Automotive services: keeping up appearances

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Twenty years ago, car ownership lasted a generation in a family. These days, car turnover is much more frequent which means more cars passing through the car yards and more potential work for service industry businesses.

Superfinish Express is on-site paint, alloy, plastic and interior repair, working from a mobile van.

From the company's beginning it has targeted the trade industry (car yards, both new and used, auction houses and fleet operators) due to the repeat business aspect.

It is a system that works, with a single franchisee only requiring three to six clients to keep an individual van at full operational capacity.

Ben Forrest, chief executive officer, says automotive repair franchises suit people who have previously worked in a hands-on role, not necessarily in an automotive industry, but where they are adept at using tools. Attention to detail is also a must. It is also preferable to come to the system with no previous involvement in the spray painting industry.

The extensive training required means franchising can be difficult, but Forrest says it also means it is harder for franchisees to start their own company, which means less competition.

Superfinish Express also eliminates internal competition by having defined territories where only one Superfinish Express franchise can operate. Although this limits the franchisor’s growth, there is a large benefit to franchisees.

"Our territories have between 25 and 30 potential clients in them ... if it takes three to six clients to keep one van flat-out, there's a lot of room for growth for our franchisees," Forrest says.

He estimates franchisees have the potential to expand to up to three vehicles, with some owning multiple territories. Company-wide there is the potential for an additional 60 to 70 franchises throughout the country.

"Our biggest challenge is finding the people to take on the work that's available in their territory. We've never had to spend too much time wondering where the next job’s coming from," Forrest says.

Although this sounds like an enviable position, the battle to manage a heavy workload can be problematic. To this end, Superfinish Express is supporting franchisees by helping them to find, train and retain staff.

Like Superfinish Express, Touch Up Guys specialises in mobile paint repairs. Its new business is generated through online ads (Google and its own website), traditional advertising such as radio, print and the Yellow Pages and leaflet distribution. Peter Darnell, franchise sales manager at Touch Up Guys, says the company also intends to make greater use of social media to generate business.

"Now, more than ever, consumers want to maintain their vehicles in pristine condition. We are constantly bombarded with advertising for newer, sexier and more dynamic motor vehicles and as a result, people want to keep their existing vehicles looking good to keep up with the Joneses," Darnell says.

To tap into new business, Darnell says franchisees need to have strong communication skills and take pride in their personal appearance. They also require a 'can do' attitude and an ability to promptly follow leads.

"Be prepared to keep up with new information regarding materials and techniques provided by the research and development department," he says.

Another key to success is networking with fellow franchisees to share knowledge, and networking with the local community and businesses.

Darnell predicts a bright future for the automotive services sector as competition in automotive sales grows.

"With better and more personalised service and lower overheads and prices, the mobile service industry will lead the way in this growth both in the short- and long-term," he says.

Ecowash is also tapping into demand for automotive services with a personal touch. The waterless car wash and polish service has grown to be so successful that in 2008 it was ranked third in BRW’s Fast Franchise Top 100.

Jim Cornish, chief executive officer at ecowash, says new business is currently being driven from private car owners. However, manufacturer work is steadily increasing and tripled in the past year. Cornish says despite the misconception that water shortages have driven business in the car wash industry, people becoming more time poor is driving business.

He concedes its penetration of the car wash market is small, with most of the industry operating on more standard car washing practices. However, the company is slowly gaining greater market share.

To succeed in an ecowash franchise, Cornish says franchisees need a hands-on approach and must get to know customers and learn what their expectations are. This allows franchisees to develop good customer service skills early on.

"We find our most successful franchisees are those that build strong relationships with their customers and find out what convenience is to each individual so that they can best meet their expectations,” Cornish says.

Operationally, ecowash is growing at least 20 percent per year on a franchisor basis.

So how does someone know whether the automotive services sector is for them? And how do they choose which franchisor to buy into? Forrest says carrying out checks on the franchisor is imperative as there are many businesses in the sector which come and go.

His advice is: "When applicant franchisees look at a business, one of the questions that begs itself is what security or what protection do I have from competition or future competition? Also, how much security do I have that this business is going to continue to exist and the demand is going to continue to be there?"

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