Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2000   by Auto Service World

CONFERENCE REPORT: Global Automotive Aftermarket Symposium

In E-Tech rush, don't forget about power of people, says founder of leading service chain

In the midst of heavy discussions on the meaning, impact and engineering details of e-commerce, one of the most successful aftermarket entrepreneurs in the world said it was important not to lose track of the importance of the people within an organization.

“The most important investment of all we must make is an investment in our people,” says Sir Tom Farmer, founder of Kwik-Fit, Europe’s largest specialized service chain, today with more than 2,000 outlets.

“We buy machines, invest in computers and they all help. But for the human being, there is no set of instructions, and too often those of us in this business do not take the time or trouble to find out about what makes it work better.”

The goal of his company is not just customer satisfaction, but “100% Customer Delight.” Com-puters and building Internet sites will not achieve that, he says. “The only thing is to have highly self-motivated people in our business.”

To counter any assumptions that Kwik-Fit is technophobic, its website does offer intriguing initiatives, including a phone-up tire purchasing service where a customer can have the tires installed at their home or business if they wish. The business also sells insurance in addition to providing automotive repair services.

Kwik-Fit is not Farmer’s first success, having built a tires and accessories business and sold it in the late 1960s at the ripe young age of 28. The retirement that followed didn’t sit too well with him, so in 1971 he opened Kwik-Fit. In 1999, he sold it to Ford Motor Company for $1.6 billion U.S.

The road hasn’t been without its bumps for the energetic Scotsman, and he outlined a number of difficulties that the company had faced. Growth to 200 outlets had created management problems, causing the company to enter what Farmer calls “a profit sabbatical.” Bringing in experienced financial managers eventually returned the company to profitability. The desire to bring in business also caused them to advertise the competence of their service staff. The resulting slogan “You can’t get better than a Kwik-Fit fitter” not only brought customers to the company’s service bays, but it also made the job (a fitter is an installer) one of the most recognized professions in the U.K. It had the added benefit of bringing a whole new culture to the organization, with employees in the bays becoming proud of the jobs they held and the work they did.

There was also a much-publicized (in the U.K.) run-in with a consumers group in 1990–reminiscent of the numerous hidden camera exposs that service chains on this side of the Atlantic have been subjected to. Farmer said it turned out okay in the end because he did not try to duck responsibility for the failures of the employees to follow the company’s code of practice and provide proper advice.

He ordered the placement of large newspaper ads proclaiming that the company was sorry some of its people had erred in their service recommendations, and asking the public to understand that people make mistakes and that they, as a company, will try to do better.

“An amazing thing happened,” says Farmer, adding that the next month was a record month, and so was the one after that. “The public understood what we were saying. In this industry we should never underestimate the power of consumerism.”

He says that building interpersonal relationships with customers and staff is going to become more important, not less, in the age of the Internet. “Business is about people. People need to be looked after. People need to belong. People need to be listened to.”

Uni-Select CEO Jacques Landreville was among the presenters at the Global Automotive Aftermarket Symposium held in Dearborn, Mich. He told the 400-plus attendees that e-commerce will change the way the aftermarket does business, but that training issues and supply chain management will continue to be critical to the success of the industry.