22 Jun 2024
The voice of the independent garage sector

Monarch of the garages

Kings and Queens of Scotland, when it was time to be crowned, would head for the town of Linlithgow, which sits in the Central Belt of Scotland roughly halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow to have themselves anointed. Reign-ready Monarchs were not what Aftermarket was looking for when we visited though. Our main point of interest was on an industrial estate on the outskirts; Top Garage 2022 winners Hunters of Linlithgow.
The business, which fields a team of 20 including techs, front-of-house and support staff has two workshops with eight ramps, two MOT bays, a geometry bay, a tyre bay, and a wheel alignment bay in its sizeable and extremely tidy modern building. There’s even a nook housing a pair of washing machines for washing work clothes and technician towels. If that’s not enough, there is also a satellite site housing a bodyshop.

The family business is led by husband-and-wife team John and Mairi Hunter. The story of the current business began when their previous enterprise came to an end. Mairi explained: “John was the third generation of his family in the motor trade, based in Edinburgh but ultimately we sold up. We lived in Linlithgow, and 21 years ago this building was available. We just thought that the town would benefit from another garage. When we started it was just John, myself and a tyre fitter, and I was helping with tyres and it grew from there. My background was retail, so I just used the skills I had with customers. We built up a great client base very quickly, word of mouth got around and we grew at quite a rapid pace. We were amazed.”
She continued: “Our customers have been very loyal and we’re always getting new customers because we invest heavily in training and our facilities. We compete against franchised dealers, and we differentiate ourselves with the personal touch.”
With customers travelling from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and even Inverness, this is clearly working for the business. John pointed out: “We have a lot of people who wait until they’re on holiday, coming to visit relatives and they then book their car in with us when they’re here. Also, because we’re on the rail link halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh with trains each way every half hour, it’s easy for people to come through.”

Family business
As well as servicing and repairs and the bodyshop, car sales is part of the mix. According to Workshop Manager Johnny Campbell, the range of offerings has been partly responsible for the way the business has evolved over the years: “When you build one thing, you realise you need to be doing something else.” While they are set up to work on all makes of cars, they do have a Volkswagen and Audi specialism. Service Manager Keith Fraser observed: “This is the kind of commuter town where there are a lot of Audi and Volkswagen owners, and it grew from there.”
As well as a wide and loyal customer base, the team have also stuck with the business. “I’ve been here since 2015,” said Keith. Looking at Johnny, John said: “He had a friend working here and when he was a teenager he kept coming in asking for a job every week Eventually I said to Mairi, ‘you have to take him on!. “I started here when I was 19,” Johnny pointed out, “now I’m 34 and I’ve just become a father.” Keith then observed: “It’s a real family business. Last week I called in to say I was having childcare issues. John said ‘bring the kids and I’ll watch them here’. It’s got that nice kind of atmosphere. What makes a difference with the customers, and obviously we do keep them is that, the little things mean a lot; The cups of coffee, the friendly faces. We’re not maybe the cheapest, but we do go the extra mile.”
Then there is training. Keith said: “Johnny’s first course was 2008 and he started in 2008, Mairi has always been a firm believer in staff development. We’ve always got at least two technicians doing training as we purchase the annual training package and we just put them through as many courses we can. Johnny was the first Level Four EV technician, and we’ve now got three in-house.”
John observed: “There’s nothing worse than having to turn a car away. We learned early on not to outsource if we could help it. We used to buy all the dealer diagnostic kit, but we have streamlined over the years. You can get coding done onsite with a remote access, so you don’t have to outsource it to the dealer and you don’t have to spend thousands of pounds on the equipment either. We try and cater for everything. We don’t just want to be a service centre. We want to make it all-inclusive, because you get the repeat custom as well as the new cars that the customer buys down the line. On the EV side, we are part of HEVRA now, so if there are any questions we know where to go.”

Commenting on their experience in Top Garage, John said: “Winning was a total surprise and such credit to the guys for their presentation and all the work they put into it. It was a learning curve, but also showed us where we can improve.”
Keith noted: “Johnny and I were delighted to be able to present the platform that John and Mairi built at the Top Garage final for 2022, and actually become winners. It’s testament to the hard work and effort that they’ve put in. It was good to go down and enjoy the Awards Evening as well, for us to go It was intimidating as well though because it’s taking yourself out of your comfort zone, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Looking ahead, while the team took a break from Top Garage 2023 so they could give it their all again in 2024, there is a lot coming up for the business. “I am trying to get a new building for our bodyshop” said John. That is not the only area where there could be changes, as Mairi pointed out: “Because we cater for so much, and we have so many cars in and out that we are struggling with parking.”
While a new bodyshop could be nearby, the business is unlikely to move from its long-term base. “We’re know as being here” observed Mairi. John concurred: “We’ve got the tyres, we’ve got the top and bottom workshops and reception. The reception renovation was carried out a few years back and We have the building layout to suit our needs.”
John noted: “There is a vet opposite. That was our car sales showroom a while back, but the vet came out with a fantastic offer for the building as he couldn’t find any premises with parking. Now he sends his customers to us. We are a dog-friendly garage. Our dogs, Marco and Gino are both normally walking about the service reception and the waiting area, and are very much part of the garage.”
Mairi continued: “Where we have the bodyshop, we have now outgrown it, hence the need to move again. We used to just use the bodyshop for our own car sales and customers, but we have now opened it up to the insurance companies. That’s expanded very quickly as well.”
It might end up being a little more than that, John concluded: “We might put more down there because we are at capacity here with ramps, techs and everything here. We can feed the mechanical into the bodyshop and vice versa, making a one-stop-shop.”