Garages generally are viewed with suspicion by many motorists. Ross Reyburn meets a man seeking a breakthrough in this field.
Now you might wonder what a Cambridge University history graduate who can link 19th century African tribal rivalries to the current appalling situation in Zimbabwe is doing in a Solihull canalside office working out how best to service your car.
But Duncan Wilkes pursued a career in the business world after graduating. And today as chief executive of Nationwide Autocentres, he plans to enter new territory by providing Britain with a national brand name people can trust if they want their car serviced, a MOT or a breakdown repair.
“The reason for taking this job was actually the opportunity to make a big difference to the market,” said 50-year-old Wilkes, whose headquarters office is at Olton Wharf in Richmond Road in Olton, a couple of miles from Solihull town centre.
“If you want a banking service, there are half a dozen banks that are household names and you would trust them. We are in a field with a poor reputation and there is a big opportunity for providing the right level of service at the right price.
“Somebody ought to have 10 to 15 to 20 per cent of the market. We probably have about 1.5 per cent and we are the biggest.”
The son of a technician, Wilkes was born in Leeds and found his way to Cambridge University to study history via Leeds Grammar School.
Wilkes was never near a Cambridge cricketing blue but did play for the Crusaders - “It was the university second team but anybody who wanted a game when exams were on could get a game,” he recalls.
He has retained a connection with the university. Ever since leaving Cambridge in 1979, Wilkes and his Emmanuel College contemporaries have returned every summer as a cricket side christened The Racing Club (because of their interest in the nearby Newmarket racecourse) to play matches against colleges.
“We have had the same cricket tour for 29 years,” he says. “It gets steadily more difficult – the opposition stay the same age while we get older.”
Wilkes lists African history as his favourite historical period and can talk at some length how the problems in Zimbabwe can be backtracked to a lack of true understanding of past events.
“The interaction between contemporary politics and the interpretation of southern African history can be quite fascinating,” he’ll tell you if want to digress from the world of cars.
“Trying to interpret through an oral tradition is quite difficult - everything written down is from a colonial perspective.”
Originally he planned a career as an academic historian before deciding he wouldn’t be happy remaining in a university environment when his days as a student enjoying life studying and playing cricket and rugby were over.
“I went to a careers centre and said ‘I want a job’.” he recalls. “They said ‘You’re a bit late but what do you want to do?’ I said ‘If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here’.”
After being asked if he would like to earn a lot of money and agreeing he might as well, it was decided his future lay in the fast developing world of computers.
“So I applied to all these computer companies and the first job to come up was a trainee systems engineer with ICL in west London,” he remembers.
This relatively humble beginning led to Wilkes to a career in the business as a marketing expert assessing new opportunities and better business practice after he was moved to ICL’s competitive marketing department.
In 1983, he joined the American company Wang Laboratories run by computer pioneer Dr An Wang and in his seven-year career with the firm he was to become director of marketing for Europe, Africa and the Middle East with the company with a $3 billion turnover.
Wang was a genius – he dominated word processing in the 1980s,” he says. “He was one of the richest men in the United States but he still lived in the small house he had bought in the 1960s in Lowell, Massachusetts, the town north of Boston where Jack Kerouac was born.”
Stints with three other companies followed and fast forward to 2006 and we find Wilkes working for the Royal Automobile Club and as group managing director of business solutions.
That year with two other RAC colleagues, divisional finance director Andy Stevens and Bill Duffy, managing director of RAC Auto Windscreens, joined forces with Phoenix Equity Partners to acquire Nationwide Autocentres.
“The company was in a pretty good state – it had been chosen as Repairer of the Year,” he explains. “Initially it was financed by the National Bank of Greece.
“The bank wanted to realize its investment so they went out to the market to see who was interested. We bought the company with the help of Phoenix Equity partners on the basis we would take over from the five existing directors.”
Wilkes lives in Twickenham with his wife and daughter and commutes to the West Midlands staying two or three nights a week at the attractive half-timbered Nailcote Hall Hotel, Golf and Country Club at Berkswell.
A decisive man who delivers a point of view with the precision and clarity you expect from an officer in the armed forces, he is in no doubt where he is heading as chief executive officer and part-owner of Nationwide Autocentres.
“The reason I am here is because we have a very big opportunity to build a very large business with a strong brand name in a market that is still developing.
“There are relatively few £6 billion markets in which they are no large players.”
He is in an industry where car servicing is provided by the main franchise dealers such as Ford and BMW and the independent garages. The motorist knows he will get quality of service with a franchise operation but he will pay a high price while going to independent garages charging less money is more uncertain territory.
His aim is providing a quality service at reasonable price so car owners don’t have to pay high franchise prices or rely on independent garages they know little about.
His price charges match this philosophy. To give an extreme example of price contrasts, Nationwide Autocentres will quote you a price of £149.99 for a full service for a 2004 1.4 petrol Renault Clio while the average franchise price is £238.71 and the average competitor’s price is £182.67.
Its labour charge per hour is £65 compared to the average franchise dealer’s rate of £79.85 and you can find franchise operations charging as much as thee times more for an oil and filter change.
“Franchises are reliable but they charge high prices,” he says. “The alternative is an individual garage. There are lots of very good independent garage. But there are over 20,000 independent garages and quite a lot of them have inconsistent standards that cause the customer concerns about the quality of work being done.
“Our focus is to give the person with a car he or she has owned for years the opportunity to have service that is as good as that provide by the franchise garages at a price that enables us to be competitive with the independent garages.
“A franchise dealer inevitably has significant higher costs than we do as the premises they use are designed to sell cars as well as service them.”
Wilkes regards decent customer relations as a key to success.
“Part of the problem with our industry is we have lots of people who are very good with cars but very poor with people,” he says.
“I thought my service would cost me £150 but actually I have gone away having paid £210 Because I needed to have my brake pads changed.
“Our manager may have made the car much safer and avoided a bigger expense but if we don’t explain what we have done and give the customer the opportunity to see the worn brake pads, it is possible he will go away thinking ‘Did I really need to pay for that?’
“We initially found a large degree of inconsistency in the way our managers were dealing with customers. For example, it is entirely wrong for a customer to walk into one of our centres to find he was being ignored for a couple of minutes by the manager because he was carrying on a conversation with a technician or talking to one of his suppliers on the telephone.”
His company currently deals with 600,000 customers a year and the complaints level is around 0.2 per cent – about 1,200.
“About half of these we would judge we the result of something we could have done better,” he says. “Almost all the justifiable complaints we get are a result of our communicating poorly to customers.
“I do get letters written to me complaining ‘My car failed its MOT at your autocentre and it has never failed before!’”
Wilkes feels the world of garages has a somewhat exaggerated reputation as an untrustworthy industry often taking motorists for a ride. How often has Which? consumer magazine exposed the questionable standards of many car servicing and repair businesses?
“I think Which? is more concerned with good story rather than a systemic study of the industry,” says Wilkes.
Nevertheless the variable quality of independents is reflected by his company’s own experiences.
Founded in 1980 by the industry giant Lucas, Nationwide Autocentres today has a £70 million turnover and 260 branches and has looked at 1,000 independent garages as potential targets in its expansion programme but decided to follow-up seriously as possible acquisitions no more than 150. Modern cars depend more and more on technology. Because of the electronics in modern cars, the day is disappearing when a motorist with a keen interest in car mechanics could carry out his own repairs.
“If fleet operations like Lex, Arval and Masterlease are confident they can give the newest and most complex cars to us to deal with, I think that really endorses our ability.”