Driving through the remote villages around Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, you wouldn’t expect to find a 250,000sqft automotive giant. Yet, Thurleigh is home to the headquarters of Paragon Automotive — providers of new, in-life and used vehicle services to some of the world’s most established vehicle manufacturers. Gaining an exclusive visit, bodyshop’s Rebekah Clements went along with Volvo to find out more.
Paragon Thurleigh is split into three hangers – hanger one, its largest refurbishment centre where Volvo refurbishment is carried out; hanger two for pre-delivery inspections (PDIs); and hanger three, its smaller refurbishment centre specifically for its Hyundai partnership.
The Thurleigh site was originally developed for the RAF Bomber Command in 1940 and, in 1946, work began on the airfield to turn the site into the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, where a lot of the Harrier development took place. Thurleigh also had a catapult runway and it was here that the ‘ski jump’, later fitted to some aircraft carriers, was also developed.
Continuing the history lesson, after its acquisition of QEK Global Solutions in September 2007, Paragon was quick to establish itself as a renowned brand, growing from one site to 11 different locations across the UK. Now, with over 1,000 staff UK wide handling over 750,000 vehicles per annum, Paragon has become a leader in the outsourcing scene.
Staffing is a key area of focus for Paragon Thurleigh – a must for a site which houses up to 17,000 vehicles on its two runways. Neil Cokayne, Paragon’s warranty manager, said ‘All of our employees are multi-trained and extremely skilled people. This is key when processing such large volumes of vehicles. It provides flexibility, especially when meeting peak demands at critical points in the year.’
Neil continued, ‘Three years ago Paragon started a group wide apprenticeship scheme, which has shown great success attracting both young men and women into the various roles, including paint and panel work.’
With an established brand, Paragon has developed strong relationships with a number of vehicle manufacturers including Fiat, Ford, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota, Vauxhall, Volkswagen Group and Volvo.
Sitting down with Steve Plunkett, Volvo’s body and paint programme development manager; Lee Berrell, Volvo’s national pricing and trade manager, and Neil, I was keen to learn more about the partnership between the two.
‘Paragon is subject to all of the Volvo standards, so it’s important they feel part of our network as much as possible,’ said Steve, explaining that Paragon provides refurbishment work for Volvo’s demo fleets, press cars and rental cars, as well as the logo sponsorship for Volvo’s British sailing team to name but a few.
Volvo, which amounts to 15% of Paragon’s work, currently audits a number of Paragon sites. ‘We expect the staff to complete the Volvo training courses and adhere to the correct equipment and process standards,’ clarified Lee.
In return, Paragon is kept up-to-date with Volvo’s latest training programmes, including its small to medium area repair technique (SMART) programme recently launched through Morelli Eyebox in Coventry. ‘Paragon utilises the latest repair techniques in order to help reduce the cost of repairs for both manufacturers and rental companies. We have a very strong partnership with Volvo and their engagement ensures great results on their refurbishment programme,’ said Neil.
I was then provided a tour of hanger one – the sites main refurbishment facility. With 85 staff members repairing around 110 vehicles per day, it certainly didn’t reflect an ‘everyday’ bodyshop.
During the tour of hanger one, which is often compared to a ‘production line’, Neil explained, ‘The left hand side is for body and paint operations, whilst the right hand side is for inspections and quality checks. And, even with a daily three-figure turnaround, Neil reiterated, ‘Each vehicle we repair is completed to the highest bodyshop standards.’
To begin the ‘vehicle journey’, I was shown the service bay area where each Volvo has to go through – including ‘road and ramp’, service and warranty work. Neil explained, ‘All of our technicians are Volvo trained to either level two or three, with two of our technicians warranty trained.’ Lee added, ‘Each technician continues to meet the quality and standards which is set by the Volvo team.’
Once each Volvo has completed its initial service check, it will be subject to an inspection before it is designated to the required department. If the vehicle only requires light, SMART work, Paragon now has dedicated quick-fix technician’s on-hand at each department to help rectify the damage in order to speed-up processes.
Neil said, ‘Once the vehicle has been through the service bay area, it will be checked internally and externally by our technicians. The technicians will log any defects to the vehicle onto their handheld systems, before the vehicle is put in the bay area outside. Then, when the vehicle is live authorised to work, a technician will move the vehicle to the relevant department where it will begin its refurbishment journey before it can have its final quality check.’
The vehicle will begin its journey in either the dedicated paint, panel or wheel refurbishment area. Currently, a new state-of-the-art wheel refurbishment facility is under construction, separate from its current location in hanger one. Neil explained, ‘We repair an average of 2.2 wheels per vehicle – with the sheer number we are repairing, you can see why we need a dedicated facility.’
As we made our way back to the dedicated panel area, Neil said, ‘From a bodyshop perspective, this is where it all begins.’ The principles and processes as a bodyshop remain the same, however with a three-figure daily target, it is very much about ensuring panel work is completed to the highest standard, in the quickest time possible.
Once completed, each vehicle will have its final quality control (QC) check to ensure all the damage found at the inspection stage has been rectified, and it meets the vehicle manufacturer’s standards. ‘We use our own internal Total Quality Management system in order to record the QC results. This enables us to monitor for trends and then put the correct training in place,’ said Neil.
As well as hanger one, the site is equipped with a petrol pump, dedicated valeting polytunnels, a large stores area, a dedicated ‘quick-fix’ site for SMART repairs, a polished alloy wheel refurbishment centre and a key carousel tower. At the time, it was difficult to determine if I was more impressed by one tower housing 17,000 keys, or the two employees who knew exactly where each key was located – both I would say equally mind-blowing.
To finish an already impressive day, I was provided with an eye-opening drive to the airfield which is home to the 17,000 vehicles on site. It was a spectacular view – with vehicles as far as the eye could see – it is certainly one view, and one company, I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.