24 Feb 2024

Everything is A-O.K at AAK

Aftermarket drops in on Whitstable’s AAK Auto Services, the winners of the Ben Health and Wellbeing Award at Top Garage 2023

AAK has been serving customers in and around Whitstable since first opening in 2000. Originally founded by Tony Jahlly, the business is now headed by his son Anthony, who leads a team of 17 working out of a number of units.

Anthony observed: “AAK is named after me, Anthony, Adam, my brother, and Kimberly, my sister. In 2000, you opened up the Yellow Pages and it was all in alphabetical order. Being AAK puts you at the top. We started off as AAK Tyres, then we moved into AAK Auto Services, and we got bigger. We offer such an array now that we’ve got AAK Paint, we’ve got AAK Fast Fit. We’ve also got AAK Auto Service, AAK Tyres, AAK Air-Con and so on.”

The business is based on an industrial unit inland from the town: “We had one unit that we rented, outgrew that and realised that we needed to do MOTs. Then we bought two units, got the MOT station and some more ramps there and started adapting to that. Then I came in and joined my dad and then we bought two more units and expanded again. Then we moved our reception over here. A few years ago, we bought four more units.”

Most of AAK is based in a number of connected units, with one more a short walk across the way. A single customer reception is the fixed centre from where everything flows. Anthony explained how the space is divided: “We are technically all one site, but the garage itself is split into a few different sections. We’ve got the fast-fit side, which has five ramps, covering brakes, suspension, tyres; Everything that can be in and out in a day. Then we’ve got the MOT side of it. We can have two MOTs going at the same time. Then we’ve got the EV bay. We’ve got the EV chargers this side, floors all done in rubber, all the insulation outside, all the special tools, all the diagnostic tools. Upstairs from there we’ve got a classroom for in-house training.”

The garage takes on longer-term mechanical jobs too, and these are performed in a dedicated unit. “The bigger, more labour-intensive jobs get done here. So that might be an engine change, or cylinder heads being done.”

Then there is the aforementioned paint shop, which is back over with the main run of units: “I knew nothing about paint. What I’ve learned with doing the EV side and doing the fast-fit side is to get people that enjoy what they do and give them the opportunity to do it in a nice place and they flourish.”

Anthony believes in the one-stop shop solution: “You need a haircut; You go to your hairdresser. Your car breaks down; You go to a garage. Not everyone’s got a paint shop they go to because it’s very up and down. You only need it when you need it. So, by backing up onto our name, we can go somewhere where you trust because they already know the AAK brand. If you trust us to fit your brakes, why would you not trust us to paint your car?”

On how he set it up, Anthony said: “I went to LKQ and said ‘I’ve got an empty unit, and I want to turn it into a paint shop’, and they set us up. Alliance Automotive sorted the booth out for us. We’ve got two really good guys come in. I’ve left it in their hands regarding what equipment we need. Now we’re looking at ways to expand it.” What Anthony has done is integrate the offering: “For example, we have a Tesla in our EV bay today for some work, and we upsold so the customer is having the wheels refurbished while it is here.”

Then there is the training room upstairs, which is part of a larger strategy at play: “We’re getting older techs that are working for garages that aren’t investing or aren’t moving forward and they’re coming here for the training, because they want to progress. We are going to give them the space to do it. Alliance Automotive hold their training courses here for the South East. Anyone that’s a Group Auto member gets a certain number of training days for free, and so they come here.”

With 17 members of staff, you need to know how to manage them. Each section of the business has its own leadership, and the techs generally stick to their general skills area. Anthony observed: “There’s no Jack-of-all-trades mechanics anymore. You can’t be really good at diagnostics and then really good at engine building and then really good at fast fitting. Some people like doing certain things. So, my Fast-Fit guys, they like just smashing jobs out. End of the day, they’re going home, they’re not thinking about work. Then, there’s my guys that like building engines. They want to do the longer jobs. Then the other guys that are strong on diagnostics. If I asked them to do a head gasket, I think they’d tell me to do one. I find out what the boys like to do and push them to do that. If you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it’s not a hard day at work.”

Top Garage
The fact that Anthony seems to have a knack for keeping his team happy and motivated seems to bring us naturally to the company’s win at Top Garage. The Ben Workplace Health and Wellbeing Award was new in 2023, and AAK was the inaugural winner. On how they grabbed the gong, Anthony observed: “We do lots of one-to-ones. Each guy gets the opportunity to talk with their own management or with me, at least once or twice a year. I always have a sit down with every member of staff and discuss their career path and life. Are they looking at buying a house this year? Are they looking at having kids? When’s that baby due? If we know what’s going on, then we can help. If their head’s not in the right place, then we can jump on that as well.”

Based on what we have seen, it’s no surprise that Anthony is looking ahead: “PassThru has been a big thing for the last two years and we’ve really embraced it. LKQ have just given us a computer to test out for them because that’s the next step. We can fit the parts, but if we can’t programme them or we can’t do software updates, then you’re stuck. It’s ridiculous, but we’re going into it. Moaning about it isn’t going to change minds at the car manufacturers. This is how we’ve approached DPFs and EGRs.”

Change is the constant at AAK. As we were about to leave, Anthony pointed out a plumbing supplies outlet next door to the main garage: “We have bought that as well. The aim is to leave them running for about a year or so and then move in and expand the EV side. The more stuff other people don’t want to do, the more stuff that we can do, but we need to make room for it.”

Anthony concluded: “I’m not one of these hyper-analysis data guys. At the end of the day, if you’re in a workshop, you know when you’ve had a good day. We’ve got to where we are by doing the right job and doing it properly.”