Surely the bodyshop team have seen every imaginable type of bodyshop? Over the years we’ve been to tiny, family run businesses with two men and a dog, and huge, flash facilities with marble floors and a customer reception fit for a Hello! photo shoot. And everything in between. But nothing could prepare me for my recent visit to James Alpe, an award-winning family firm based in Clitheroe, Lancashire. Kelly Dalwood reports.
James Alpe is Ribble Valley born and bred. His family run a farm and James began by repairing agricultural machinery for neighbours and friends. Soon, demand was such that this became repairing tractors and cars and, before long, as James put it: ‘We found we had more cars than cows.'
In 1978, James decided to set up a vehicle repair business which grew steadily. In 1992, he bought a piece of land and built a massive facility to house the James Alpe group of businesses. The site is almost two acres in size with 65,000 sq ft of workshop space and 70 employees. Two years ago James added a new state-of-the-art office block, reception and showroom facility to reflect its prestige approvals.
For any James Bond fans out there, if former Rover apprentice James Alpe hadn’t moved from farming to body repair, he could have had a lucrative career as Q – Bond’s gadget man. The knowledge and enthusiasm that James and his team have for finding engineered solutions to complex problems is incredible. Not least the unique security fence and gate system that surrounds the site. The fully-automated system (which was designed, fabricated and installed by the company) has a gate and fence that are invisible during the day, preserving the neat and welcoming external appearance of the building. Out of hours, the high security gate and fence kicks into action to secure the site. This unique feature was used to attract some of the police contracts who have commented on the robust security offered.
The reception and showroom area is like a toy shop. From the outside, the Contravision building stickers – two way decals which externally promote the services offered but internally appear as normal glass – welcome visitors to look around the displays of parking sensors and hog roast machines (more on those later).
You often hear the term ‘one-stop shop’ but at James Alpe there’s no better way to describe the services on offer. James Alpe does the lot, everything from accident repair to vehicle conversions, sign design and print to car and van hire and MOTs.
Even the term accident repair does little to describe the scope of work undertaken here. As James Alpe explained, ‘We have the capability to repair any vehicle, everything from LCVs, motorhomes, Unimogs, ambulances, underwater search and rescue vehicles, police horseboxes and tractors to, of course, cars.'
Lee Boyle is the Bodyshop Manager and welcomes the challenges of running a large repair operation. Over the past 12 months, lead time has been cut and downtime has reduced after a concerted effort to improve efficiencies throughout the business. Lee said that upgrading to a new EMACS management system helped boost efficiencies in the workshop. ‘It has given us tighter control of the volume going into the shop with better MI being produced,’ he said.
With vehicle manufacturer approvals from Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Peugeot, Fiat, Fiat CV, Alfa Romeo and Mitsubishi, plus several major insurance approvals and fleet contracts, Lee manages a busy accident repair team.
It’s clear to see the investment that’s gone into the workshop: not least £8,000 on lighting and new large capacity spraybooths which were being fitted during my visit.
The in-house capabilities are an impressive combination of traditional, panel fabrication and repair craftsmanship and advanced electrical engineering techniques, making James Alpe one of the leading vehicle conversion businesses in the UK. Everything from small conversions to its body building projects are carried out in steel fabrication and woodwork shops. The multi-skilled staff can move them from one department to another based on business needs. This requires continuous investment in training, something which the company has been recognised for.
Earlier this year, the business won two awards from Training 2000: Best Supporting Company, in recognition of its commitment to apprentices and training, and employee Chris Astley – a finalist in last year’s bodyshop/Thatcham Craft Awards – was named as the Advanced Apprentice of the Year. James Alpe also reached this year's finals in the Motor Trader Awards and is a finalist for the second year running in the bodyshop Large Bodyshop of the Year Award.
It was fascinating to watch the team as they worked on a new design for air-conditioned police dog training vehicles. Also being assembled were custom-built prison cells, which are powder coated and then fitted into police vans.
The company receives a large amount of work from various public sector businesses such as police and ambulance services. ‘Because we design and manufacture these types of vehicle conversions, we understand exactly how best to repair the fleets,’ said James.
Working with public sector clients means meeting precise requirements such as repair quality and standards, and achieving the Kitemark enabled James Alpe to demonstrate this. Maintaining good relationships with fleet managers is also essential. This responsibility lies with Business Development Manager, Alison Goossens, who has been at the company for three years.
‘After many years of carrying out repairs for Lancashire Constabulary and North West Ambulance, we decided to brave the public sector tendering world,’ said Alison. ‘We were delighted to win our first contract, building police cell vans for North Yorkshire Police, and have since been awarded a number of other prestigious contracts.’
Just about every upselling opportunity is sold; services include parking sensors (with a working parking sensor demo that beeps as soon as you walk into reception), air-conditioning, full valets, tyres, MOTs and servicing, Smart and cosmetic repairs and wheel alignment.
‘This year we made a concentrated effort of upselling additional services on the website, via dedicated marketing material and training of estimators to capture business at an early stage,’ said Alison. ‘We’ve also focused on prestige repairs by targeting specific work providers and promoting flood damaged engine repairs: most main dealers would advocate engine replacement, but repairing the engines saves the insurer/customer huge costs.’
The customer experience at James Alpe is certainly second to none. Customers are able to drop off cars from 6am and collect a courtesy car. The truly unique 72-strong courtesy car fleet includes short and long wheelbase vans, and 4x4s. ‘For many of our customers, their vehicles are working vehicles and any downtime means loss of income,’ said Lee Boyle.
Not content with repairing just about every vehicle under the sun, James is also involved in the manufacture of hog roast machines. These are designed and fabricated in-house and sold through an independent company. There are two units on display in the showroom and James casually mentioned how they’d recently produced a custom-built hog roast machine for Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant in London.
‘It’s just another use of metal,’ said James, ‘and it makes use of the fantastic range of engineering skills that we have within the business.’
Guess what? There was so much to see I completely forgot to ask about the famous James Alpe self-service dog wash facility. However, it’s a great excuse to go back in the near future.