As it celebrates a decade trading, the husband-and-wife founders of one of the South Coast’s largest mobility showrooms, Solent Mobility, take their leave to pursue an artisan wine venture. Stepping up to take the helm are brothers Ben and Jamie Watts, who are among the youngest directors on the mobility retail scene. AMP catches up with the brothers to learn whether the prospect of taking over the business from parents Michael and Debbie Watts daunts them and where they plan to take the company from here.
It must have been a busy few weeks since taking over from your parents. Was it a smooth transition?
Ben Watts: Yes, it has been.
Jamie Watts: Yes, it’s been alright. To be honest, it’s been quite a long time in coming. I’ve been working for the parent company for 13 years. I was here before the shop actually opened and when it did open, that’s when Ben started. So it’s been a long time coming and with my parents stepping away to open up their wine business it’s the perfect time.
What is your parents’ role in the business now?
JW: They’re probably 90% in the wine shop and then around 10% here at the moment. Eventually that last 10% will probably disappear but at the moment we’re still sort of in transition.
Jamie, you were working with the parent company before the shop opened. How did the business come about?
JW: Yes, with Shepherd Hospital Equipment Ltd. We bought the business around 14 years ago. Shepherd deals with all the hospital side but we were getting so many enquiries into the mobility side of it that we decided to open up the shop. Shepherd has been running for more than 40 years and we’re the third owners of it.
How have you seen things change for Solent Mobility since you joined?
BW: We’ve grown from strength to strength in the 10 years the shop’s been open. We first started off just with dad in the shop doing all the repairs, and then I came on and now we’ve got another two engineers as well. I’m not on the road as much either now.
JW: I think the shop is pretty much running by itself, thanks to the girls and the engineers. That means we can look at trying to concentrate on the business. That’s a massive evolvement that’s happened over the last few years — the fact that we’ve been able to get the right people in place to free us up to work a lot more on the business.
What kind of work does that involve?
BW: Especially on the shop side of it, it’s going out to make contacts with warden housing groups for example, and working on our website, which is quite time consuming.
It’s been a long time in coming, but how ready do you feel for filling your parents’ boots?
BW: We use ActionCoach [a community of business coaches], which we’ve been doing for the last five years, so that’s helped us to learn how run a business. It feels fine taking over to be honest.
Is it daunting or mainly exciting?
JW: It’s a bit of both, I think. At the end of the day, running a business has its ups and downs but you’ve got to take every day as it comes. I think it’s more excitement than anything else. We’ve definitely got a good team in place so that helps massively. There are exciting times to come, I think.
BW: For me, it’s exciting to try and take the business to the next level, to get another shop open and to grow it again.
Is there a timeframe you are working to when it comes to growth?
JW: We are looking at premises. We used to have a shop in Fareham as well, but it was just too far out of town and it didn’t quite work so we shut that one down. We’re always looking for shops but it’s just finding that right shop in that right area for the right price. We’re not rushing into it but if the right place comes up we will jump at it. We’re ready to do it but location is so important.
What is your current location like for business?
JW: Lee-on-Solent is actually a tiny, little town, right on the South Coast. It’s good for our business because there are a lot of nursing homes and warden assistance housing around here. It’s a good location and of course during the summer we get a lot of tourists down here with it being on the sea. This side of the business is very much about getting the right shop in the right place.
You mentioned your plans on growing the business. How do you aim to go about that?
BW: The key thing for us is to get other shops open. People, we found, like to shop at a local company. So getting new shops open in different areas is the best way to grow. And then online growth is really important too.
JW: We are pretty good at our procedures too. Everything in the shop is all written down and so we can effectively pick a shop up and put it down somewhere else with exactly the same template. We’ve pretty much got that blueprint. ActionCoach suggest getting something like that in place.
Aside from your parents, are there any other dealers in the marketplace that inspire you?
BW: We work quite closely with Island Mobility Ltd on the Isle of Wight. They’re not quite in direct competition with us because you’ve got that stretch of water and he’s been in business for more than 30 years, so we’ve learnt a lot from him over the years and we still are. He’s been a lot of help, especially to our mum and dad when they first opened the shop too. We help each other out.
There aren’t many young retail directors in the mobility industry. Do you feel you can inject some youth into the industry?
BW: Hopefully. It’s a funny business because a lot of people, when they think of mobility, they think of old age. We’ve got a number of younger customers who still need wheelchairs and assistance. Hopefully we can try and inject a bit of youth into it from our side.
You’ve grown quite quickly over the last 10 years but what sort of obstacles and challenges have you come up against?
JW: The internet is quite a big thing. Pricing, a lot of the stuff you can get cheaper online but you don’t get the customer service that we provide when you buy from in the shop, and with the aftercare we’re a lot better there than anyone online can do.
Your team seems to be very important to the overall trunning of the business…
BW: There are 15 of us working here now, including the four directors, and we’ve got a husband and wife who have been with us for nine years. We’ve got a few that have been with us for quite a while and a few who have joined us in the last couple of years.
JW: To be honest, it has been quite a long learning curve. We have got a lot better over the years at our interview process and finding the right people. I think until you actually start going through that process you start learning it on the job. We have got a lot better at it and I think that’s why, at the moment, our team is exactly where we want it to be, rather than just getting people in for the sake of it. We have a few recruitment agencies we work with who find people who we then filter through. We then do two interviews and a practical side. We take our time over it rather than jumping at any one person. We always try to take enough time and make the right decision in everything we do.
Are you going to take any immediate steps moving forward with the business?
BW: The shop now runs without mum and dad but our next step is to get it running without us so we can go on and build other ones. We’re working hard towards that and putting everything in place. For example, writing down our procedures so that anyone can go and pick it up and do it. That’s what we’ll be working hard on for the next couple of years with the goal of building other shops.