Running a small workshop can be great. You’re your own boss, you can do things the way you know they should be done and, best of all, your profits are your own.
But running a small workshop also comes with its challenges.
According to the State of the Nation Report 2020, based on a survey of 1,500 Capricorn Members across Australia and New Zealand, owners of small workshops are more likely to struggle with finding a good work-life balance and taking time off. They also find it harder to keep up with some of the technology now required to do the job well.
Let’s look at some of the challenges small workshops face, and look at some solutions.
Keeping up with technology
Changing technology is a concern for 29 per cent of all workshop owners, but smaller workshop owners are particularly vulnerable to the issue because technology is often expensive.
For Capricorn Member Luke Drummond, of Victor Motors Mechanical Services in Victor Harbour, South Australia, investing in new technology is non-negotiable.
“It’s expensive but we invest in the equipment to keep up,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re kidding yourself. Most problems, nowadays, you need good equipment to find anything.”
Luke has invested in a high-quality scan tool and keeps the software up to date. “It’s pretty rare that you throw your hands up and say ‘look, you’re going to have to take it back to a dealership,” he said. “It can happen, but it’s pretty rare.”
A quarter of Members say they struggle to access the technical information and diagnostics they need to do their jobs properly.
In Gunnedah, New South Wales, Matt Cobb of Cobb’s Exhaust and 4x4 Centre said having the right tools to do the job was the biggest issue he faced.
“You just spend what you can, to do what you can do,” he said. “Sometimes there’s other ways around doing the job, for sure — you just have to use your head a bit.
“I’m subscribed to The Automotive Technician, and they’ve definitely help out a lot.
“I try to avoid going to the internet as much as I can, just because there’s a lot of misleading information on there. But I can’t say I haven’t used it, and it has been helpful at times.”
Maintaining a work-life balance
Having any kind of work-life balance is something 46 per cent of all workshop owners battle to achieve.
That certainly rang true for Matt, who said he’d had “plenty of work and not much of the lifestyle” in the two years he’s been running his workshop.
While his partner does the bookwork and helps with quoting, and they had recently employed an apprentice, Matt said the only real break he got was during the two-week Christmas shutdown. (His weekend hobby, Speedway racing, tends to “create more work,” he said.)
Matt hopes the solution will be taking on another technician, which would free him up to spend more time “out the front with the customers.”
Luke, who has had his own business since 1986, agreed the key to success is good staff he can rely on when he is not there.
“I play golf every Thursday and have done for the last probably 15 years,” he said. “There’s more to life than work, so I don’t feel guilty at all about working four-and-a-half days a week.”
How did he achieve it? He simply made the commitment.
“I used to do 70 hours a week at one stage,” Luke said. “Then after a while I thought ‘what am I doing?’ I think life’s more important than work.
“But you can’t let the business pay for that either, I guess, so good staff is key. It’s true that good help is hard to find but when you do find someone, you have to reward them. Pay them more, and keep them happy, otherwise they leave.”
Read more about achieving work-life balance, including solutions that don’t involve taking on more staff, here.
Competing against capped-price servicing
One in five Members operating mechanical workshops struggles to compete against the capped-price servicing offered to customers by car dealerships.
Luke said many customers were keen to stay with the dealerships because of the capped-price offer but he found after they’d used the dealers’ services a few times, they often come back.
“It’s not as good as a deal as they think it is,” he said. “Quite often the capped-price service is dearer than what we do it for anyway.”
So, there’s potentially a marketing issue there: getting the message out about your pricing could entice customers away from dealers, and put money back in your pocket.
If you want more strategies to combat capped-price servicing, check out the advice we have here.