Down on the farm
Aftermarket recently had a look at what goes on behind the scenes at ISN Europe, the brand above ISN Garage Assist, Tyre Bay Direct and more
Strategically well-positioned in the East of England, ISN has set up its own little empire that spreads across The Fens and beyond, with a number of sites serving the overall business.
Our visit started at the company’s showroom, on an industrial estate in rural Cambridgeshire. Here, prospective and existing customers can get a close-up look at the equipment. A wide array of lifts and machines from across the ISN portfolio is on display, taking in ISN Garage Assist, Tyre Bay Direct and the various brands, including Hofmann Megaplan, Balco and Cascos, offered by the two companies that sit under the ISN Europe banner.
The site is also used for training, and when we were there, a local supplier had a number of staff being instructed on the latest tyre changing machines by Andy Currell, their Training Manager. ISN has its main office nearby, but also has meeting facilities above the showroom, which was where we were able to sit down with the original founder of Hofmann Megaplan, and now Chief Executive Officer James Boon.
Starting with some background, James said: “The foundation of this business was Hofmann Megaplan, which I started in 2004. It became market leader and then in 2016 was acquired by Integrated Supply Network (ISN), who are the largest independent tool supplier in the USA. No one in the UK had heard of them, because they had no presence here at that time and, even in the USA, were largely a distribution business handling famous brands like Milwaukee, Bosch and Robinair.
“They had acquired a sizable garage equipment business in the States, realised it went hand in glove with tools and decided they wanted to expand over here. They identified a number of strategic businesses including Hofmann Megaplan, Tyre Bay Direct, J&S Products in Norwich and AMN in Leicester, which was purely a garage equipment service business. You put that together and make it greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately it has become ISN Europe, which now trades as three different businesses; ISN Garage Assist, Tyre Bay Direct and ToolTruck.”
He continued: “We sell some great brands; Apart from Hofmann Megaplan, we’ve got Balco, we have the Spanish-built lift, Cascos, and we have Rav, an excellent Italian brand. I always like to think of us as custodians of the world’s best equipment brands. We want to set our stall out with brands and products that we have exclusivity on, that we can really be loyal to and work with long-term, but more importantly, they enable us to be a complete one-stop-shop.
“We start right at the entry level with Redback, which we market through Tyre Bay Direct. Years ago, this was my competitor, and now it’s part of the family. Every tyre business has to start somewhere. Some might say ‘I’m only starting out, so I just want a cheap tyre changer’. That’s fine and if that’s what the customer really wants, we’ve got it. Then, when they realise they’re starting to sell a lot of tyres and need something better, we’ve formed a bond and we can part-exchange it.
“What we’re very good at is explaining to people that if you spend more it’s cheaper because it will last so much longer and you will not damage wheels and you won’t turn away business. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true.”
It certainly helps with customer retention, as James observed: “20% of our incoming enquiries are existing customers coming back. On warranties, my view has always been if something goes wrong a month outside of two years, we might go halves, or we might do it for free, depending on the circumstances.”
The headcount at ISN now numbers 100 across the brands, and James believes the enduring family-feel helps the business: “I think the cultural side of it is really important for us because finding customers is easy, and selling the product is also easy, but keeping a harmonious relationship with customers and maintaining a reputation as you get bigger is really difficult.”
We had a lot to see that day, so now it was time to head off to Oundle, 25 minutes away across the county border in Northamptonshire, to see the company’s very life-like training centre. Situated on an industrial estate on the outskirts of the market town, the centre offers an authentic workshop feel for team members undergoing training.
The company was running out of space at its National Distribution Centre (NDC), which we would see later. Oundle was taken on for storage, but soon it was clear that the site was better suited to being used for training. Inside the anonymous single-storey industrial building, there is a range of equipment, including tyre changers, wheel balancers, air-con equipment and lifts. Once a week, engineers from the company will be receiving training here, and new employees are sent here too. Much of the training is performed by the company’s product specialists Neal Stote and Mark Bristow, along with Andy Currell.
Commenting on the training centre, James observed: “It’s not glamorous because it doesn’t need to be. It’s fitted out with used equipment, like in real life, so that people can come in and we can show them how to fix it.”
It was then time to jump back in the car and motor back into Cambridgeshire to head to the company’s National Distribution Centre (NDC), the final part of our visit. “I still affectionately call it The Farm,” smiled James, which was fair enough, as it is on an actual farm, specifically the Boon family farm, which is still working, and run by James’ father.
“When I first started, I told him I’ve got some machines coming over from Italy, and I asked if I could store them in one of the sheds. The rest is history.”
Now, there are a number of specifically-built industrial units, all blending into the vast agricultural landscape around it. “We even have what used to be the farm hand’s bungalow, which is actually where I was born” said James. “It’s been fully refurbished and the engineers can stay overnight there.”
The site includes storage for stock imported from around the world, that is then shipped onto customers, as well as facilities for reconditioning part-exchanged stock that has come in. That’s not all though, as the company’s parts department is also based on the site, with staff manning the phones to help customers and engineers with any issues they might have with equipment.
“The bit I’m really proud of,” observed James, “is that we test everything before it goes out. If you visit most equipment suppliers, you’ll see a warehouse full of product, and it goes out in the box it arrived in. Here, we’ve got a full team of people who assemble and test every single piece of equipment that’s sold by ISN Garage Assist. This means we know there’s no air leaks, no motor that’s not going to work, and nothing is missing. We call it our PDI department. It’s an expense that you don’t need to have, but I think it makes a big difference.”
Even with the scale of the set-up, and the systems in place, you still need to make sure the kit gets into the garages, and get it installed. Then there is servicing: “We’ve got 45 technicians on the road,” said James, “but even then, there are inevitable delays. It’s very difficult to say to a customer, ‘yeah, we can come out to you, but it’s going to be two weeks’.”
With this in mind, ISN intends to widen its reach. James explained: “We’re putting together what we call an Accredited Service Partner scheme. What we’ve done is select a number of partners across the UK which are independent, mainly family-owned, garage equipment businesses that can sell anything and service anything, but they’ve got a good reputation. We have partnered with them. We train them as well as we do our own people. They will have direct access to our people for technical help and special prices on equipment and spares. In return we’ve created a charter so they meet our requirements. We are about to launch that.”
“These are people that have relationships with their local customers and they’re seen as credible reference points. What I’ve found with independent garage equipment people is that they’re very honest. They will say what they genuinely think is the best product.”
James moved away from a leadership role in the business for a number of years, and was on the side working on product development, but just over a year ago, he found himself taking on the mantle again. Concluding with where he thinks the business is now, he added: “I stepped back in to bring back the personal touch, and I think it’s working. We’ve got a really good team. I’ve always said you can have a really good product at a really good price, but it’s the people that really make it.”