Tales from the workshop floor – in conjunction with Peter Warman of AFS Ltd and UKAT, from Redhill, Surrey, Iain Robertson reveals the ingenuity, enterprise and ‘right-place, right-time’ energy that keeps a one-man-garage-business buoyant, even in times of remarkable hardship.
Some people make their good fortune, while others (somehow) have great fortune foisted upon them. There was no intentional discussion about the raging pandemic and its impact on the garage scene, mainly because Peter Warman spotted a tremendous consolidation opportunity, without borrowing up to the hilt (“You only have to pay it back!”, says Warman), to tidy up his own business during the period the rest of us may recall as ‘Lockdown’.
“I tried to obtain a few tins of grey paint,” he explains, “to make the floor of my workshop unit look as respectably clean as the high-tech customers’ cars that I service, after all, they can ‘expect’ it. Problem was, I was not alone in sprucing up my business…”
Peter is a singularly respectable chap. Dare I state that he is in his 66th year? As fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog (“Thanks to my cycling and keep fit regime.”), he believes that his secret for longevity lies in good health and that includes his mind. Yet, Peter has never actually worked for anybody else but himself. “I finished my apprenticeship, having learned about tooling, lathe-work and engineering,” he outlines, “and almost immediately set-up my business, in 1977, in a small factory unit, which belonged to Monotype Ltd. As a print-orientated business, employing around 3,000 staff, I made a pitch for their vehicle servicing business and never had time to look back!”.
However, Monotype was living on borrowed time, with the technological march occurring in the print industry. It tried but failed to keep abreast of developments and having developed the site into several individual units, it was sold to another developer. As a long-term, rent paying resident, Peter was on solid ground. Eventually, after some wrangling, he acquired the freehold to his premises (“…and I have not looked back!”).
Aware that he might be the luckiest mechanic on the planet, as other businesses moved into the neighbouring units, one large tech-orientated company, with a fleet of company cars, also moved on site. Peter was not slow off the mark in securing their service business, just as he had done for Monotype and its fleet of Austin-Rover products.
Yet, it is worth highlighting that Peter actually does truly little heavy-duty maintenance, preferring, quite ingeniously, to sub-contract the meatier tasks to other specialists in the Redhill area. “I do not pull the wool,” he states categorically, “as my main customers know how I work. I have specialists for clutches, turbos, gearboxes and engine overhauls. My work is the FMCG (that’s ‘Fast Moving Consumer Goods’) of the garage scene. I open the garage doors at 7.00am and by 6.00pm, the daily list is completed, I text them, customers collect their cars and we all go home. It is much better for family life!”
However, there is significantly more to Peter Warman than meets the eye. While AFS (which stands for Auto Fleet Services) is busy, so is the technical data business that he established and grew exponentially over the years. In fact, so successful has it been that even the great Haynes Publishers attempted a buy-out…but Peter was unwilling to sell, forcing Haynes into acquiring Dutch company, Vivid. Peter’s advantage lies in his earlier establishment (“…in the days prior to Facebook.”) of UKAutoTalk (UKAT), an online forum and tech-sharing platform.
“At one stage,” he recalls, “we were up to almost 5,000 members, which also made us extremely attractive, again. Today, even with around 1,100 online subscribers and my own page on Facebook, it is the gift that keeps giving, as the numbers are rebuilding, slowly but surely, and I ensure that the price is right. My accountant has informed me that the technical data and forum aspects of the business are turning over twice the results of my servicing business.”
Therefore, with a future that might even mean curtailing his garage operation, he can retire contentedly into his data sales instead. Not bad for a one-man-band that could paraphrase Leo Sayer’s pop hit of the 1980s by understanding everything that makes a garage business tick, without anyone lending a hand.