Through his many years of experience in growing a successful automotive business, Allen Prebble, Managing Director of Silverlake Automotive Recycling, offers honest and insightful advice to fellow recyclers who are new to the industry.
Silverlake Automotive Recycling celebrated 75 years in business last year – a milestone that makes us very proud. When I took over running the company 44 years ago from my father, we had five staff, and today our team is made up of 131 people; our site has grown to 10 acres, our recovery fleet to 24 transporters and six vans make up our recycled green parts delivery fleet. Having recently visited our site, ATF Professional asked me if I could give some advice to fellow automotive recyclers who are new to the industry or looking to grow their business.
What the statistics in the introduction can’t do is describe the journey. The first thing to say is that I made plenty of mistakes, but I learnt from them, and arguably if you don’t make mistakes, then maybe you’re playing things too safe. It goes without saying that you need to have a vision, be passionate about it and most of all, share that vision with those in the business that will help you make it a reality. If I was asked to give my top three areas to consider when setting out to grow an automotive recycling business, they would be: 1) Reinvestment, 2) Look at the business from your customer’s perspective, and 3) Understand your workforce.
Reinvestment linked to your growth strategy
Reinvesting, ideally a minimum of 80% of your profit, is essential to fuel your business growth. Deciding how to prioritise that reinvestment is critical. This will be determined by your growth goals, business strategy and the road map of activity you set to achieve your goals. Make yourself and your team accountable by setting KPIs and measuring progress regularly. Be clear about your offering and your market and develop your strategy from a brutally honest position. Identify your strengths and opportunities and how you can capitalise on them and acknowledge your weaknesses and threats, developing ways to mitigate the associated business risks. Invest in specialist consultants when the business requires expertise that is not already present in-house. That might mean IT, HR, Training, Marketing, Finance, Compliance, or it could be a Non-Exec Director with a commercial or corporate background.
Understand your market and monitor it closely but don’t obsess about your competition – focus on your strategy and the things you can control. Scan the horizon continually so that you can be proactive, prepared for change and always compliant. Believe in yourself, trust your instincts, and never stop learning. Invest in educating yourself about the industry and your market.
In 1979, I attended a business management course featuring presentations from General Accident at Sunbury Salvage. I look back now and recognise that day as a catalyst for my growth plans. That taught me the importance of attending industry events, nationally and internationally, networking with my peers, learning from others and challenging myself to find ways to improve on what we do. Above all, be open to new ways of thinking, new technologies and new learning and invest as appropriate; none of us can afford to stand still in this dynamic market, or we will find ourselves shrinking rather than growing.
It stands to reason that reinvesting in the business-critical aspects of your operations makes sound business sense. As an example, I decided that we would maintain and repair our fleet of recovery and delivery vehicles in-house rather than outsourcing to a garage. That way, we could minimise vehicle downtime, prioritise our repairs, schedule maintenance to suit business demand, and ensure quality and minimise cost by using our own recycled green parts where possible. Assess your operational infrastructure, including your IT systems and website, workshops, parts warehousing, vehicles, equipment, reception, and retail area as applicable and identify what improvements are needed to support your growth.
Look at your business from your customers’ perspective
Thinking like your customer will help you deliver the service they want, not a service built around your assumptions that you will then struggle to sell.
In my experience, if you make service excellence your mantra and build your reputation around it, growth follows naturally. Not only do you benefit from repeat business and customer loyalty, but your customers become your brand ambassadors, recommending you to their friends and colleagues. Be bold and differentiate your business by promoting your brand promise to your target market. Make sure you have systems and processes embedded that enable your people to live up to your customer expectations.
‘Two ears, one mouth’ is never more applicable than when it comes to understanding your customer. Regularly and consistently ask for feedback on your service and really listen to and analyse the answers. Act on the insight you gain, both positive and negative. When things are going well, consider how you can scale and do more of the same. If your customers want a service you’re not delivering, see that as an opportunity to increase sales, assuming it fits with your overall proposition and set about finding a solution to deliver it. When you get poor customer feedback, acknowledge it, investigate it and if warranted, hold your hands up and apologise and then set things right by the customer. That way, you turn a complaint into a positive customer experience, and the learning helps you to improve your business processes. Just remember to take a measured approach to ‘bad feedback’, always investigating first and never just shooting from the hip.
Understand and engage your workforce
Your vision and growth strategy are ultimately delivered by your people, and they require your leadership. Clearly and regularly communicate your vision and plans for the business and explain the part your people play, both as teams and individually, and the value they bring. They need to buy into the plans, recognise their role and feel valued and inspired to deliver what the business needs.
Take time to understand what motivates individuals and where their skillsets and aptitudes sit. Look at how you can map these to the needs of the business to deliver the growth strategy. Where you identify gaps, invest in training to develop and equip your team, and recruit new talent alongside when necessary. Giving people development opportunities and a clear career progression path will help you retain the knowledge and experience in the business and give you a motivated workforce. Identify, develop, and reinforce your senior management team and set clear performance measures for their individual areas of the business, against which they report back to you regularly.
Create a culture that celebrates achievements and addresses failures as learning opportunities. Monitor the progress of individuals and teams against clear targets, ensuring they have been given both responsibility and authority. Give feedback and facilitate two-way communication, encouraging your workforce to engage and provide insights from the coalface and suggestions for ways to improve processes and systems.
Cultivate a cultural mindset that encourages your people to take pride in what they do. A happy and engaged workforce is an efficient and productive workforce, and your people will also become ambassadors for your brand, alongside your customers. Creating a positive staff culture is critical to achieving growth and business success. I suggest you keep on top of it daily with the help of your management team.
A final thought
We work in a dynamic industry and are fortunate that changes in the UK car parc, Environmental Social and Governance [ESG] targets and the drive for sustainability all represent fantastic business opportunities for automotive recyclers. The time is right for those planning growth. I’m a firm believer in the philosophy ‘Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail’. Prepare for every aspect of your growth strategy and collectively celebrate every ‘win’ along the way with your people.