CAT factor lives: A to Z Autoparts, Berkshire

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Ian Wagstaff dons his overalls for a day at this factor.

The phones are already ringing at 7am
The phones are already ringing at 7am

It’s 7.10am and Michelle Windiate has arrived at the Thatcham branch of A to Z Autoparts to open up. Adi Howson is already waiting to be let in and is quickly upstairs to man the phones. “You can walk in and they will already be ringing.” Meanwhile, Michelle checks the board and starts to load her van, one of 14 operated by A to Z. By 7.40am she is ready to leave for her scheduled run to Hungerford. The remainder of her day will be reactive, taking her anywhere in A to Z’s catchment area. “It’s quite varied,” she says.

The rest of the staff arrive at various times until all are present by 9.00am. Dan Fisher has the front shop opened by then. Dan is normally one of the six that operate the phones, but the August holidays mean that there are only three today and he is filling in downstairs. Adi has been joined by call centre manager Paul Stout and by Rob Eley. Paul has been with the company for 17 of its 26 years. About five years ago its owner, and present managing director Shane Benzie joined Group Auto and now has two outlets, the other in Reading, both now displaying the group’s livery.

Shane started the day at the Reading branch for a chat with the Manager before driving to Thatcham, bringing with him the banking and paperwork. He checks in with Paul and Marie Wale, who normally works in the call centre but is today running the warehouse, before spending the rest of the morning out of sight speaking to suppliers. By 1.00pm he has left us to liaise with Andy Maloney from Bradbury Equipment. A to Z is installing an MOT bay in a garage at Hungerford and the pair are measuring this up. It’s all part of a one-stop-shop offer that Shane is eager to promote.

The phone calls to the centre are continuous. Rob reckons the last couple of weeks have seen an increase in business. “There seems to have been a turnaround.” Quite why this is nobody seems to know.

Downstairs there is also a small but steady stream of customers proving that the DIYer is not totally dead. However, this is a proverbial iceberg tip. Retail is a small part of A to Z’s mix and the prices naturally reflect the fact that the trade customer is the more important. “We make a big effort to show there is a difference,” says Shane. A to Z’s approximately 400 trade customers naturally vary in size and some of the smaller may call in to the retail area to pick up product. Two sets of coil spring are sold in quick succession, some KYBs to a casual without an account and then a regular collects an ordered set of Kilens for a Peugeot 306 diesel.

Dan observes that the retail counter has its fair share of old car enthusiasts, which is where his colleague, Retail Sales Manager Dave Kiely is in his element. Dave, on the vans today, rushes in at about lunch time, loads up and is off again.

The non-account customers not surprisingly include those buying components for “a mate in the trade” to fit. One of them comes in wanting a CV joint for a BMW M3. “Inner or outer?” asks Dan. “What do you mean?” responds the customer. Dan draws him a picture.

The real business, though, is being done on the phones in the call centre. The banter indicates the relationship Paul and his team have with their customers. Although on counter duty today, Dan also picks up the phone to make it easier for those upstairs. If it is not a contradiction, the call centre can go mad but there is a relative sense of calm. “A controlled environment,” observes Shane.

Following the almost continuous business of the day, perhaps there is going to be a let up in the final hour before 6.00pm. No chance, this is perhaps the busiest time of the day and you can see why. There are still the three of them left manning the phones. Last minute orders and requirements for the first runs of the following morning come flooding in. There will be plenty for Michelle to load on her van come the morning.

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