Managing a multi-site mobility retail operation and ensuring each branch is a profitable venture that meets the company’s relentless pursuit for perfection is a mammoth task. But on the eve of opening its 15th store, Parkgate Mobility continues to demonstrate the potential for growth for dealerships of any size. AMP caught up with business manager, Tracy Simmons, to see just how he keeps a grip on the firm and hears about the approach to management and efficiency that is building success across the portfolio.
Twenty years ago the mobility industry was cash-rich, there was hardly any competition and prices were virtually set. That’s according to Tracy Simmons, Parkgate Mobility’s business manager and co-founder, who has, along with business owner Steve Holland, steered the company from a miniscule workshop two decades ago into a 15-strong retail network spanning the M1 from Leeds down to Derby.
And walking through the Rotherham flagship’s doors with its pristine showroom, into the office with its trophy-lined shelves, it is hard to see the business as anything but a resounding retail success story.
But Simmons can vouch all too well for the graft it takes to prevail in this industry and admits that even Parkgate had its flaws when it started out. “What you’ve got is a situation whereby we plastered over cracks and we made a lot of mistakes, but we could afford to make mistakes. We were lucky and got in at the right time and we made a lot of money. But instead of blowing it we bought these properties and invested and expanded. In doing that, we expanded all the good bits but we also expanded all the bad bits. As you get bigger and bigger more and more cracks start appearing.”
Never ones to sit still, Simmons and Holland recognised the need for change. A massive restructuring, consolidation, rebranding, investment and entire culture shift in the business has laid the foundations for a realm of retail outlets which consistently win awards for customer service and are the place to be for the top manufacturers’ products.
“It’s managing without managing — we’ll take their word for it. To manage all these shops without having lots of area managers and overheads you want people to do it themselves — we’re not micro-managing”
But still, Parkgate continues to develop, eager to fuel its competitive edge in the healthy rivalry with other key dealers in the locality. A new shop in Long Eaton and a dedicated call centre and service area at its Rotherham base are its latest moves to reaffirm its status as one of the country’s top dealers and are part of its plan to consolidate and streamline what is already a very lean business.
“We’re streamlining systems,” says Simmons. “Our new call centre will put all our call staff in one place. But we’re not phoning customers up selling — it’s asking how their experience was and answering calls. We’ve also got a new service centre and we’re restructuring how we buy parts. With our new shop it’s about steady growth and working on foundations and infrastructure.”
Surprisingly, when it comes to Parkgate there is not the rigid, multi-layered managerial structure you see at most large retailers. As a family-run business, the dealership is headed up by its two leaders who make a point of ‘watering down’ the management structure so that everyone takes responsibility for their own actions. And while the idea of this may petrify some bosses, giving each branch a degree of flexibility and trusting them to perform is clearly a workable model for Parkgate.
“It’s managing without managing — we’ll take [the shops’] word for it. Each shop has got certain measures. To manage all these shops without having lots of area managers and overheads you want people to do it themselves — we’re not micro-managing. We’re all adults so treat them like adults and you find you get better results. It’s ‘you tell me how many catalogues you’ve given out, you tell me that you’ve not run out of stock, you tell me — and I’ll believe you. But don’t let me catch you out’,” comments Simmons.
To observers this self-managing model holds hints of an Ableworld-style franchise model. But Simmons brushes off the idea, ensuring it’s not on the cards. “It’s something we have talked about in the past. But we’re not a limited company; we’re a family-run business.”
He adds that with a portfolio of 15 shops it is easy to identify the outlets that are not performing to expectations. Simmons and Holland are able to monitor which shops are distributing product catalogues and which are carrying out follow-up calls, and indeed which are not. So while each shop is left to largely manage itself, senior staff can always cross-check to make sure targets are being met.
And it is this meticulous monitoring and analysis which is proving key to the super high standards Parkgate lives by. “It’s a bit selfish really,” admits Simmons. “If there’s a problem in this company it usually ends up on my shoulders so the last thing I want is a problem. I don’t want problems. So we monitor things.”
Repair times, for example. Simmons keeps a close eye on how long each job takes, date-stamping each process right up to the customer getting their scooter back. Parkgate has graphs and charts on every conceivable performance indicator so each individual engineer and sales person can be tracked and compared to their previous year’s work.
From that staff can work towards bonuses. It is evident Simmons runs an especially tight ship but the company has an extremely low turnover of staff, indicating a happy and productive workforce. Simmons states: “When you can measure failures as much as successes then you’ve got some kind of business model. It’s measuring development.”
While Parkgate is finding its meticulous monitoring is mission-critical to its ongoing growth and development, Simmons has never lost touch with the importance of customer service. And although virtually every company shouts about its service, Simmons is determined to walk the walk.
“When people say they’re customer service-focused, what does that mean? I basically want a strapline that says if we can’t get you mobile within 24 hours then we’ll do the job for nothing. That’s putting your money where your mouth is”
Having consistently won Motability awards for client care, Simmons asks: “When people say they are customer service-focused, what does that mean? I basically want a strapline that says ‘if we can’t get you mobile within 24 hours then we’ll do the job for nothing’. That’s putting your money where your mouth is. To do that you’ve got to have infrastructure in place.”
And infrastructure is what Parkgate is investing in. On top of its new service centre the company always ensures it has ample parts in his warehouse so it has a quick turnaround on repairs. It has two dedicated customer service staff whose job is to follow up with customers and ask whether they’re happy, and if not why. The new call centre will house 12 staff dedicated to customer service. Furthermore, all Parkgate’s engineers’ bonuses are related to customer service so job quality is heavily prioritised over quantity.
Likewise, Simmons and Holland have instilled methods to motivate sales staff. Bosses of large retail operations know how difficult it is rolling out a new product across its stores and getting employees to embrace it. To tackle this, Parkgate has invested heavily in communication so that none of its branches are isolated and information can be distributed rapidly.
Simmons explains how the company is working to improve product launches and get staff to take them on board more quickly. “Rather than force it onto people it’s nice to involve them. So sometimes we get manufacturers to pitch a product around all the shops — not just head office — and we’ll get feedback from each shop. With the last scooter we introduced we sent everyone an email explaining why we’re having it and how it fits into the range. We got it as an unbranded product so we ran a competition to name the scooter and to win £50. So everyone buys into that, everybody’s involved.”
With an expansive portfolio of shops and a growing ecommerce site, Parkgate is a key market player. And the company has no immediate plans of reining in its expansion. This said, Simmons stresses its latest store in Long Eaton is an example of safe and manageable growth.
When searching for new sites Parkgate makes efficiency its priority. Its warehouse is based in Sheffield and apart from the odd site like Worksop, all of its business runs down the spine of the M1.
Simmons explains: “We basically expand down that route. We can get around all the shops in the South one day and all the shops in the North on another day. You manage your resources and it makes it efficient when it comes to deliveries. Deliveries and managers aren’t running backwards and forwards.”
For Simmons, it’s not about reaching a certain number of shops. He is more intent on establishing a business which is able to run without much intervention. With every store opening that takes place, Simmons and Holland are demonstrating their model is a sound one, capable of supporting a large retail operation. And it is in no small part due to their leadership.
Setting by example is an invaluable leadership quality and one that certainly applies to the owners. The pair carry out their shop fittings themselves and Holland has virtually single-handedly set up the company’s new call centre in Rotherham.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to them is that they have successfully balanced centralisation with autonomy in a market where that is not always easy to do.
‘We don’t mind paying a little bit more but we want good service’
For most mobility manufacturers, access to customers and impeccable service are priorities when it comes to choosing stockists. Parkgate’s multi-site retail network and customer base, which comprises well over 200 Motability clients, along with its buying power, makes it a prime channel for suppliers. Business manager Tracy Simmons continually works hard to ensure a pristine relationship with manufacturers but in return he expects quality and support.
“I think there are two types of people — people that bring you problems and people that take problems away. We want people that take problems away and I think we’re one of those dealers. It’s a two-way street and it’s not always about screwing manufacturers down to the last penny. We don’t mind paying a little bit more but we want good service, we want parts when we ask for them and we want good support and training.”
When buying a product for its stores, Simmons has a number of key points he considers. He asks why the dealer needs to have the product, how it fits into the current range, what the profit margin is going to be and indeed what the profit margin would be on alternative products.
Simmons outlines: “When we go to trade shows it’s got to be something special to get into the catalogue. Warranty returns, for example. We know reliability rates on different brands of scooters because we’ve measured it and we know that that particular scooter breaks down under warranty 20% of the time. We know we’re going to have to go out to repair one in five of those.”