One vision

Winning one award is impressive, winning two is something else. So, as Sytner BMW Oldbury took to the stage to collect the Medium Bodyshop of the Year Award, joint with Fix Auto Mid Devon, and the Bodyshop Manager of the Year Award at the 2014 bodyshop Awards, I knew this was a company I needed to visit. Truthfully, the best part of any award visit is when you realise ‘why’ the company won – and for Sytner BMW Oldbury, and its bodyshop manager Brendan Elston, it certainly didn’t take long. Rebekah Clements reports.

‘To win was such a shock. I was desperately disappointed I couldn’t be there,’ said Brendan, who due to prior-engagements couldn’t make the glittering ceremony. ‘Winning wasn’t because of the facilities, or because I’m the bodyshop manager, it was because of us – the team.’ In his absence, John McKinnon, the site’s front-of-house manager was given ‘a memory of a lifetime’ as the business provided him, and his wife, with a new six series BMW as transport, a brand-new three piece suit and accommodation in the event venue, the prestigious Celtic Manor.

Purchase

Prior to becoming an award-winning Sytner BMW bodyshop, the site originally traded as Rydale before it was purchased back in 2007 by Sytner, which Brendan describes as a ‘great company, that invests in great people’. He said, ‘I joined Rydale in 2006, six months before it became Sytner BMW Oldbury. Rydale were looking for a bodyshop manager at the time, when I was co-running a bodyshop in Birmingham for Volvo, and I decided to take the challenge on – I was ready for it.’ Sytner subsequently purchased the building, and eight years on the three-story, 25,000sqft facility is oozing with modern appeal.

The site, which repairs around 400 vehicles per month, is just over a mile from the main Sytner dealership, so not only can it support the network but it also prevents any accident damaged cars being on view – a ‘must’ in Brendan’s opinion.

Ethos

The ethos of Sytner not only attracted Brendan, but his son too, James Elston and wife, Lisa Elston who both work for the company.

‘James is the future of this industry. I hope he will follow in my footsteps and move into bodyshop management one day,’ said Brendan, whose son works in the ‘implant’ bodyshop at BMW Sytner Birmingham.

‘Sytner BMW Birmingham was created to retain a bigger area of postcode capture,’ Brendan explained. ‘If any customers visit another Sytner dealership for an estimate they could be missed.’ Therefore, the dealership now carries out the initial estimate to gain authority, before feeding the work to Sytner BMW Oldbury. As a result, the Birmingham dealership gets to retain the parts profit, which in 2014 amounted to an impressive turnover of £130,000. Now, the site has implant bodyshops in Sutton, Solihull and Coventry.

Shortage

Even with numerous implant bodyshops and record profits for two years running, Brendan is quick to reiterate he is ‘very much aware’ of the shortage of quality bodyshop personnel – a key area of concern for any forward-thinking manager.

‘There is a huge skills shortage at the moment, and it’s a problem which is developing. Over the next five years I don’t think there is going to be enough people in our industry to have any sort of succession plan,’ said Brendan, who is currently working closely with BMW with both its apprenticeship scheme and as a member of its council to ensure future prospects.

As a result, Brendan has since created his own methods of ensuring staff ‘of the future’. He said, ‘It seems a strange thing to state, but the employees I’ve had success stories with are the ones that had little direction in school, or the ones who didn’t achieve the highest grades.’ Now, Brendan doesn’t ask job applicants for a curriculum vitae (CV), which many don’t have, instead his approach is to ‘talk to the person, not the paper’.

Success

While many may consider a CV to be a key decider, Brendan’s refreshing way of employing staff has certainly led to numerous ‘success stories’ as he calls them.

Not only has he employed a number of families, including a father and his two sons, but he has also employed his long-standing mechanic’s son who has dyslexia. ‘He couldn’t write an application form, but he was so technical. Now, he has finalised his apprenticeship and his work is second to none,’ said Brendan.

It certainly doesn’t stop there. Brendan was also approached by a youngster who was keen to get into the local motor college, Sandwell. Although there wasn’t a job for him at Sytner BMW Oldbury, Brendan ‘knew he didn’t want anyone else to have him’. His few days of work experience soon turned into six weeks, however the hard work paid off when Brendan presented him with a letter stating he had not only got him into Sandwell College, but he was also going to employ him.

‘You could see he wanted it. He is the future of this industry,’ Brendan stated. ‘The way I run this business is completely different to anybody else. It’s not over-the-shoulder management, I give my staff 100%, but I want more back. It’s an open door policy and I welcome any ideas. It’s our department, not mine.’

Team

Walking me around the bodyshop, Brendan felt it was important to introduce me to each staff member as ‘it’s too easy to just walk people around. We are one team, one vision, whether it’s now or in the future.’

Therefore, I had the absolute pleasure of taking a tour of the facility and individually meeting every single team member which, according to Brendan, are the reason behind the company’s success.

Never before had I been personally introduced to each staff member within a bodyshop, and it certainly showed what a company can achieve when you bring together 33 people who all share the same passion. There was a certain ‘spark’ about the Sytner Oldbury team – and one I certainly won’t forget.

Investment

The business has invested heavily in both the facilities and the staff to ensure a successful and rewarding working environment. The second floor is dedicated to a ‘staff quarters’ and each technician is provided with their own £2,500 toolbox and working bay and, late last year, each team member was given £50 as a result of winning the bodyshop Award.

The bodyshop itself, which caters for 80% BMW and MINI work, has also undergone great investment to provide the best facilities possible for the team. Along with 42 effective working bays and four moveable spraybooths, Brendan also invested £40,000 in a full baking booth solution for its SMART repair work, which generates £30,000 a month for the business. The bodyshop also has a complete wheel refurbishment solution, or a ‘business within a business’, which turns over £10,000 per month – a major advancement from what began as ‘simply a crate on the floor’.

A prep centre, a service department and a valeting unit, as well as one and a half floors of over 120,000 parts is also present at the site. Each vehicle being repaired also has its own cage and number with all delicate parts bubble wrapped and stored upstairs.

Next

‘My aim for 2015 is staff retention and succession planning. Any bodyshop manager who isn’t looking five years ahead is setting themselves up to fail,’ concluded Brendan, who is also looking at hiring three more panel apprentices this year.

The bodyshop and its facilities were more than impressive yet, heading back home, Brendan’s style of management and his team of 33 stuck in my mind. Brendan said earlier he often ‘shies away’ from the limelight – but I certainly won’t hold back from singing his, the company’s and the team’s praises wherever I go.