Life begins at 40

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Following a management buyout two years ago, Totalkare – traditionally a column lift supplier – has expanded its offering with a number of newly-developed coach and bus workshop products. Now it’s celebrating 40 years of selling its column lifts here in the UK, and as Peter Jackson found out, it has no intention of easing off the accelerator

Totalkare has been on a roll in recent years. Since David Hall took the helm of the Kingswinford-based business as CEO in 2018, it’s gone from strength to strength, rolling out new product after new product while continuing to maintain its hard-won reputation for impeccable customer care.

“Totalkare has been a column lift business for 40 years this year,” David told me proudly, “although the history of the business can be traced back 65 years. Unfortunately, Covid scuppered the grand plans we had to celebrate that anniversary – all of the parties we had planned have been put on hold!”

They may not have been able to party much, but Totalkare’s staff have been treated to brand-new, purpose-built premises this year to coincide with the anniversary. More on that later. First, I asked David to talk me through the history of the company. “Over the years, we’ve grown and evolved into a specialist commercial vehicle lifting business that not only sells products but offers a complete aftercare package; our focus is on making sure that, from first enquiry to the product being scrapped, we look after the product in its entirety,” he explained.

Totalkare has been selling column lifts for four decades this year
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“That means making sure they get the right product in the first place, handling delivery, setup, training, servicing, maintenance, inspections, minor repairs if it broke down and major repairs – if a product is really ageing, we can bring it back to our factory and do a complete refurbishment and re-deliver it with a warranty.

“It was through that approach that the business grew and developed its brand reputation as a trusted partner to the commercial vehicle industry. Totalkare isn’t just about selling column lifts; the name is apt, and demonstrates our focus on really looking after customers right the way through the process and never giving up. We have some column lifts out there still in use today that are nearly 40 years old, some of the original designs, and we have loads of lifts out there that are over 20 years old.

“We’re always keen to help customers squeeze every last drop out of their products, it’s not throwaway technology like most things you can buy nowadays! Our refurbishment service currently supports all column lifts up to 15 years old. That involves completely stripping, refurbishing and rebuilding them, before testing them and shipping them back out to the customer. We’re currently putting plans in place to be able to refurbish our own brake testers too.

“Under the stewardship of Tim Jackson, the business grew to a point where he felt the time was right to retire. He was 64 at the time – two years ago – and he decided it was time to ‘hang up his boots.’ I then came along and became part of a management buyout of the company. The Chairman, Sales Director and Finance Director remained with the business, while the previous Managing Director and Technical Director left in May 2018, which is also when I joined as Managing Director.

“Before I joined the company, I’d spent 20 years working with lifting products, primarily in product management and research and development roles. So my focus has always been on understanding what people want and trying to give them exactly that – and sometimes a bit more.”

The new premises have been purpose-built for the firm

Proving the potential

“When I came into the business, the gig I was sold was that it was a very steady, stable and established firm with a really good core customer base that had the potential to be leveraged if we did it carefully – and if the market accepted it – but that could also exist pretty much ad infinitum as it was,” David continued. “I’d been researching the market for around six months before I joined, at which point I really began looking at what Totalkare was doing and listening to the people that were here already. I noticed that we were getting asked by existing customers on a regular basis – weekly – for additional products. They wanted to buy more products from us besides column lifts.

“So I basically did the sensible thing, and sat tight for six months; I learnt a lot about the business, talked to customers and suppliers, looked at the market and then put together a strategic plan with the management team to expand the portfolio. But we were very adamant that we wanted to continue offering a ‘cradle to grave’ complete solution for any new product lines as well – we didn’t want to just sell them and run for the hills.

“With that in mind, we’ve been very careful and considered when expanding our product range, because we wanted to make sure that the values we have as a business are carried through to anything new we bring to market. The first three additional products to our range were brake testers, headlamp testers and wash bay column lifts, all of which we introduced in a steady, controlled fashion.”

Today, Totalkare’s extensive product line-up includes, besides its bread and butter of, mobile column lifts and two and four-post lifts: brake testers, vehicle inspection pits, emissions testers, headlamp testers and ancillary equipment like transmission jacks, support stands and access steps for vehicles when they’re in the air.

How has such expansion been possible in such a short timeframe? The answer: having the right people in the business. “We recruited knowledge into the business to support the introduction of those products, because we know what we don’t know – which is a really important thing – so we made sure we brought people in that did know about headlamp testers, brake testers and so on,” said David. “We pride ourselves on being experts on the products we sell, so it’s critical to have that knowledge within the company.”

A look at the new office space

’You make your own luck’

Despite the challenges of Covid-19, Totalkare has been holding up well thanks to its mix of clients. “Even now as we sit (hopefully) halfway through the current pandemic,” said David, “our turnover is about 30% up on what it was when I joined the company just over two years ago. We’ve seen things flatten off completely and come back to be marginally up on where we were at the start of the year, but we still see the future as being very bright.

“As with nearly every business which is selling capital equipment, April was horrific,” he said. “Everybody stopped spending money, but luckily we went into that period with a reasonably strong order book. We had some residual orders that we could continue to ship, that people had committed to and still wanted.

“After that though, things seemed to turn around reasonably quickly. Obviously, our business is based on service as well as sales, and the service side of the business went quiet during April but came back to normal very quickly after. Around 85% of our customers are to do with waste or haulage and 15% is coach and bus, but the coach market of course got hit very, very hard – it’s going to take a long time to recover. The bus industry varied – it depended on where in the country companies were based and what the instruction was for the public that week about whether or not to travel. Some companies were putting on extra vehicles because of high demand (and to cater for social distancing rules) while others weren’t using any vehicles at all.

“On the other hand, the haulage side of things went crazy if you were in food distribution and went quiet if you weren’t. And waste exploded in demand, because everybody was having home deliveries. So it was a very mixed bag for us. We still have some customers that are extremely busy and some that are very quiet, and the overall net impact is that business is a little bit down compared to normal. At the end of the day, we aren’t going to suddenly see lots of vehicles doing more mileage, which is the driver for us – the more vehicles doing more mileage, the more the operators need to maintain them.

“So we’re not where we would have liked to have been, but because we diversified we haven’t been hit as hard as if we stayed as just a column lift business. You make your own luck most of the time. It’s just little things… we were planning to implement a new phone system in May to enable us to work remotely, but we accelerated it and it was implemented the day before lockdown!

“It has been very difficult over the last six months because we’ve had to move the business to new premises during the pandemic, with people working from home, and at the same time we’ve implemented a new ERP computer system – which is incredibly hard to do when people are working from home. The ERP system and the office move were planned to happen five months apart, because you’d normally avoid doing two major projects at the same time, but because of Covid they ended up both happening on the same day! I’m definitely ready for next week because I’m having a week off!” he laughed.

“We’re currently investing in more people and more products, so that we’re in a position to bring more to market as things return to normal.”

Totalkare has added brake testers to its line-up

Outgrowing offices

On the theme of expansion, I asked David why the decision was made to relocate. “When I joined the business I knew our lease for our then-premises was due to expire this year,” he recalled, “so we did several reviews looking at where we were and what opportunities we had to relocate or stay where we were and expand. We looked at our strategic plan in terms of the portfolio expansion and the space we’d need to support that – not just warehouse space but office space to accommodate the new staff we’d be taking on – and decided the time was right to relocate.

“We spent a year looking for the right location. One of the first things I did was get the postcode of everybody that works in the business and plot them on a map. One of the reasons why I think this business is so successful is its people, so I wanted to minimise the chances of losing anybody through the move. So I drew a ring around everybody and decided a location that we could be in without sacrificing anybody or making their life too difficult in terms of their commute.

“I then looked within that area for something suitable. Luckily, LCP – who were our landlords for the estate we were on previously – were building some new units. We entered into discussion with them, and they weren’t building anything that was suitable for us at the time. However, we got in early enough while it was still off plan, and convinced them to build us a customised unit, which is what we’re in today.

“We wanted something that was a little bit bigger than anything they had planned, but we also wanted a loading dock, as well as an area where we could strip products outside and do some washing down – which required specialist drainage and interceptor tanks to be installed. We also customised the office space to suit our requirements.

“We had to commit to a long-term lease in order to get those customisations, but we were – and still are – confident enough in the business’ growth and future development that we were prepared to make that commitment.”

David and the team at Totalkare planned far ahead before pulling the trigger on the new location too, taking into account future growth and leaving plenty of headroom for further expansion. “As an example of that, our unit has two storeys of office space, but we’ve had it constructed such that everything is ready for a third floor to be added,” he explained. “Even the toilets have been sized to cope with adding an additional floor of people above us. So that extra floor would give us an additional 1,725 square feet over what we have now, but it would be pretty much just office space. All of our meeting rooms and boardrooms are in the first two storeys, so that third floor would be pretty much pure office space.

“We also had the unit built extra-high, so it’s 10m to the eaves. That means we can add an extra mezzanine floor level if we need more working space, and in terms of racking we can go very, very high! If we ever fill all that space I’ll be incredibly happy, because it means we’ll have been so successful that it’s beyond my wildest dreams!”

Don’t stop them now

I asked David whether any plans were afoot to further expand the firm’s product range. “Yes, there’s a lot on the radar,” he revealed. “I can’t go into detail just yet, but we’re working on a big expansion to the portfolio over the next 12 months – all within the commercial vehicle sector still. That’s what we’re about, we are specialists in commercial vehicle workshops, and that’s what we want to remain. So all of our efforts are focused on the wishes of our current customers and the areas we trade in currently.

“We’ve recently launched new vertical lifting products, we’re now distributing emissions testers, and we’ve done a little bit in rail as well over the last year. So we’re looking to build on what we’ve done and drive ourselves further into providing our customers with the right products. We’ve got some ideas for things that aren’t necessarily as popular as they should be in my opinion, and we’re looking really to offer customers products that have a clear return on investment for them – helping them to save money in the long run and become more efficient.”

And what about those 40th anniversary celebrations? “As soon as we’re able to come back to the lovely premises we have and get back together again, we’ll have some kind of celebration for our 40th anniversary – I just can’t guarantee when that will be,” David said. “It’s been a hell of a year, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that our customers continue to be well looked after at the high levels we always try and deliver. We’re looking forward to the future and being able to look after them better still in the years to come.”

For more information on Totalkare and its products, visit totalkare.co.uk

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