The main feature this issue focuses on independent garages. As someone whose background is solidly on the franchised and manufacturer side of the business it might be assumed that I have a bias in that direction, but this is absolutely not the case and never has been.
Independent garages make up over 80% of the sector and there has always been a healthy trade business with the manufacturers: either through their trade parts networks or directly through the local dealers. Indeed, most dealers have good relationships with the local independents which are quite often run by former employees.
With more than 30 million cars on the road and around 36 million vehicles in total, there is plenty of work out there – despite the ongoing lengthening of service intervals and reduction in service content. But it is these ongoing changes that result in the competitive tension between independents and franchised operators, as the franchises move deeper into the older vehicle parc and the independents move in the opposite direction – both looking for extra work and revenue. The truth is that each has an important role to play in servicing customer needs and offering choice.
Overall the independent sector is far broader and less easily definable than the franchised sector and covers a much wider array of operations – from large independent national chains right down to the sole operators working on people’s drives. There are many excellent trade organisations that represent each sub-sector but, even between them, they would struggle to put an exact number on all the businesses in operation because many of the smallest operators in particular have no affiliations or memberships.
As in any competitive business, the keys to long-term success are around quality, attention to detail and consistency. The very best and most successful operators – whether franchised or independent – are the ones that manage to deliver great service and high quality all of the time. Nobody sets out to deliver poor quality but relatively few manage to achieve that high level of consistency – and those that do are the ones who achieve lasting success.
So what of the future? In my time on the manufacturer side of the business I saw the introduction of many new generations of product, each more technically complex and sophisticated than the last. And I frequently heard it stated that these vehicles would be all but impossible for the independent garages to work on as they became older; but all of this technology – from fibre-optic multiplexing to CAN-Bus systems and much more – has been assimilated. Many garages have found it more practical to specialise on a limited number of marques in order to gain the required expertise and limit the assortment of specialist equipment necessary. Others have limited the scope of work they take on. But the independent sector is still robust.
Of course, the next 10 years will bring changes that will take many beyond their comfort zones as we progressively move away from internal combustion engines to an era of electrified drivetrains, batteries, hydrogen fuel cells etc.
The IMI has members and partnerships right across the whole spectrum of automotive, with the common link being professionalism. The need to demonstrate professional competence will be ever greater as we move into this new era. Our campaign for regulation has been well covered in this column previously, but I strongly believe that insurers will start to insist on it being qualified individuals who work on, repair and recalibrate safety-critical autonomous systems. I also believe that they may insist that operatives working on potentially dangerous high-voltage systems must be appropriately trained, equipped and qualified in order for liability insurance to remain valid.
Our campaign is about setting sensible, attainable and sustainable industry benchmarks so that we can continue to have a healthy and competitive independent sector as the products that come onto the market undergo major change. This is what a professional body is all about; the only way we partition the industry is between the professional and unprofessional!