Established in 1990, Cougar Accident Repair Centre in Luton has witnessed its fair share of ups and downs. Following its latest ‘experience’, the business now finds itself in the midst of one of its most exciting periods to date. bodyshop’s Mark Hadaway visited Cougar’s new state-of-the-art facility to find out more.
Cougar Accident Repair Centre is no stranger to the pages of bodyshop and over the years we have documented its evolution – a fire, an industry-wide downturn in volumes and relocation. It’s fair to say it’s not all been plain sailing. Despite this, Cougar has consistently been amongst the top echelon of repairers within the industry, with numerous vehicle manufacturer and work provider approvals and award recognitions. And for good reason too. Its most recent incarnation has seen it enter one of the most exciting eras in its history to date and what’s more bizarre, is that initially, the whole experience was thrust upon them.
‘Back in 2012 the business was served a compulsory purchase order by the local council on our then existing site,’ explained Virgil Blennerhasset, Cougar’s general manager. Simply put, a road was to be built which would dissect the site. ‘We were told we needed to vacate the 30,000sqft site by June 2013,’ said Virgil. ‘Essentially it was then down to us to find a new site taking into consideration all the elements a bodyshop business needs to consider – access, postcode, scale, visibility etc. By no means was it an easy task but the end result has been every bit worth it.’
After much searching, it was in November 2012 that Virgil and Cougar managing director, Gary Cohen first visited what was to be the new site – a 20,000sqft cheese and butter factory, one mile from the existing Crescent Road facility. Despite the internal workings of the facility being divided into segments and bearing no resemblance to the ideal open environment of a bodyshop, a deal was signed and Cougar had found a new home. Work began in January 2013 and Cougar finally moved in July 2013.
‘It wasn’t an easy time managing two sites. We were winding down one site, still repairing 80 plus cars per week, whilst gearing up another facility with new systems and processes in place,’ explained Virgil who described how during the week of the relocation technicians would finish a job at the old site, load up their tools and relocate to the new site ready to start the next job. ‘We finished at the old site on a Friday and I told all the staff they were starting a new job on Monday, albeit as a team,’ said Virgil.
‘Despite the pressure the whole process placed upon us, it has been a real opportunity for us to implement changes that might never have been possible in a traditional ‘working’ environment,’ said Virgil, who is an avid reader of management and leadership texts. ‘We set out in creating this site, and a new business ethos, by taking elements of various efficiency and management related thinking and applying it to the real world of accident repair,’ Virgil surmised. ‘The overriding aim was to create a system by which the car stays within a designated work bay and it doesn’t move until it is ready to be painted and in 80% of cases, this proves successful.’ Technicians receive parts and consumables to their work bay according to the job details contained within the Advance management system – a system Virgil refers to as his ‘virtual workshop controller’.
Another key element to the reboot of the business was looking at accident repair from a customer’s perspective. Virgil explained, ‘This business is about man, method and machine. Of course it’s critical we get the repair element right every time, but again the move allowed us to focus on the customer service element of the business and ask what more could we do to satisfy those people who used our services?’
The answer came in the form of clear signage, ample customer parking, a reception area with coffee machine, and a customer waiting room with magazines, TV and wifi access. Two mobile vehicle damage assessors (VDA) are also now a staple element of the business providing it with a 50/50 split pre-onsite estimate capability.
Now settled into its new site, the business is ‘geared’ for 100 repairs per week operating on a ‘normal’ 8am – 4.30pm, five days per week pattern. It has a staff of 48 including five trainees, with 16 senior ATA technicians, several of whom are multi-skilled. All are managed by Virgil and the team leaders who oversee individual departments. Each morning, the entire team gathers for a production meeting to set the agenda for the day.
Virgil uses his passion for football as an analogy to running a business. ‘Like a football manager my job is to see where everyone best fits within the team to ensure we get the most from them – we need the right people, in the right place, at the right time. At the moment, we have that perfect blend.’
Part of the management ethos is Virgil’s keen eye for consistency for the business in the way it presents itself to customers along with its internal operations. ‘We employ production line thinking but appreciate that at the heart of our business remains a highly skilled, manual job. Systems, processes and procedures are the packaging.’
Consistency also comes in the form of opportunity and incentives for staff, and rules sets. ‘We constantly monitor these elements and find solutions as required,’ said Virgil. ‘Our people are our strength and I want people leading Cougar from the front.’ In support of such philosophy is the procedure which sees a VDA, or ‘customer service engineer’ as Cougar calls them, take ‘ownership’ of a customer from first contact. ‘It has proved very popular and enhanced our repeat business opportunity,’ suggested Virgil.
Such changes again prove how Cougar has adopted a true customer centric approach to business, emphasised by its deployment of a marketing agency constantly monitoring its net promoter score (NPS) rating. ‘NPS is an important measure,’ said Virgil, ‘but more so it’s what sits behind those numbers and the action taken that is key. We received feedback regarding our courtesy cars, and at the time, with the entire fleet coming up for renewal we listened and upgraded them all to the next tier. Subsequently, we have received nothing but praise.’
Within the workshop itself, Cougar works in what Virgil describes as a ‘circle’ – the outer ring being more traditional type repair work, whilst the smaller inner loop is for fast track repairs. Work is directed accordingly at point of assessment. An aluminium booth is also in situ.
The Robotica drying system is used throughout the workshop. Drying arms cover all bays within the workshop, whilst arches are fitted within both oversized spraybooths. ‘Our thinking centres on creating our own constraint within the operation, and that is quite simply how many vehicles/hours we can put through the booths each day,’ explained Virgil.
Cougar’s credentials means it has attracted the eye of many keen to see the business expand its reach. However, Virgil has his own ideas on that and, at present, is not convinced of its appeal. What is higher up the agenda for Virgil is the likely introduction of a shift system, something Virgil is diligently looking into and is exploring opportunities in how to maximise its effectiveness. ‘If we want to repair more cars, I need more people,’ said Virgil. ‘The logical step for that is to introduce a shift system to ensure we maximise utilisation of our current assets. It will be a small team to ensure a continuous flow of selected, repairable jobs through the business – a bit like passing on a relay baton in athletics.’