21 Jun 2024
The voice of the independent garage sector

King of the hill

Hillclimb Garage is based in Downley, a village on the outskirts of  High Wycombe. The garage itself is based in a former Renault dealership that later became an independent used car retailer.
As you might expect from an ex-dealership, the workshop is pretty big: “We’ve got seven working bays, five of which are fully operational with ramps,” said owner Mark Darvill. “Next year we are putting another ramp in.”
Mark bought Hillclimb Garage two years ago, following a career where he had worked with many of the major factor names supplying the aftermarket.
“My history is with Allparts,” said Mark. The name may be familiar to some readers. “I started there as a warehouse boy and ended up as a shareholder and Managing Director. We were a founder member of The Parts Alliance way back in 2000, with the likes of Andrew Page and Camberley Auto Factors and several of the other big names that have gone now. We sold it in 2012 to HG Capital.” After an additional two years with the company, he moved onto a series of consultancy roles and other positions across the sector, but he still had a dream that kept pushing out from the back of his head: “I always had this idea that I wanted to run a workshop and I heard on the grapevine that Hillclimb Garage was up for sale. The rest is history.”
The garage currently fields a team of nine, including two on the service desk and four technicians, three of whom are MOT testers. Rounding out the team are an apprentice, now in his second year and a general assistant who cleans cars, as well as collecting and dropping off for customers among other duties.
“We’re looking for another service adviser and another technician,” he observed. “We’re currently having to push people up to three weeks into the future for their bookings, and of course, not everybody can wait, so we’ve got to invest further in people.”

Where it had been a used car dealer running the garage side as almost a separate business, Hillclimb Garage is now entirely a service and repair operation: “We’ve transformed the place. We’ve invested heavily in the workshop, completely refitted it from top to bottom. We renewed the workstations, and we’re now renewing the ramps. We’ve invested heavily in technical equipment and more importantly, we’ve invested in people.
“Tom, who’s a Master Technician, is the workshop manager, and we’ve built the team around him in the workshop. We’ve also made a lot of changes out the front as well, in service, reception and just the way that we manage the whole customer experience.”

Confidence and transparency
On how they are marketing the business in the area, Mark said: “We pitch ourselves as supporting our customers and maintaining their vehicles to a high standard. That means picking cars up, washing every car and videoing every job. All advisory work is detailed to the customer with a paragraph on every recommendation. Everything is priced, everything is transparent and all of that takes time. However, what it allows us to do is give the customer confidence and trust in what we’re recommending and puts them in control. Of course, they love it.”
The business is generalist, with German leanings: “We’ve got two VAG-trained technicians, so we tend to see quite a lot of German stuff. This means we are seeing more BMW and Mercedes-Benz, alongside the Volkswagen-Audi group vehicles. We’ve even got a growing number of Range Rover customers, for our sins.”
It’s not all rolling gin palaces though: “Tom is a Honda Master Tech, so we are seeing more on that side. It’s about a true-cross section, looking after all different types of customers and trying to get to know them and how they want their car to be maintained. It’s something we spend a lot of time on. Let’s say the car is eight or nine years old, with 60,000 or  70,000 miles on the clock. The customer can’t afford a new car. They are relying on us to maintain it, to keep it going, get us through the MOT for another year. It’s a cliché at the moment, but with the cost of living crisis, managing those cars carefully for our customers is so important, and they welcome that. If it doesn’t need brakes for three months, we tell them we will give them a call in three months. That goes into our system, and that gives them another three paydays. When they come back, they’ve got it in their mind already that they’re going to have that cost. That helps build trust, and again, the customers love it.”
While all this is going on, the electrification of the car parc continues: “We invested a lot of money in that last year with EV equipment and with EV training, getting the guys fully qualified. We are now starting to see more and more vehicles come to us. EV owners are savvy and are looking for independent electric vehicle garages, so that investment is really starting to pay off. Tom is our Level 4 EV technician and we have two other Level 3 qualified technicians. The high voltage work is carried out in a quarantined area. We’ve got a Renault Zoe in today that we’re doing a DC/DC converter change on. “

Top Garage
On their experiences taking part in Top Garage 2021, and winning in the business with seven-to-nine employees’ category, Mark said: “We loved it. It did us the power of good. There were so many positives that we took from it. We were lucky enough to get the vote from the judges, and the positivity and the reinforcement that what we’re doing is right across the team was fantastic. It helps with staff retention, because they know they’re working for a great company. Also, when we’re out there looking for people, which we are doing at the moment, we are able to say we are a winner of a national award. This gives us an edge on other companies and reinforces our professionalism and integrity. That was the one thing that I said to my people; This is Aftermarket’s Top Garage. It’s got real credibility.  
“As far as our customers are concerned, it gives them confidence. We actually had a five-star review on Google a couple of weeks ago It said, ‘I saw this garage as an award winner and so thought they must be doing something right. So, it helps us to win business. It also helps us to retain customers and says we’re being recognised for the work that we’re doing. It’s had a very positive effect on us.”

Looking to the future, we wondered if Mark had identified the next mountain to climb for the garage: “We’re growing, so we’re taking on two more people, we’re expanding the workshop, putting another ramp in. We are also looking at how we can continue to develop our technical capabilities. We’ve got meetings with various different ADAS equipment suppliers already lined up. We’re also continuing to meet the EV and hybrid challenge head-on. We are gold members of HEVRA, and I think that’s going to be really important for us to maintain our position and ensure that our knowledge level stays high. It’s only going to get busier in this segment.
“We’re redeveloping the service desk area early next year. We’ve got a lovely glass-fronted showroom anyway, so we’re going to have separate desks where customers can come in and sit down with us with a tablet there so we can show them the work that’s been done and talk through what needs to be done. We are also working with a software company to introduce fully digital service records in the near future.”
He concluded: “We have so much planned. We want to keep the momentum, up, and make sure we stay ahead. It’s not just about the big stuff, it’s about making small but significant marginal gains. We’re growing at a good, solid, steady pace, and we need to keep investing in people, technology, equipment and the customer experience. We are building a framework to ensure we remai n fit for the future.”