Listening to staff for business opportunities
Staff are encouraged to challenge Robinson with new ideas. One centre began selling service plans in 2004 before being acknowledged centrally and rolled out across Vantage.
A more recent example of a business opportunity that came to light this way was a brake-skimming service.
A service manager decided to increase the lifetime of brake discs by skimming to remove corrosion, wear and rust and thickness variation, rather than selling replacement discs. Robinson said it’s not as lucrative for the business, but has more integrity.
“We’ve applied this approach across the business.”
He also revealed some of the quirks in his management style. For example, when he visits a centre, he never goes in by the front door, but via the workshop.
“I say hello to the technicians. Traditionally, they got a rough deal in the trade from an acknowledgement and recognition standpoint, but they’re as hungry for information as anyone else. Every member of the team is as important as the next.”
Robinson encourages staff to complain if he doesn’t acknowledge them and to ask him anything about the business. “Most of the time I believe I could impart something of value,” he said.
He also has a lot to say about smiling: “Body language and facial expression are as important as words. If I shuffle into a centre looking at my shoes, staff are going to wonder what’s wrong.”
During job interviews, Robinson always asks a candidate if it is ever appropriate to lie? “If anyone says no, they’re lying,” he said. “A smile is essential even when I’m faced with difficulties, even if in a sense you are lying about your frame of mind.”
Avoiding the downside of expansion
Vantage’s finances provide evidence of some of the negative impacts of rapid business expansion. Return on sale (RoS) from 2012 to 2013 slipped from 1.5% to 0.8%. Profit before tax in 2013 was at £811,000, its lowest since 2009.
A lot of this is down to writing off acquisition and other costs. Vantage didn’t pay much goodwill in its transactions, but professional fees were high.
“We’re very aggressive with our accounting policies; we don’t hide things in our balance sheet. Some of the businesses we acquired in 2013 were experiencing difficult trading conditions.”
There is no ‘war chest’ to fund acquisitions, but there has been headroom available in being able to source funding. Gearing is at more than 100% now, said Robinson, but in 2007, at the time of the purchase of the North West Vantage businesses, gearing went up to 500%.