Specialising – The key to success?

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The recent industry report from Automechanika suggested that we may see an increasing number of garages specialising due to the investment needed to be an all-makes repairer and we will see more local support networks set up who refer work outside their remit. Autotechnician talks to workshops who are involved in DPF diagnostics, tuning, EV repair and maintenance and marques specialists to discover the challenges and opportunities for generalist and specialist repairers. Specialising – The key to success?

Staying on top of new technologies is the biggest, ongoing challenge to independent workshops, as vehicle manufacturers develop new systems to reduce emissions, increase autonomous functions, and hybrid and electric vehicles continue to surge in popularity. Although many businesses put off training in these areas, believing they’re unlikely to see them in their businesses anytime soon, autonomous safety systems have been around for years and those who are not aware of how routine repairs can impact its accuracy, and have the correct tooling and training in place for ADAS calibration, will face duty of care implications and have to turn away business. Auto:resource stated in its recent State of the Aftermarket report, ‘Investment is the biggest challenge in the independent workshop, with the need for new tools and equipment, spending on training and ensuring the workshop is safe. We could, therefore, see garages start to work together, forming local mini-networks where each specialises in a certain technology or manufacturer, and recommends others when the customer’s car falls outside their criteria’.

“Although the internal combustion engine won’t completely disappear anytime soon, there is a fast development cycle and the advent of electrified vehicles and the proportion of vehicle parc they represent will grow rapidly. This is happening sooner than many believe and it’s important that technicians do not put off training.”

Steve Nash, IMI

In addition, workshops are being urged to maximise market share as the six-month boom resulting from the MOT extension fades. Offering a new service could resolve future lulls in work… Here, we talk to a few technicians who have carved out a niche for themselves.

“BEING A SPECIALIST IS AN OPPORTUNITY”

Marque specialist – Gareth Davies, Euro Performance

Gareth Davies - Euro Performance

Euro Performance is a multibrand discipline specialist looking after German branded vehicles from the whole of the VAG group, Mercedes Benz, BMW and Mini. They also look after a few non fraternal brands for regular customers that include Bentley, Porsche and Smart. Autotechnician spoke to Gareth to find out how and why he took this path.

“My heart has always been true to VAG brands. My first project car was my older brothers ’83 mk1 Golf GTI which I saved my father from scrapping at 14 years of age. I probably put more effort in to preparing the car mechanically and for paint in the years leading up to my GCSEs with the help of a Haynes manual, than I did studying. My parents had always owned German brand vehicles (apart from a brief love affair with the Italians) and I was Volkswagen mad. When the time came to get an apprenticeship, naturally Volkswagen was the number 1 choice.

“In the early days of trying to earn a living self-employed I did anything and everything. I had a reasonable client base due to being heavily involved with a local VW enthusiast club but putting engines in Nissan Cabstars for local businesses and timing belts on Vauxhall Astras all put money in the pot. This went on probably until around 2009 when I started to see complications trying to be everything to everyone. In addition, selfishly, I really only like working on the brands I favour. The theory was beginning to creep in that ‘the more you do/work on something, the more efficient you become’. That element coupled with the ‘must make this work’ message started to get the cogs turning around basic efficiency and profitability.”

What tooling and equipment do you use?

“We have multiple quantities of the dealer tools for the brands. ODIS for VAG, ISTA for BMW, XENTRY for Mercedes, and a host of other non-dealer tools such as VCDS, Pico Scope, Bosch KTS, Snap On, Autologic/Opus, Topdon Artipad, VCP and AVDI. Why do we have so many tools? Well, we have six technicians on the shop floor including myself. There is virtually no job that comes through the door that doesn’t require a diagnostic tool of some sort. We all come from different backgrounds and so have different levels of experience. It is a well-known fact that diagnostically you should always consider the task before picking your weapon. The more tools you have, the more flexibility you possess in terms of efficiency. This isn’t a rule, just something that works for our business. If you’ve ever watched the Matrix, then consider me Neo at the point where Tank asks him ‘What do you need?’ “Guns, lots of Guns”.

“There are so many tasks these days that cannot be performed without the correct tooling. This is a constantly evolving inventory as an independent specialist. It requires constant monitoring – patterns of faults and vehicles coming through the workshop, to ensure you always have the necessary gear to perform the task. Data is also key. We have packages with AllData, Autodata, and use the dealer portals as required – some are on annual info subscription, for example BMW’s AIR resource, and then individually with other brands, as required.”

What obstacles have you faced?

“Lack of planning and foresight on my part has been the biggest obstacle in the earlier days. I like to think that as I have developed as a business owner and technician, my ability to see farther forward has improved. I’d do it all over again if I had the chance, but I’d naturally make different choices knowing what I know now. I think to anyone thinking of specialising, you should consider your market carefully. I was driven purely by emotion and experience. But as Andy Savva once said on a course, he’d look around, do his research and, depending on area and demographic, he’d see where there were opportunities. After all, being a specialist is an opportunity. It offers something different to an all makes service and repair centre. Not in a derogatory way, but something different. Get prepared, understand what is really needed to be a specialist. There are so many factors other than a dealer tool in this day and age. Demand, skilled labour, resource, tooling, customer base, economic offering, they are just some of the factors that should, in my opinion, be considered. Winging it on some fronts, is not for the faint hearted.

Has it been worth it?

“Yes, it has, definitely. There are many advantages, but the highlights would be task proficiency and thus profitability. Inside knowledge within the internal talent pool means 9 times out of 10, someone’s seen it or done it before. This is really helpful when mentoring apprentices and building confidence in a workforce. It also helps with the Front Of House side of things. It is difficult to know all service schedules on all makes and models. The amount our FOH team can advise on, or not be out-foxed on at the initial enquiry stage, is remarkable, simply through brand saturation and task repetition. I suppose a bit like ‘Daniel Son’ from the Karate Kid. Four moves, each perfected through relentless repetition. I mean we’re more than a one trick pony, but you get my drift.”

Do you plan to add any other specialist services? How do you see your business evolving?
“We are looking at the prospect of offering performance tuning alongside our current operation, only for the brands we specialise in. We are also creating a Hybrid/EV avenue to the business. The mission is to be the most reputable specialist in South Wales, that won’t change. Further evolution in the grand scheme of things, not really no. Staying fresh, open to changing technologies, trying to exceed in terms of quality and experience, they are all part of a business’s evolution in my opinion, without maybe the grandeur of a new tool, or new offering. I think when you specialise, that prospect of investment becomes an accepted course of the path you have chosen. For an independent, without specialising, it becomes much more of a feasibility study.”

Do you think this kind of set-up will become more common?
“What’s worked for me, might not work for others. I think the concept of specialising is far from new. There are many motivations to specialising. I think when you evaluate the complexity of modern technology in vehicles, and the pace of change, I believe it’s harder and a different challenge/dynamic to be everything to everyone now than what it was 15/20 years ago. I mean ask yourself this; how many times a week do you say to customers – ‘sorry you’ll have to go to a specialist for that’. Why are you not that specialist? The difference being with us, we receive a few calls a week saying that they have been recommended to us by customer X. When we gather some details about the vehicle and requirement, and soon realise it’s not our brand, it’s a ‘sorry we can’t help but thanks for the enquiry’. This costs a lot less at the phone call stage than the invested labour and time of later referring them to a specialist/ dealer.

“A recent recruit from an independent background asked me, “Does anything that comes through the door not phase you?” My response was “Not really no. It wouldn’t be in here if we couldn’t do it”. A phrase that could be perceived as arrogance, but far from it. It is confidence in knowing you’re only selling time (which is what we do as tech/business owners) on a problem/fault/job. You already know you’ve a good chance of solving it. This is where, as discussed above, you pick your weapons and armoury carefully before you commence battle.”

Race car prep and tuning

“KNOW WHO YOU ARE TRYING TO BE”

Race car preparation and tuning – Andy Crook, GotBoost

Autotechnician contributor & Big Day out presenter Andy Crook is perhaps best known for his diagnostic expertise in his repair workshop and as a trainer, but up until recently, a significant part of his business, since 1999, was through GotBoost Racing – specialising in motorsport related activities, including race car preparation, trackside support, testing, driver tuition, engine tuning and training.

“There are a number of reasons for the choice of being a specialist instead of a generalist, and in the early days, it was not a business decision,” Andy tells AT. “It was about passion; building and preparing racing cars, the buzz from being at the circuit – the camaraderie between the team and drivers was simply addictive.”

“But as most people in motorsport will tell you, ‘if you want to make a small amount of money from motorsport, start with a large amount’. So, after the recession of 2008, we were far more focused on how to make racing work alongside the activities that had underpinned the business during these lean times.

“The skills required to prepare racing cars lend themselves to modifying and tuning road cars, which led to a workshop, and then a chassis dynamometer, or rolling road. We used our motorsport heritage to differentiate us from other tuning companies, as we could provide evidence of our expertise in the form of championships and race victories.”

In 2015, they were asked to set up a racing team, including providing the staff and sourcing all the necessary infrastructure to race in the Ginetta GT5 championship. “This method of getting back into national level competitive motorsport required little in the way of financial risk for GotBoost,” he tells us, “we were simply hired to build and run a racing team, what could possibly go wrong?”

What equipment do you need for this set-up?

“The support package for an ‘arrive and drive’ – where the driver simply turns up, straps in and drives onto the circuit – requires a huge amount of infrastructure. Race car transport, which doubles up as a mobile garage and offices, is one of the biggest assets, alongside awnings, flooring, sponsor boards and lighting rigs. To support the cars for the duration of the event you need spares and refuelling rigs, laptops, onboard cameras, and data suite software such as the AIM system used on the Ginetta G40. We use a Flat Patch – a rig that allows you to place the car on a level surface for suspension adjustments, and have a golf buggy for transporting drivers and sponsors around the paddock. We also have a quad and trailer to transport tyres and the in-race tools to the pits, such as air bottles for the air jacks fitted to the car. This rolling workshop represents an investment that would cost around £200,000 – £250,000 to replace today.”

What problems have you encountered?

“In the short time we had been away, the level of professionalism in the paddock had increased, which has removed some of the fun. Walking around the support paddock of a British Touring Car Championship Round and you will no longer see as many enthusiastic amateurs working out of a van and gazebo. Instead, you will encounter professional race teams, many of which specialise in providing support to a single series or marque, such as we have with the Ginetta G40. This means the cost of entry has increased and attracting drivers without offering the full support package is all but impossible.

“Legislation changes led to financial difficulties for the company that hired us to set up the racing team, this resulted in GotBoost acquiring the race team and its assets in 2017. The following few seasons made it clear that juggling too many balls at once meant something had to give. In our case, we took our eye off the workshop side of the business. Racing took up too much of our time, reducing the opportunity to cover the costs incurred by running the workshop, and with not enough extra income from racing to cover the shortfall, we were making a loss.”

Has it been worth it?

“A niche needs to be an inch wide and a mile deep, as the saying goes. Finding your niche and serving it well is a sure way to succeed, but only if the niche is deep enough to supply enough customers. You need to ‘own’ your niche and be prepared to defend it from others who will see the same opportunity as you. But be aware, if all your income is from one source then any changes will have an impact on your business – both positive and negative. Covid-19 has resulted in fewer opportunities in the motorsport space, so we have had to look to other opportunities and ways to utilise our assets to maximise the return.”

How do you see your business evolving?

“We are planning to offer a track day service where the ‘client’ can experience the full race support package, with driver tuition, data analysis and a shiny truck with a heated or air- conditioned office on hand. Other areas we are hoping to explore are wheel alignment and electric vehicle conversions, building on our skills preparing and building race cars.

Can a general repair workshop continue to thrive?

“The old adage ‘specialise to survive’ has never been more relevant, what with the complexity of modern vehicles and the levels of investment in training, equipment and product knowledge necessary to fix everything on a specific vehicle. However, a good generalist, who knows the limitations of their workshop, can also run a profitable business. The key here is to know what you are trying to be, then ensure everything you do re-enforces that message to your customers and potential customers.

“The generalist has the advantage that they can appeal to more customers with a wide variety of services, where the specialist will have fewer potential customers. This point of difference should be reflected in the charges for these services. You would expect to pay more for a specialist’s services, and the value of this expertise should be renumerated. Would you want to pay a dentist by the hour? Or would you value the speed at which they relieve you of your toothache? Generalists on the other hand tend to exchange time for money, selling workshop hours as the main method of generating income. The disadvantage of this is someone will always do it cheaper, and it is harder to differentiate one generalist from another. The MOT charge is a good example of this race to be the cheapest to sell more units.”

EMBRACING EV

According to the SMMT, in the last year, sales of pure Electric Vehicles have risen by 185.9% and as of September 2020, more than 164,100 EVs were on the road. EV registrations have been growing every year since 2013, which means that it’s now not uncommon for an EV to be entering the workshop, so technicians need to be prepared or risk having to refuse work.

“For the future of my 60-year-old, family businesses, I decided to invest in electric vehicles a few years ago, “says Matt Cleevely of Cleevely Motors, and Cleevely Electric Vehicles. “Personally, I’m heavily invested in renewable energy – with solar, battery storage and rainwater harvesting installed at my home and I wanted to learn and develop my own skills professionally. I took training and bought a Nissan Leaf, not fully prepared for the difference it would make to our lives at home and work.

“Our business has benefited hugely from being involved in Electric Vehicles in the early days. We now have a second-hand EV sales centre and service and repair multiple EV’s every day through the workshop. I absolutely love the way EV’s drive and no-longer own a combustion engine myself.

“I’m looking forward to what the future holds for my business, as we are seeing such a growth in EV work, investment in additional workshop space and staff is now my task too.”

Read how Matt Cleevely steered his business down the electric avenue here: http://bit.ly/WorkshopVisit

Further information: The Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Repair Alliance, HEVRA, created by Peter Melville, is a network of independent workshops across the UK who are supported by unlimited technical support and advice on EV & hybrid servicing and repair. Find out more at https://hevra.org.uk/.

“WE HAVE BEEN ON A JOURNEY TO BECOME THE ‘GO TO’ GARAGE IN THE AREA”

DPF diagnostics specialist – Barry Lawson, Ewan Lawson Motors

Ewan Lawson motors is a family run garage located in Larbert, near Falkirk. The business opened in 1983 and has been run as a general garage ever since. As the garage is well established in the area, they have a great customer base and have always offered servicing and repairs to all makes and models. “Around five years ago, we realised as a business we were falling behind the times and we were having to turn away problem jobs due to a lack of training and investment over the years,” explains Barry.

“Over the last five years we have been on a journey to become ‘the go to’ garage in our area. First, we joined the DPF Doctor network, then embarked on training at Auto iQ and invested heavily in diagnostic equipment and specialist tooling. This has allowed us to gradually build the business to a much healthier state. We also took on a second unit where we installed a Class 7 MOT bay to accompany our existing 3-bay workshop. We still carry out general repairs and servicing along with the DPF work, in which we specialise in. We have picked up a lot more trade diagnostic work and have also added more staff to our team.”

What tooling have you invested in?

“We found ourselves struggling with DPF work and this led us to contact Darren Darling, the DPF Doctor. Once we joined the network and met up with other garage owners, we quickly realised how much we had to learn and how much tooling we needed to buy in order to carry out this diagnostic work.

“Over the last five years we have gone from one aftermarket diagnostic tool to having Autel, Autocom and G-Scan to accompany many manufacturer-specific diagnostic tools such as Odis, ISTA, IDS/FDRS, PSA Diagbox along with registering on manufacturer portals. We need this variety in tooling to cover software updates in modules that are part of the repair process.”

“The pandemic has set us back, but we are currently working on adding EV/hybrid vehicles to our specialist services.”

Have you struggled with the change in direction?

“The biggest obstacle was changing our mindset in the way the business was run. Instead of looking back and thinking that is the way things have always been done, looking to the future and being in touch with other like-minded people who want to progress in the trade pulls you and your business forward. This can be done by joining a network such as SimplyDiag. Steve Scott has been a great help to us and helped me change my diagnostic process when I went on a drive around with him.

Barry Lawson, Ewan Lawson Motors

“The hard work and investment is now paying off and the business has come on leaps and bounds from where we were five years ago. The advantages in the investment and knowledge means that we can charge more for work, we attract better customers, and we can offer a higher quality of service. The customers want to maintain their vehicles to a higher standard and don’t want to work down to a price.

“I think independent workshops should have an area in which they specialise in, whether it be a specific make or specific area of a vehicle, as technology advances it is very hard to keep up with all aspects of the vehicle for every brand.”

Frank Harvey, IGA Head of Member Services at the Independent Garage Association, told AT: “It is clear that vehicle technology is advancing at pace and the investment required by independent garages to be ‘All Makes’ capable is becoming increasingly prohibitive. To counter this, we are seeing an increasing number of independent garages focus their skills, knowledge, and resources on a few vehicle marques, usually from the same stable. However, for some local independent garages, moving away from being an ‘All Make’ solution would impact on their local community, especially in some rural areas where the local garage is almost a community utility.

“Access to data is also becoming increasingly costly and this too is likely to drive independents to specialise on a few vehicle marques, along with the increasing number of alternative fuel vehicles being registered; a future that sees local independent garages forming working collectives to enable traditional levels of customer service is a distinct possibility.”

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