Halfords Autocentre – the national independent auto servicing and repair operation established following the acquisition of Nationwide Autocentre by Halfords – is determined to capture more fleet business. In an exclusive interview, its chief executive Duncan Wilkes reveals more.
This independent vehicle servicing, maintenance and MOT company is already a well-established provider to the majority of the FN50. In 2009 it carried out 670,000 jobs, 175,000 of which were on fleet vehicles. And this year it took the coveted Fleet Supplier of the Year at the Fleet News awards.
The core of Autocentre’s work is vehicle servicing, not the tyres and exhausts that independent centres are traditionally known for. And the majority – over 95% - of the fleet work it carries out is on cars under three years of age.
Now, under the patronage of its new cash-rich owner, Halfords Autocentre is embarking on a major expansion programme that will see it open 200 new sites in the coming years, creating a network of over 420 sites and making it one of the largest vehicle service providers in the country.
“Our target is to have six new sites up and running by the end of September,” said Wilkes. “And to have a further 12 and 14 up and running by March 2011. And then broadly to add 30 a year.”
The ambitious expansion plans were already in place before the acquisition by Halfords earlier this year and the buyout has accelerated the programme. “Halfords has turbo-charged the growth programme - they have the financial muscle.”
Its plans include acquiring sites within the M25 as well as across Scotland ensuring it true national coverage and visibility in every major urban conurbation. In fact many towns and cities will have multiple sites.
Wilkes is well aware of fleet concerns about the ability of independent suppliers to offer franchise dealer levels of service. His answer – fleets “receive the same service levels as they would get at a franchised dealer but at a significantly lower price”.
And this is not an unfounded boast.
Last year just 0.48% of its fleet jobs resulted in an ‘issue’ and the company often exceeds the customer service index (CSI) ratings of its franchise dealer competitors and runs workshops to address any adverse CSI feedback.
“We support the full range of work that fleets need doing, all that we don’t do is work that falls under the terms of the warranty,” explains Wilkes. “But if something is required that is under warranty we will manage that process on behalf of the customer.”
Fleets can also use the industry standard Epyx e-booking system to get vehicles into the centres.
As a result, the company’s b2b fleet business is growing more quickly than its retail business.
Currently 25% of Halfords Autocentre business is from corporate account holders, it was 21% in 2006.
“Fleet will be up to 30% over the next three years,” says Wilkes.
For a company that says it is as equally interested in the retail customer as the b2b fleet business, this split is surprising.
The vehicle service, maintenance and MoT sector is worth some £9bn a year and just £1.2bn - or 13.3% - is b2b.
But, as Wilkes points out, fleet business is predictable and reliable, which for a company that currently has significant spare capacity – 30 to 35% - is very attractive, especially with such ambitious expansion plans now underway.
Nationwide has been widely praised for its training and service levels and Wilkes promises that these are set to continue after cash-rich Halfords confirmed it is committed to continuing with the investment in equipment and training.
“A problem for most independent operators is justifying the investment in all the tools, training and data that’s needed to service new vehicles," says Wilkes.
"That isn’t a problem decision for us in that the fleet business justifies having all that equipment, all of that training and all of that data available in every centre. The fleet business itself justifies that investment.”
All the major fleet and lease companies have agreements to direct a portion of their vehicles to Halfords Autocentre, which retains its pre-buyout management structure and will be run as a separate company from the retail Halfords operations.
Some lease companies are very proactive – Lex Autolease, by far the largest lease company with 337,000 vehicles on its books – refers a large percentage of its cars to the independent centres.
“It makes common sense – we do exactly the same job as a dealer, we can offer exactly the same levels of customer service…the difference is we are much easier to deal with, our average response times is around 30 mins, lead times are three days and we can be quicker than that, we don’t refuse jobs, we provide a single commercial agreement covering all vehicles from all manufacturers for anywhere in the country,” says Wilkes.
It also collects, cleans and delivers vehicles and offers a single SLA and national pricing structure.