Comline is a wholesale distributor of car parts to the independent aftermarket in the UK and across Europe, supplying for all makes and models in our own brands. The company was started in 1997 and currently has 230 employees across five worldwide offices and warehouses.
The Coronavirus situation has hit us like all businesses in the UK. Road traffic was at an all time low in April and May 2020 and, simply put, cars parked at home do not need repairing. We also had to manage our staff shift to work from home as quickly as possible and optimise those roles that could not be moved in this way. Our warehouses for example had to comply with strict social distancing measures and limited staff on site at any time, which reduced our customer service and logistics productivity down to around 25% of normality. Not that this proved significant as most of our customers, especially in the UK, were closed for this entire period. Luckily, the market has reopened since then, traffic on the roads is back up, and garages have subsequently gone back to work.
As we operate in the aftermarket, we are an anti-cyclical business, meaning that downturns and recessions should in theory be good for our business. During such periods, consumers are reluctant to invest in new cars and instead spend proportionally more to repair and upgrade their existing vehicles. A 97% and 89% reduction in UK new car sales during April and May respectively is certainly evidence of an immediate and pronounced downturn. However, if work from home remains a long-term reality, then overall road distance travelled will fall, which will impact the entire automotive community. This is the balancing act that our industry is now facing.
Comline participated in the Cambridge University Strategic Business Growth programme (formerly named SME Growth Challenge) in the 2016-17 academic year, led by Stelios Kavadias and Kostas Ladas. We were part of the second cohort of companies and so the programme was in its relative infancy when we joined. At the time, the programme had been marketed to the local Cambridgeshire region and, being from Bedfordshire, Comline was a bit of an outsider to the group. We were nonetheless able to contribute our strategic thinking with the rest of the participants and we are definitely better off for the experience.
A couple of things still resonate strongly with us from the course, and it is for these takeaways that I continue to recommend the course to our peer group companies. Firstly, the time out of the office, away from the day to day, with a pure focus on what and who we want to be is priceless. Long-term development and strategy cannot be formulated when you have hundreds of daily problems being thrown at you. Getting out of the office and into a “thinking” or “creative” space, such as the Judge Business School, changed this for us, and has now become part of our culture.
Secondly, the refocus on customer expectations and customer experience still resonates loudly. The experiences that Stelios shared with us from his research of tier 1 global companies, the way they think, the way they operate, the ways they succeed with customers, taught us key lessons about our own business and the customer centricity that we need. This is even more important when we, as a business community, are in the fight of our lives given the economic situation prevailing around us. What do our customers want? What do they need and when? We have put our customers at the centre of business, and we are benefiting from it, both from an engagement point of view, but also long-term value.
Going through the programme in 2016 changed the culture and structure of our management team and the way we think, enabling us to react very differently to the current climate than we would have done previously. More connected and more customer-focused, despite not being allowed to visit any of them in 4 months!
I cannot recommend the programme highly enough, and to those companies considering taking part, I say “go for it!”. You cannot fail to learn valuable lessons that will have a very real impact on your business.