Here comes the sun

Published:  25 June, 2017

A Suffolk garage proprietor has gone totally over to solar power, just in time for summer. Mark Bradley, owner of Spot On Tuning in Denham is running his business entirely via solar panels. He used 240-volt arrays from his other business, a mobile solar power hire firm called Solar Decker he has run since 2007.

The workshop business is now is being powered by the solar array set up on the eponymous Solar Decker, a double-decker bus re-purposed to provide solar energy.

Speaking to Aftermarket a week after going off-grid in June, Mark said: “It is definitely lowering my costs. At the moment I am only using the bus. I hooked up to the garage and I am getting 100 per cent full power since last Wednesday when officially went off grid.

“158 kilowatt hours have been used. You always have to charge fore more hours than you can get out. I am very well charged as we speak."

The power unit consists of two for lift batteries. Each cell is 2 volts and there are 24 cells. Each one is 1,000 amp hours, which equals 1,000 amps hours at 48 volts.

He intends to run off-grid until the summer ends: “I want to keep this going for as long as I can, until the winter comes. It’s more about the environmental concern. At least I know where my power is coming from. It’s the energy source of the future. It used to be too expensive, but now it’s a lot more affordable.”

Related Articles

  • Bigger is better – right? 

    I was asked whether expanding a garage business to become multi-site was practical or, indeed, even feasible, which got me thinking.
        
    Fundamentally, a business exists to create wealth, both as cash and as an asset. This then benefits the owner(s) and employees, or any shareholders.
        
    The basic principles of the business are to provide goods and services to meet the needs of their customers, who pay accordingly. The turnover/cash flow generated then pays for the costs of providing those goods and services (employees, suppliers etc), leaving any surplus as profit, on which tax may be due. Therefore, in a logical process, the greater the turnover and the lower the costs, the greater the profit – simple!
        
    So, if a business is working well, surely if you just keep replicating what it does in other locations to other customers then you would just keep generating greater profits? Here comes the ‘but’. This concept applies but only in certain circumstances.

    Personal touch
    If we look at a successful independent garage, it is often the enthusiasm, commitment and business acumen of the owner which creates the success, frequently based on good customer service at a personal level. The ‘brand value’ of the business is quite literally in the hands of the owner. It is therefore challenging to successfully replicate this if another branch is opened as this ‘personal touch’ is then split between two locations. If three locations exist, this becomes even more thinly spread and increasingly reliant on the quality and commitment of other staff to deliver the original brand values.
        
    Therefore, a self-imposed ‘glass ceiling’ is created. It is felt that the maximum number of locations that can be successfully emulated is three. However, if you do plan to expand, how do you know when this should happen and what are the key issues to consider to enable you to create successful clones of your business?
        
    The most important point is to identify the key benefit of your business that has created the foundation of your success – your Unique Selling Point (USP). Once you have identified this, it is then imperative that you understand how this can be replicated. It will be important that you can ‘stand out from the crowd’ as any new site will have to establish itself quickly from a standing start. Remember that marketing is not about winning the war to be the best product or service but about winning the hearts and minds of your customers. Additionally, do not be too cautious about setting your prices higher as most customers do not buy on price and carefully selecting your target audience should support your pricing level. Aim to be the leader rather than just another player in the marketplace.
        
    So having identified what your new location will emulate, the next critical step is to understand the automated and integrated systems that need to be in place to allow your businesses to be effectively monitored and managed. This becomes increasingly important as any new site is created as your management time will become increasingly shared. You will not be able to rely on manual systems and the various elements of data will need to become ever more integrated. For example, wages, invoicing, workshop revenue, parts purchases and so on, need to be coordinated, otherwise, quite literally, your numbers will not add up.         Any system that you do implement must also be scalable and have multi-user access, otherwise you will lose the support of your managers and staff at this critical time of an expanding business.
        
    It will not be possible to retain your original ‘hands on’ management style and this will mean that you will lose visibility of the business as well as having to implement new legislative and policy requirements for new staff and premises.
      
    From the purely financial perspective, new businesses rarely fail because of a lack of profitability but fail due to a lack of cash. Any new location will be a cash consumer until it becomes established, so this will require adequate funding and a clear visibility of cash flow from both your existing business as well as the new location as this starts to grow. The key financial elements should include:

    •    Direct visibility of the daily results
    •    Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and management information
    •    Actual results versus budgets or forecasts
    •    Profitability
    •    Customer debts
    •    Supplier payments (due dates and values)

    The better you can demonstrate the financial visibility, control of the business and achievement of your business plan, the easier it will be, both for yourself and when working with your bank.

    A strong team
    This then leads onto perhaps the most difficult element of growing any business – good quality managers and staff. This creates two immediate problems – firstly, who to delegate your existing business to and secondly, who to appoint to run your new business. In both cases, not only must this individual, or individuals (it could be that you appoint a single deputy and share the tasks) be professionally competent but they must also share your company ethos to ensure that what made your company successful in the first place can continue to be delivered.
        
    Finally, if what you have is truly transferrable then ask yourself if it could be franchised.
        
    My personal opinion is that this is unlikely unless your USP is based on a specialist niche part of the market. If this is the case, although this may create an opportunity, by definition, niche market sectors offer limited potential. You will also have to ask yourself if a potential franchisee couldn’t just do this for themselves without (quite literally) buying in to your franchise offer?
        
    So, if you are considering expansion into other sites, ensure you have the right systems in place, that your existing business USP can be successfully emulated, have competent managers who share you ethos and then it is just a case of finding the right location(s) – which is another different challenge altogether!

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  • THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL... 

    Workshop owners need to think hard about investment decisions. With that in mind, I’ve used my last two articles to look at a business management tool called value proposition design, which can help us to work out where to spend our cash.
        
    We saw that it involves understanding our customers’ needs, which we do by identifying the jobs they want to achieve, and the positive and negative factors associated with them, respectively known as gains and pains. We then looked at how a business can identify products and services that might help customers complete their jobs, which, in turn, will either create the customers’ desired gains or relieve their undesired pains. These gain creators and pain relievers provide benefit to customers. Thus, investments in the right products and services increase our value proposition.
        
    Our investment decisions are usually complicated by the fact that they can represent a chicken-and-egg situation: Money is needed to support the creation and delivery of products and services, yet profitable products and services are needed to create money (at the very least you will need to show that you will have good profitability if you are borrowing to fund your investment). As such, there are two measures of success of our value proposition: Whether it provides real value to our customers and whether it can be deliverable within a sustainable business model.
        
    This article introduces a concept known as fit, which is the extent to which a company’s offerings match the needs of its target customers and are delivered within a sustainable business. Fit, therefore, represents the yardstick by which the success of a value proposition is assessed.
        
    There are three levels of fit of a value proposition to a customer (segment) profile:

    Problem-solution (‘on paper’)
    If we take the value proposition discussed in my last article and check it against the customer segment profile created in the preceding article, we can check their fit. We do this by going through the pain relievers and gain creators one by one and checking to see whether they match a customer job, pain or gain. We can physically visualise this degree of fit by putting a check mark on each one that does (see Figure 1).
        
    In this example, we have used our experience to the identify some jobs, pains and gains that customers might care about, and then created a value proposition to try to address them. However, at this point, we do not have any material evidence of the potential success of these products and services, gain creators or pain relievers. I.e. the fit is only evident on paper. The next step is to find evidence that customers care about the value proposition, or to start over designing a new one, if it is found that the customers don’t care.

    Product-market (‘in the market’)
    Once your products and services have been made available to customers, you will soon see whether they provide value to your customers and gain traction in the market place: customers are the ultimate, most ruthless, judge and jury of your products and services.
        
    When assessing product-market fit, it is important to check and double-check the assumptions underlying your value proposition, i.e. have you correctly identified and prioritised the relative importance of the customer’s jobs, pains and gains? Have you provided things that customers don’t care about, and will you have to amend your value propositions, or start again?
        
    Business model (‘in the bank’)
    Your business model is the way your business is geared up to generate revenue and burn cash whilst you are creating and delivering a value proposition to your customers.
        
    The search for business model fit involves reaching a state where you have a value proposition that creates value for customers (products and services they want) and a business model that creates value (profit) for your organisation. You don’t have business model fit until you can sustainably generate more revenues with your value proposition than you incur costs to create and deliver it.

    Context
    The potential value of our products and services, and the associated gain creators and pain relievers, doesn’t just depend on their match to the customer’s jobs, pains and gains. It also depends on the circumstances in which they are offered; i.e. their value is dependent on context.
        
    For vehicle owners, an example might be the value of breakdown services. Have you ever signed-up for these from the hard-shoulder of a motorway? You’ll notice that you don’t get much of a discount. Those offers that you might have seen on the internet beforehand will suddenly seem pretty good value. These differences are because the breakdown service companies know full well that the perceived value of their services depends on context!
        
    As such, businesses must identify the contexts in which their products and services will be offered. For example, a customer’s priorities will differ depending on whether they are broken down, have an expired MOT, need a replacement bulb in night time driving conditions, or are just booked-in for scheduled servicing etc. It is possible that each context might require its own value proposition.

    Focus
    For a customer having a given set of jobs and associated pains and gains, there are many ways a business might design a value proposition to achieve a fit. This is certainly true in our industry, in which there are many competing types of service and repair provider. Each has tweaked its value proposition to suit a given type of vehicle owner or context:

    Independent workshops, often offering a large range of products and services as a kind of one-stop-shop to the ‘general’ motorist, usually aim to generate sufficiently high revenues by inspiring maximum loyalty from customers and trying to meet all their needs under one roof. These businesses require constant investment to provide the services necessary to keep-up-to-date with changes in motor vehicle technology and face a continuous challenge to monetise the value of every additional service.  Many diagnostic (or recalibration) services are still not well understood by customers, and workshops have to work hard to educate them, so that they can ‘appreciate’ their value. Convenience must also play a relatively significant part in their value proposition.
      
    Fast-fit operations are all about convenience: Their customers can get in and out fast, without any notice, and, hopefully, with the minimum of disruption to their lives. The businesses require large stock inventories to ensure that there are no supply-related delays. By concentrating on only the fast-moving (the most commonly needed) products, these businesses can remain highly scalable and profitable: although they limit the scope of their products and services, to reduce costs, their sales volumes allow them to retain considerable buying power. Their customers love the convenience and prices they can offer given the buying power (and increasing integration with the parts supply chain) that the larger fast-fit chains have. Main dealers, I think, rely more on social or emotional pains and gains to draw in their customers (e.g. think about the image they work hard on purveying or the potential manipulation of customer perceptions of safety, both driven by presenting themselves as the most qualified to work on a given make of vehicle). They need to work hard to offer convenience (e.g. courtesy cars, rapid turn-around, customer/vehicle pick-up or drop-off etc.) as their dealerships, geographically-speaking, are relatively sparsely distributed amongst the population. Some vehicle owners (ironically, those most likely to buy their next vehicle from a dealership) will also be concerned with the resale value of their car and may seek to maintain a full dealer service history to try to maximise its value.
        
    Following the above, broadly-defined, categories of businesses, there comes specialists, offering a smaller range of products and services to increasingly niche customer segments or contexts: e.g. independent specialists (single-make specialists combining aspects of both the independent workshop and main-dealer value propositions), diagnostic specialists (as with breakdown and recovery specialists, when you need them, you need them – and they should charge accordingly), component-repair specialists (e.g. transmission specialists).
        
    Then there is the remaining plethora of value propositions available to vehicle owners: breakdown and recovery services (apart from their normal role helping those in distress, I’m sure they would agree that they also play a role in repairing vehicles for those that place no value whatsoever on preventative maintenance…); mobile technicians (perhaps offering the ultimate in convenience in certain contexts?); and, my favourite, the chancers (that bloke in the pub who once changed a side-light and now thinks he can charge an equally stupid idiot to fit a new timing chain for them…).

    Future
    We’ve seen from the above that a stack of value propositions is competing for our vehicle-owning customers. As such, our value proposition design work and derived knowledge, can inform a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis of our business. So far, all these competing businesses have managed to co-exist and thrive within an industry that is set-up to offer value to private vehicle owners. However, take a look at Figure 1 again – what might be arriving in the future that could represent a threat to not only an independent workshop but the entire sector? How about Vehicle-as-a-Service (VaaS), a.k.a. car-on-demand? This single value proposition removes an awful lot of the hassle of vehicle ownership (equivalent to automotive morphine…) and provides many gains. In fact, it is so disruptive that it removes/changes the very nature of the customer segment; vehicle ownership becomes almost redundant. Should it be a surprise that one of the few barriers to widespread adoption of VaaS (the convenience of making short, necessary, journeys, e.g. to pick up milk when nearby shops are closed) is being addressed by a company that is seeking to provide VaaS: i.e. Amazon whom are also developing drone delivery systems?
        
    When it comes to the ultimate value proposition, may be there can be only one.
        
    I’ll leave that thought with you.



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