autotechnician visits Britannia MOT & Repair Centre in Aylesford who make full use of the trade’s business support to overcome challenges and take on new opportunities, while the husband-and-wife team pass on their support to its staff, customers and local hospice.
I pull up to Britannia, which sits in the heart of an industrial estate in Aylesford, North Kent. The workshop has a prime position, surrounded by car dealers and retail units, and judging by the number of cars in the workshop, my first impressions are that business is good.
Husband and wife team Mick and Roz Bentley oversee the technical and operational side, respectively. Mick moved around independents straight out of school and came to Britannia in 2002. “The garage had been open 14 months when I started here, an elderly couple had opened it later in life. I worked
for them for about a year then started running it. As they got into health problems about twelve years ago, I bought in and eventually bought the rest of it. We have five technicians, across four bays and an MOT bay. We don’t specialise, we’re a general repair garage – there’s very little we turn away. We service all makes, up to time and chain replacements, engine replacements, anything.”
Rather than being a threat to the local dealers they have become part of their support network, and they’re getting busier all the time. Their diagnostic armoury includes Snap-on equipment, Delphi tooling and a Bosch KTS. They often use Opus for its technical support, when performing software downloads and using its remote service (IVS 360) for more complex tasks.“Where Opus are good,”explains Mick,“if it’s something that’s not on their system, they’ve still been able to access it remotely and get to the bottom of it for us. They’re quick coming back to us too. The younger ones like it down there as they can contact them via an app on the tablet.”There’s not one piece of kit that will do everything, so they are looking to invest in a new piece of diagnostic equipment – one of the reasons they are heading to Automechanika Birmingham, 6-8 June.
Mick and Roz place a high priority on training. “Everyone apart from Cam, who’s only just recently joined us, is now Level Three mechanical, Level Three hybrid & EV. We did the Hybrid/EV through the IGA, they offer members a discount on those. We’ve just signed up with Euro Car Parts (LKQ Training Academy) for another 20 training days and 20 online courses as well.”
Support through the tough times
Roz is set to do some mental health courses with the St John Ambulance so they can better support their staff – a requirement that was realised following the pandemic lockdown, which they both found tough. Roz explains: “It was like through no fault of our own, business was failing around us. Every job rung up and cancelled, the phone didn’t ring, the diary was empty…” But they’ve come back stronger: “We came back with the best year we’ve ever had the year after that and now we’re on course to beat that, not by a terrific amount, but with the cost of living, we’re still grateful for that.”
They’ve introduced Pay Assist to help customers spread the cost of unexpected bills and provide discounts through a loyalty scheme, which is proving popular and has really helped some people. “It’s better that someone gets the work done and can spread the cost rather than having a car that’s dangerous and really needs the work.”
The couple have accessed the support available from automotive charity Ben, to help a previous employee who was struggling. “He had some sessions, ultimately it didn’t resolve it but it was nice to be able to offer that, ”commented Roz.“ We know our staff really well, we are a little family, but everyone has got their own lives, partners, kids, their family problems. You can’t help bringing them with you to work at times. So, it’s just trying to manage that.”
They are signed up to The Motor Ombudsman, which provides an arbitration service between customers and garages when complaints escalate but have not had use this to date. Mick says: “We should never get to the point of having customer complaints that accelerate that badly. We should be able to deal with it.”
“We have a lot of dealings with the IGA, they have been absolutely amazing,” says Roz. “In addition to the training, they were really useful during COVID, they helped us get a reduction on our rates which we didn’t know we were entitled to. We fell into this bracket where we didn’t get much support and without furlough, I’m not sure what we’d have done. But they were really helpful.”
Mick is keen to highlight the service and support provided by Garage Services Online. “They’re fantastic. We’ve been online since ’94 but we’ve had a lot of problems with websites.” Roz says the original site was enormous and resembled the Yellow Pages with far too much content. Mick found two or three garage websites he liked that had been built by Garage Services Online and got in contact with them. “We had a lot of involvement on how we wanted it – what the tabs should be, how we wanted it to look. The relationship with them is fantastic.”“They’re really intuitive because it’s what they specialise in, rather than the people we’ve been with in the past who hosted websites for hairdressers, building firms…” adds Roz. Following their guidance and How-To guides, Roz can make amendments to the site, which is something she’s not been able to do before and rather enjoys. “With previous hosts, if we just wanted to put, say, five pounds on a price of the service and MOT offer, it would take them a month to alter and they’d charge us for it; with Garage Services it’s the same day or next day and it’s done.”
Since the new searchable site was launched one year ago, they have noticed an influx of new customers that are in their late 20’s, early 30’s – a group more comfortable with sourcing services online.
Finding and keeping the right staff…
“There’s been a bit of a domestic down in the workshop,” Mick chuckles. “Becky’s been with us a couple of years and we’ve just taken her boyfriend on! We’ve got to keep staff numbers up because of the amount we’re doing here but finding staff in this trade now is impossible.”
They poached Cam from another garage, but he was clearly ready to leave. Mick explains, “He’d been there since he did his apprenticeship. There’s a fear of leaving your first garage because you think all the skills you’ve got are because of the people around you but he’d been neglected, and he had only done his Level Two and was being paid minimum wage. He did the first part of his MOT training last week here, which has given him the Level Three access. He kept telling Becky he had massive boss envy. We do look after them, but we appreciate what they do for us”. The team regularly go out socially together with their partners, to get a change of scenery and touch base with everyone outside of work.
Their landlord retired last year and gave them first refusal, they didn’t particularly want the additional stress of buying the premises but had a great relationship with him and didn’t want another landlord coming onboard so took the leap. The ‘straightforward sale’ took seven months but with hindsight has worked out well. “The plus side is now we can make workshop plans; there’s a new mezzanine going in. There seems to be this conception with EVs that they should be looked after somewhere akin to an operating room. So, we’re going to change the whole look of the workshop, spread all the ramps down one side, get the floor painted, have fitted toolboxes in each bay, EV chargers, we’re going to go for it!”
“I went through the period where the first electronics come out on cars and so many people just didn’t want to know, so they shut down. Then it happened again with the MOT computerization, and I can see we’re heading into another period where people can’t be bothered to keep up with the training, when EVs start getting more problems.”But they have begun the training and are getting EV customers from miles around.
“A lot of that is coming through HEVRA – they’re really good people to deal with, a real passion to them as well, which is nice. Rather than wait until everyone’s trying to make their daily money out of EVs, it’s better for us to get in beforehand and learn it at a slower rate”.
Through the LKQ Academy they want to remain a touch ahead of the game and get the staff trained up to Level Four Hybrid/EV, and to gain advanced diagnosis skills.
They try to update customers a couple of times a week on Facebook, sharing cautionary horror stories, an unusual car or classic that comes through the shutter doors. I suggest that a lot of people would also appreciate the way they look after their staff and if people must spend money on their vehicle, they’d rather give it to an independent, family business who are doing business in a good way. Mick enjoyed seeing a recent recommendation for them on the Aylesford Facebook page. “Someone new to the area was looking for a local garage. A competitor responded with, ‘What do you want done, mate?’ One of our customers went on there and said ‘Use Britannia. They’re awesome and they support local charities’. Having our own customers promoting us like that, that’s gold.”
I had researched feedback on the business and could see many longstanding customers whose entire family’s fleet of vehicles had been looked after them for years, praising their honest, transparent and friendly nature. One recommendation came from a regular customer who sent his daughter who had just passed her test along to them alone, because they knew that she’d get treated properly there. “I’ve always found that a really nice comment – a lot of women are paranoid to go into garages, let alone at that age.
“Women are easier to deal with on the counter because you get past the ‘men know about cars’ nonsense, says Mick. “Women will actually just explain far easier what the problems are, where a man will stand and tell you, ‘Oh, I know what this is’. That’s why Becky is such a good mechanic. She’s got a very different view to it. She’s more methodical, puts a lot more thought into it. She’s also more academic than the rest of us down there, she’s straight into the technical documents – when we sent her on her EV course, she beat every bloke in the room hands down, which was expected.”
“This could well be a three-year degree course now and you would still come out wanting.” I agree, mentioning that the best technicians I have ever met have said they are learning every day. “That’s what I’m enjoying more now, when the problem with my hand started, I was not happy I’d come off the tools at all, but with hindsight, it’s worked better, because when we got them three down there at that age, I can now spend my day mentoring, guiding, passing skills on, which is nice.”
This shift in focus has also instigated a relationship with their local Heart of Kent Hospice. They have a not-for-profit agreement on their fleet of eight vehicles – they do not charge labour, for MOTs, or parts; getting these at cost-price from Euro Car Parts, GSF and Motor Parts Direct.
The Hospice helped Roz’s father when he was very unwell, and the team are happy about the role they play to ease one of the hospice’s burdens. Roz explains: “It’s not part of the NHS; they have some funding but nowhere near what they need to run it. It’s an incredible place”. David, the Hospices’ Corporate Partnership Manager, has said: ‘Partnering with local businesses is so valuable to the hospice. The support we receive from Britannia helps to keep our fleet on the road while saving money. There’s an obvious caring ethos among the whole team at the garage who all willingly seek out proactive ways to continue their support. It’s this generous community support which helps us to be there for patients and their families that need our care.’
“With garages, there’s such a reputation of everyone getting ripped off and it’s nice to try and change it a little bit. It’s been a real eye-opener with the hospice. It was a shock to me how many customers were coming in and saying thank you for doing it, as they’ve helped with relatives.”
The garage is an IAAF finalist this year for ‘Best single site garage’ and ‘Community Support Award’. We wish them the very best and will no doubt be hearing more about their incredible journey in the future.