In conjunction with Simon Powney, of Markhams Garage, Kingsland, near Leominster, Iain Robertson shows how managing a garage services business in an outlying area demands big ears, big arms and a vibrant sense of community.
Managing change, or at least a willingness and ability to make changes, is what helps with any business survival plan. “I’ve never feared change,” admits Simon, “which means that, whether we have to alter our modus operandi, to meet fresh challenges, or just keep a wary eye open for new opportunities, addressing change is only a component of the overall management strategy.”
For more than a quarter of a century, from apprentice to becoming a director, Simon believes that applying all of his senses to the business at Markhams Garage has been vital to his present role. Recognition as the ‘hub of a community’, has meant that an ‘anything goes’ approach has been essential. “It is not unusual, in my role as a volunteer fireman,” he outlines, “to attend a road traffic incident, in a 20 mile radius of Kingsland, and either the people involved in the accident are already customers, or it may be that, conveniently, I ‘just know somebody’.”
Naturally, being competitive in a hectic market is vital. “Yes, prices are critical”, he states. “If we bump them up, even by £1 per hour, at worst, our customers will believe that something has gone wrong, or that we may be ripping them off.” Yet, with labour rates at £48 per hour, which can be exceeded by upwards of twice that amount in nearby Leominster, or Hereford, Markhams can only be said to offer great value for money. “Mind you,” explains Simon, “when we are asked to repair a washing machine, or a petrol lawnmower, pricing-for- the-job flexibility, which often takes into account other local aspects, weighs into the equation!”
It may only be a small team at Markhams but being on top of the latest technology (as you can read elsewhere in this issue) is crucial to maintaining a local service to the community. “We have been very careful,” points out Simon, “to be as ‘tech-aware’ as we can be and it can sometimes shock our local customers when we produce a dedicated electronic reader, when dealing with their motoring problems. Knowing how to use the latest technology proficiently is also essential, although we know that a lot of it can save us money in the longer term, which can only be beneficial to a business possessing 90+ years of local consistency.”
Yet, so many communities change their boundaries. Young people leave to be educated and earn money in cities. Original inhabitants soon become outnumbered by out-of- towners. “We are reminded constantly of logistical changes,” outlines Simon, “but we have made it our job to know what’s happening locally and we can service company and fleet vehicles to the most exacting of manufacturer standards, without the associated heavy on-costs.”
While village life, in some respects, can be idyllic, it demands steely determination to remain on top but Simon has some great advice to offer anybody in a similar situation. “Listen to your customers as a priority”, he states categorically. “Without their custom, you have NO business. We have made it our business to understand theirs. In looking after them, they look after us. It is too easy to state that loyalty in modern society has been turfed out with the baby’s bathwater, but it is in our remit to nurture, and we care deeply about how we foster strong local relationships.”
If there any secrets resident in small local garage businesses, very few of them are untried, or untested by Markhams Garage and, if anything, in a magazine issue dedicated to systems management, it proves that people management, in its broadest and most visceral sense, is what maintains this garage’s place in its community.