Darren Bone is a man who likes a challenge and has spotted one in the retail motor industry. The rugby-playing IT geek knows that franchised dealers need to boost workshop volumes and reckons that he has just the programme for hoovering up fresh trade.
He has a website ready to go which will allow motorists who are nervous of the costs of a main dealer to check for discounts on-line and then make a booking if the price suits. Dealers will be able to flex the price to attract the trade needed to fill capacity.
It’s simple in concept; harder in execution. The trade loves the idea but is nervous of unexpected consequences. Bone has invested £40,000 so far and has no intention of letting go. Besides, the timing is good. Every dealer in the land is shrugging his shoulders with the time-weary: “oh well; we’ll just have to get more out of parts and service”. Outlook for margins on new and used car sales is far from good. And that is before the job losses start to stack up and the Government spending cuts start to drop in.
“It’s a very old model for a website. The first of the type was laterooms.com for the hotel trade,” said Bone.
“We started in January 2009 and went to see Sytner BMW and Inchcape Jaguar. They said that they always had an element of spare capacity in the workshop. They were obviously keen to always run with full capacity.”
The next step was the big dealer groups. Bone saw Pendragon, Lookers and Marshalls.
“They liked it, but did not want to join in until we could show them an operational website.”
Lookers liked it so much that they said that they had decided to do their own. “The flip side of the disappointment was confirmation that we really had got something that was going to be considered worthwhile.”
But the approvals were deceptive in the sense that Bone and his colleagues thought they had given a nice simple description of what the websites must contain in order to embrace all eventualities. At the website development stage it quickly became clear that was not the case. “For example, some dealers want long-lead bookings. Others wanted to take them for same-day gap filling.
“Both types of customer would then vary their preferences according to the type and complexity of the vehicle and the type of service required.”
That meant that there had to be a car registration plate entry-box that came up with exactly the right identification of make and model.
“It was quite an undertaking. In the end the three-month project took nine months. But we got very good results.”
Unsurprisingly, the principal concern of franchised dealers targeted in the marketing was that they would be cutting their own throats.
Why would the customer paying £120 an hour for labour go on paying that when he could book in on-line through maindealerdiscount.com and get it off-peak for half or a third of the price?
“We had to supply a fix for that. We had to convince the dealers that we were selling spare capacity not discounting core business.
“We have ways of doing that. If someone enters through Google with a search of ‘BMW service Nottingham’ they are looking for the right guy to service their car. If they enter ‘Sytner BMW Nottingham’ they are looking for a way round that main dealer’s scale of charges.”
On the offer side of the site, controls can be enabled that turn away the up to three-year-old cars which are likely to be fleet or company cars. “If a main dealer wants to expand that is where they need to be – targeting older cars.”
There are already websites that do the opposite to what is intended by maindealerdiscount.com
Prestigecarservice.com aims to take service work away from the franchised dealers by offering prices 60% lower from the independent trade. So does servicingstop.co.uk.
Both offer fixed prices once the driver has submitted his registration number, find the nearest workshop with the expertise and make the provisional booking. This is followed up with a phone call. Collection and return of the car is routinely a part of the offer.
Bone saw them as such a threat to the franchise dealer, he reckoned they needed a way of fighting back.
His decision to pursue it came when he heard that there were already franchised dealers subscribed to these sites who were prepared to accept the lower rates – provided that the business was delivered only when they had spare capacity to fill. Many franchised dealers already discount rates for specific customer groups – mainly the owners of older cars.
Heads of brand in the UK like the idea of full workshops. Miguel Fonseca who runs Toyota GB, is very keen to push underperforming dealers into better loading of their workshops.
Unprofitable dealers in a network are no good for morale.
He would like to see workshops routinely loaded with cars of any brand at any price and for 24 hours a day provided the changes ensured profitable utilisation.
A profitable dealer is a happy dealer and a happy dealer is a first class ambassador for the Toyota brand.
A serial entrepreneur
Darren Bone is a serial entrepreneur. At least he will be when he pulls off a success with maindealerdiscount.com
He is 37 and was born in Basingstoke. He is a graduate of Lancaster University and a specialist in IT consulting around enterprise resource planning (ERP) with a specialisation in warehouse and materials management in the retail sector.
He has been a rugby player since the age of seven and still turns out regularly for the Nottingham Boots Corsairs. He plays fly half or centre because he is quick and ‘likes to get a lot of ball and be pivotal to the game’. He admits that he is at the age now when after every game he walks away wondering whether he should still be there.
His first business traded as First Progress and grew to 10 employees. The other people working with him specialised in finance and control. The programmers also worked for third parties – subcontractors or “bodyworkers.” First Progress was folded to get tax benefits. Global Agile Solutions was born. A false start was imminent.
They were good days and highly lucrative. But Bone managed the income with a view to eventually being able to sink substantial sums into innovation.
“The growth of my software company was limited by the shortage of my time and the demands of a young family. I did not really want to put in any more time. My wife and I (the couple have three children under eight) have never lived up to our income. We had substantial savings and the resources in place to do something special. I had an ambition to do something that would be national or international.
“Once you have a dotcom you can take a business international very easily.
“I am not a petrol head, but I am very keen on cars...a regular reader of EVO! It is an industry that I think is exciting and challenging.”
Pet video link was far from 'purr-fect'
Just to prove that even successful entrepreneurs can get it wrong Darren Bone bought a website called checkonyourpet.com.
Webcams were to be installed in catteries and kennels relaying video to mobile phones. Pet owners could go away happy in the knowledge they could check in at will and see how Barney and Marmaduke were getting on.
“Each video broadcast would be prefaced by an ad from Pedigree Chum. The petfood provider would willingly stump up the cash for the cameras.
“It was a good enough idea, but the numbers would not work. The number of holiday weeks per pet per year was not high enough.”
But the killer was the likely impact on the relationship between holidaymaker and kennels. Most pets left in kennels are pretty miserable, but they lack the skills to tell owners as much at the end of the week.
Bone had visions of happy couple in Majorca logging on and seeing Barney staring morosely into the camera with that get-me-out-of-here look: devastated couple promise themselves that they will never leave Barney in Happy Valley Luxury Kennels ever again.
Besides, a dog with a Bone videophone would be far too corny a business.