The Premier League
Farnham based Premier Panel Skills Ltd is no stranger to success. Taking the crown of Nissan Bodyshop of the Year 2014 and being named winner of the body and paint category in the Porsche Classic Restoration Competition 2014 are just two recent examples of what the business has achieved by simply ‘going about its business’. Intrigued to find out more and unravel its secret, bodyshop’s Mark Hadaway paid the business a visit.
It’s clear Premier Panel Skills Ltd director, Ian Wallis is passionate about the business, having been in the trade man and boy. ‘Our ethos is simple’, he explained, ‘We do things properly. We repair any vehicle that passes through our shop as you, or I, would want it doing ourselves. That’s not to say that we always get it right, but if a problem does occur we act quickly and make sure we make it right. Quality is at the heart of all that we do.’
Ian started out ‘working’ in the industry as a young boy during the school holidays, doing bits and pieces in his uncle’s bodyshop. ‘From that early age, all I wanted to do was repair cars,’ said Ian as he recounts his career path to get where he is today, which included plying his trade as a panel technician at several bodyshops before going ‘freelance’ and building his own team of seven temporary technicians. ‘That period of my career was one of the biggest eye openers for me – it provided me with so much knowledge of different bodyshop businesses and allowed me to take the best elements I saw forward with me when the time came to manage my own business,’ said Ian.
Premier Panel Skills Ltd was founded in 1989, under the stewardship of Ian, and soon established itself with a reputation built on high quality repairs and customer service. ‘From the outset, our business has been built on reputation,’ explained Ian. ‘We have never actively marketed ourselves other than in partnership with our dealer partners (of which there are several). As far as I am concerned, if we get things right, and take good care of the customer, then the business will take care of itself.’
And there is clearly something to be said for that philosophy as the business today holds manufacturer approvals for Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Nissan including being one of only five national accredited Nissan GTR centres, Porsche and Volkswagen Group. Amongst this Premier Panel Skills can proudly lay claim to being the first bodyshop in the UK to pass the new Porsche standards audit – ‘if you’re going to do it, do it right’ is the philosophy.
Aside from the standards adhered to as part of its VM approvals, Premier employs its own stringent process checks to ensure the entire repair process runs smoothly. ‘We have a system by which each technician signs off their own work which is then countersigned by the technician who follows on. It’s a system which is key and ensures every step of the process is guided by quality,’ stated Ian.
The VM approvals are supported through eight dealership partners – an element of the business Ian ensures is given priority. ‘We invest much energy in understanding our dealer partners’ business which is paramount to ensuring strong relationships,’ said Ian. ‘We are in constant contact with our dealer partners and attend dealership clinics to cement that two-way appreciation.’
The dealership influence is clear to see from the outset at Premier Panel Skills Ltd. Located for the past five and a half years within a modern looking unit on a trading estate, the simple, understated, glass fronted building gives little away of what lies within. Step inside and customers are greeted by a tidy, spacious reception area with coffee machine, wall mounted TV, VM approved merchandise cabinet and a viewing window into the workshop. ‘We want to be an extension of our dealer partners business,’ said Ian. ‘We want people to see what we do and the skills we possess. We operate to the highest standards so why not give people an insight into what that looks like.’
The workshop is fitted out with spraybooth and low bake oven, aluminium and steel repair bays, twin scissor wheel alignment lift and computerised chassis measuring systems. ‘Manufacturers’ repair methodology is our ‘bible’,’ explained Ian. ‘Vehicle technology has and continues to advance at a rapid pace and we need to ensure we are on top of the latest developments. Prior to moving to this site in 2009, we were in a good place as a ‘generic’ repairer but I was very aware we needed to change and focus our business on our vision of the future – that was as a prestige, manufacturer approved operation.’
Of course, with such a business comes the requirement to invest in tooling, equipment and in-house skills. ‘We geared this site up from the outset with aluminium capabilities. Not only that but some eight years ago our vehicle damage assessors were attending boron steel awareness courses. To us, investing in these areas is just part of our make-up,’ said Ian. ‘Anyone who attends a course, provides feedback, suggests others who may benefit and schedules a session to share the information gained.’
This essence of teamwork runs right through the business which has 13 staff, many of whom are long serving employees. ‘The team here give us the ability to do what we do,’ said Ian. ‘The key is having staff that just ‘get on with it’ and keep pushing the business to new levels.’ With this Ian suggests ‘multi-skilling’, up to a point, is a strong resource to utilise and one ability good technicians tend to possess. ‘We have members of the team who will move across areas within the business, such as wheel refurbishment, in order to process a job efficiently,’ said Ian. One incentive for the team to employ such initiative is a team bonus scheme in place which is available every quarter should the business meet its average labour sales targets.
Another clear belief within the business is the desire to keep learning. Ian said, ‘We are always looking for ways to improve and I strongly believe the moment we stop doing that is the moment we start to have problems.’ One initiative underway within the business is a quarterly ‘ideas meeting’ by which the whole team come together to brainstorm and share best practice ideas. ‘These meetings ensure everyone has a voice within the business and contributes towards its overall success,’ explained Ian.
Ian continued, ‘Efficiency is key. When a vehicle comes in, everything needs to be ready and geared up to get that job done properly – it needs to be streamlined and we need to always be working one step ahead of ourselves. If the operation is not efficient, you are simply paying for space.’
With a clear, unrelenting passion for the trade, Ian admits, ‘My biggest problem is that I am not a businessman, I am a craftsman.’ Arguably this is the very key to Premier’s success as it ensures a stringent focus on quality whilst at the same time keeping the business ‘mechanics’ simple. The business has always been entirely self-funded and with that comes many benefits including straightforward partnerships with suppliers. Ian said, ‘To me it is simple – I ensure my partners are treated fairly and I expect the same from everyone we deal with.’
With the industry, as a whole, at a stimulating period in its history, Ian is committed to moving with the times. Already there is much bubbling away in the background which puts Premier Panel Skills Ltd at a very exciting point in its evolution and, if the past is anything to go by, 2015 and beyond has the potential to be equally, if not more so, enthralling.