) systems.

Total UK Limited is supplying free jet fuel to both the Essex & Herts Air Ambulance Trust and the Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS) during the Covid-19 pandemic. Paul McManus, Head of Facilities at GNAAS, said: “We are extremely grateful to Total UK for supporting us during this incredibly challenging time. We really do need all the help we can get, so this is one less thing for us to worry about.”

Diamondbrite, known for their paint and fabric protection systems, have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by switching half of its production capability to manufacturing its new Hand Sanitiser, Surface Sanitiser, Velvet Soap and Carbon Class Antibacterial Cleaner products. The company has donated Hand and Surface Sanitiser to NHS sites across the UK. MD Lance Boseley, said: “We saw an issue with the availability of hand sanitiser at the very start, and as a chemical manufacturer, knew we could help. Since then we have shifted 50% of our production over to these new products and have been able to supply the MOD, doctors’ surgeries and nurses at local hospitals free of charge as a result.” The four products are available via its web shop www.diamondbrite.co.uk with free UK delivery on orders over £20.

Euro Car Parts is supporting the AA’s new partnership with the London Ambulance Service, supplying parts to keep NHS staff on the road. Andy Hamilton, CEO at Euro Car Parts, said: “The aftermarket has a critical role to play in keeping key workers moving at this time. We’re proud to supply parts to roadside recovery services like the AA, and in turn, to their partners in the NHS, to ensure ambulance crews can reach patients who are in need.”There are many individuals at branches also doing their bit – a Euro Car Parts sales advisor in Cannock helped a vulnerable pensioner who was unable to go to collect her medicine prescription because her car was off-road. The sales advisor located the part needed to fix her vehicle in branch and arranged for a mobile mechanic to visit her so that it could be repaired as quickly as possible.

MAHLE, and clothing manufacturer Triumph Holding, have joined forces to manufacture face masks. The aftermarket supplier is providing a filter medium for the respiratory masks that is FFP3 rated and absorbs viruses. “At MAHLE we are currently exploring all means available to us to help in this emergency situation – with our technical know-how, test labs, clean rooms, and also our production facilities.” The company is also examining the possibility of additionally producing hot-formed masks in-house as well employing 3D printers to manufacture components for face masks as well as other medical equipment.

Schaeffler donated one million euros to the Red Cross for the fight against COVID-19. “We have the greatest respect for all people who maintain our infrastructure with extraordinary commitment in this exceptional situation. With our donation we want to express our gratitude and respect to the doctors and medical nurses who are doing superhuman work in the fight against COVID-19 these days,” said family shareholder and Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Georg F. W. Schaeffler.

The Parts Alliance has donated prizes from its recent ‘Original Experience’ promotion to NHS staff, food banks and carers.

The Parts Alliance has spread a little cheer by donating prizes from its recent ‘Original Experience’ promotion to NHS staff, food banks and carers. With the promotion’s unplanned early finish, thousands of food prizes, such as snack boxes and chocolate eggs were leftover across the distributers branch network.

GS Yuasa has supplied its VRLA batteries to NHS Nightingale hospitals, which will be used as standby backup power in their Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) systems

MANAGING YOUR MENTAL WELLBEING

With so much out of our control at the moment, it’s understandable that we feel more anxious at times and may sometimes feel overwhelmed. Personally, when I feel a bit wobbly, I tend to get stuck into clearing up and find that having a good sort out helps me reclaim some feeling of control, with the added benefit of achieving a well- organised room/laptop/office space or Spotify account! I have seen a fair few garages do the same of late. While I think it’s important to stay motivated, make plans and use this rare downtime productively, I think it is equally important not to put too much pressure on ourselves. Social media has been inundated with YouTube videos, blogs and Instagram posts on ways we can use our time effectively by becoming fitter, bilingual, to eat healthier, home school effectively, start an online training course… the list is endless. It’s certainly not going to do you any favours moping around all day in your pyjamas worrying about what’s going to happen, but equally it’s not helpful to feel like we have to be new, improved versions of ourselves post-lockdown. Be sure to do your homework, tighten the belt to reduce costs and prepare that business plan to kick ass post-lockdown but remember to be kind to yourself.

Our bookkeeping friends at A4G have pulled together some ideas from Mind into a template that can be viewed/downloaded here, providing practical advice on how to manage anxiety in these strange times. If you are an owner/manager, you can send this out to your staff as it is or
adapt it to suit your business, depending on whether your employees are still working or have been furloughed. Either way, your staff will appreciate you keeping in touch and caring about their mental wellbeing.

On a final note, we’ll hand over to workshop owner James Etherington with five things that have helped him to keep him going in the past few weeks:

  • Source as much information as you can about the situation and make the right decision for your business. Talk to other business owners.
  • Make a financial plan for short, medium and long term (12 months) so you can clearly see the financial affect this is having on your business and how long it will take to recover.
  • Stay busy! Get all those outstanding odd jobs done.
  • Spend quality time with family.
  • Enjoy the respite – take the time to relax and enjoy the simple things in life. It’s not often we get the chance when we’re running around worrying about the day to day running of our businesses.

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