The development of computer-based estimating in the late 1990s heralded the onset of the paperless bodyshop, according to many industry experts.
But most bodyshops weren’t listening; their dependency on paper was too great.
Not so Autotech. Since 2003, when the Slough-based bodyshop moved to its current head office site, all documents have been scanned on to its computer network.
Duncan Leftley, Autotech managing director, says it means little or no paperwork and it saves two staff per site.
Instead, his four sites – three in Slough and one in High Wycombe – are visited by a part-time member of staff working 25 hours a week who carries out administration.
“We’re very committed to using IT to save money. But it has to be a well-organised system,” says Leftley.
Indeed, there is back-up at each site and cross-site back-up too, to be on the safe side. Recently, the network went down, and Leftley said it “momentarily caused mayhem”.
Having acquired its fourth site, Autotech High Wycombe, at the end of last year, Leftley says it is now a time for consolidation.
While he would like to acquire a fifth site in 2009, “it all depends what happens this year”.
Like many businesses, Autotech is feeling the impact of utility bill increases, which “has an effect on everything”, says Leftley.
And the company has also invested on achieving Kitemark certification. It’s due to have all four sites approved by October.
Leftley believes the Kitemark is a good standard: “It looks at the repair quality rather than paperwork like some manufacturer approvals.”
But it’s a costly process, at around £15,000 per site, as well as investment in equipment and assessment fees.
“It means getting back to the floor, and is certainly good for the trade,” Leftley adds.
One of its insurer providers – Esure – will pay a higher hourly rate for kitemarked bodyshops, but others are not so willing.
Leftley says it is impossible to make a longer-term growth plan when the market is so volatile.
Expected to turnover £7.6 million in 2008, compared to £6 million last year, return on sales is 3-4%. But the bottom line is ever-decreasing – it’s halved from 7-8% in just three years.
Retail work is more lucrative, with returns of 10%, but Leftley points out that “we set up the business as a volume repairer”.
Currently, 85% of its work comes from insurers, with about a third from RBS.
Other main clients are RSA, Esure and Provident. The remainder is split between fleet with 10% and retail with 5%.
When Autotech launched in 2000, it had three staff and one 5,000sq ft site. It now has around 100 staff.
There is a minimal management structure, headed by Leftley.
His wife Jo is part-time financial director and Ian Sanders, who has been there from the start, is general manager. He runs the main site and oversees the others, which are handled by site managers.
Leftley says he is happy to have quality people on board to manage the business. And he acknowledges that they are difficult to come by.
“We have great hands-on managers. We try to bring in quality people across the business with a good basic salary,” says Leftley.
Complaints come in at under 2% of Autotech’s work, and are rarely about quality issues.
Any problems are discussed in management meetings. An external audit is also carried out at its sites each month.
Leftley has previously worked at a Vauxhall dealership, becoming a bodyshop manager at 23, as well as doing management consultancy for Carter & Carter.
Before starting Autotech, he ran Motofix bodyshop with a partner.
“I’m in it for the long term,” he says. “It’s a reliable, steady business which is always going to be here. If you manage very tightly and keep an eye on the ball, there’s a future in the motor trade.”