Wheels of fortune

Wheels of fortune

A West Midlands entrepreneur has matched historic metal finishing with great customer service to repair scuffed alloy wheels. The resulting franchise is now heading towards a £10m turnover. Steve Dyson reports
“Four blokes in dirty overalls looking you up and down,” says Ginny Murphy, with some distaste. She’s remembering what women used to be faced with when all they wanted was to have the scratched alloys sorted on their treasured cars.

“It was a back street industry, almost a dark art,” adds the 45-year-old, describing how cars would disappear into a workshop under some railway arches, drivers never quite knowing what was being done or whether any of the work was approved or guaranteed.

It was this scenario that prompted Ginny to create The Wheel Specialists back in 2006, a start-up brand that now has a network of 19 franchises across the UK.

It all began when Ginny’s husband, Neill Murphy, took over Lap-tab Ltd, his father’s company based in Erdington, Birmingham. Founded in 1955, Lap-tab originally made tables for people to work or dine safely on their laps while they sat in armchairs. Over the years, this company specialised in powder coating for metal components, supplying the paint finishing for a wide range of industries.

“Although I was a nurse by trade, I started getting more and more involved in the business as the children grew up,” explains Ginny. “And I saw that Neill was getting a lot of enquiries from friends to refurbish their
alloy wheels.

“This was only a sideline, but I started pushing the idea, and I quickly realised that there might be a big market for a recognised, trusted brand to repair alloy wheels – almost like how Kwik Fit give a standard service for other car repairs. “People who love their cars just don’t want to send them anywhere to have their wheels repaired, and they are certainly nervous about grubby backstreet workshops offering to do the job cash-in-hand. So I matched the need for customer service with the fact that Neill had devised a perfect paint finishing process for doing this work, and thought that this model could be replicated with training.”

Ginny thought that franchising might be the best way, as she didn’t want the responsibility for scores of staff all over the country. So she started making lots of enquiries, and in particular was guided by Colin Chadwick, a franchise networks specialist at Nat West Bank.

“I spent a good 18 months putting everything together, and we launched a ‘trial’ franchise at Lab-tab, to make sure the concept worked. Then, in 2007, we launched the first external franchise in Manchester.”

Ginny had already set up a company called LFC Developments Ltd – the acronym standing for Lapworth Farm Cottages, originally a property development idea. But she instead used it to grow The Wheel Specialists brand – and has not looked back since.

“I simply took the wheel side of Neill’s business and made it a franchisable model, then built on this, employing a member of staff, growing the team and adapting and changing the model as needed. So the technical concept was from Lab-tab, and I gave it the sales, marketing and franchise push. Neill’s in full agreement, of course! He’s a director of LFC and I’m a director of Lab-tab – we’re still married after 21 years and this dual strategy works really well.”

Ginny sells her franchises to carefully selected prospects for around £40,000 – helping to set them up, delivering all the training on how to run their business and the technical process, then providing business support, national advertising, optimisation of Google clicks, sales advice and online marketing templates.

Businesses need initial funding of around £150,000 to set up, including her franchise fee, and they then have to pay LFC Developments a 12% ‘management service fee’ on all sales. But this has put no-one off; six years after the first Manchester franchise, there are now 19 The Wheel Specialist franchises across the UK, with another four expected by the end of 2013 and five more “in the pipeline” for the end of 2014.

“Each franchise is a limited company and I basically grant them a contract to trade as The Wheel Specialist for five years,” says Ginny. “So far, there’s been a 100% renewal rate – that’s a 0% failure – and importantly, 25% of referrals for new start-ups come from existing franchisees, so it’s obviously felt to be a successful system.”

Each franchise employs two or three staff, and their turnover ranges from £200k to £350k – meaning the country-wide network of The Wheel Specialists is now turning over some £5m, and employing 50 to 60 staff, figures that Ginny estimates could double by the end of 2014.

This activity means the ‘parent’ LFC Developments, which has a staff of seven, is currently turning over nearly £500k, and making annual profits of £200k. Again, Ginny hopes to double LFC’s own figures by the end of 2014.

“We’ve taken what was a very backstreet service to one you’d be very happy to go to. It’s based on excellent customer service from the initial quote through to repeat business.
That customer service includes a clear charging structure for properly explained repairs, and your car is guaranteed to be safe. “That’s important to car owners – especially people with nice sports cars and classic cars who don’t want to drive around with scratched wheels.
“They need to know their car will be safe – and the backstreet garage and spray can job just didn’t inspire confidence.

“Our guarantee means something. We have a process, we provide a service and we use machinery that has resulted from years and years of development in the paint industry, and this is traceable and accountable at every level. “The kind of paint finishes we use are now utilised by competitors.
“For example, the black chrome wheel finishes were developed by us with Ford, and this is now used everywhere.
“Our developed technology has provided the fundamental finishes that are now out there as standard. But we’re the specialists. We’re not dent and upholstery repairers, we’re wheel specialists – The Wheel Specialist.”

Ginny’s network of franchises offers everything from basic wheel repairs to entire colour changes, and from finishes in new designs to bespoke diamond cutting. It’s not cheap, but then it’s not a bank-breaker either... most jobs range from £50 to £120 a wheel, dependent on the make, the repairs needed or the redesign desired.

“High-end new vehicles are good examples,” says Ginny. “Dealers can charge up to £6,000 if the customer wants bespoke black wheels, or they can come to us and get an entire colour change on the basic wheels for £350.

“Another example is when you have to return your car to a lease company and you’ve scratched all the wheels. It would cost thousands if the lease company demanded new wheels – or come to us and spend £200, job done.
“Dealers use us too – we have about a 60:40 public-trade split in the business, and we can deal with any car, any make and any wheel.”

As if to prove the versatility of The Wheel Specialist, Ginny lets slip some of top names they’ve served: pink wheels for Katie Price’s new Bentley, refinished alloys for Quentin Wilson’s Mercedes and, she thinks, a special job for Peter André, via an agent.

“We’ve deal with footballers too,” adds Ginny. “Don’t ask me their names, football’s not my thing. But loads of them, especially in our main Manchester franchise.”

Fom back streets to a booming market

From back streets to booming market

Ginny Murphy was born as Virginia McDonald-Clark in Leeds in 1968, quickly moving with her family to Solihull as a baby. She was schooled locally at Tudor Grange, leaving sixth form aged 18 to train in nursing at Bristol, specialising in accident and emergency.

Ginny caught the travel bug and started to get it out of her system by working as a contract nurse on cruise ships in the Caribbean – but everything changed when she came back to see her parents in 1991.

“I’d only come for a visit but then I met Neill, who lived in the next road,” remembers Ginny. “We’d grown up yards apart but had never met before. In ten days we got engaged, and were married in 10 months! It was no shotgun wedding though... we had our first child two years later.”

Ginny and Neill’s son, Jack, is now aged 19 and studying at Nottingham University; their daughter, Cara, is aged 15 and about to enter sixth form. The family live in converted farm buildings in Lapworth, near Solihull, where they converted a barn for Ginny’s parents when her mother was developing Alzeimer’s. She’s now passed away, but Ginny’s dad, aged 82, still lives there, and she’s also got her 97-year-old granny – her mum’s mum – living in an annexe.

“I’m the nurse, after all,” says Ginny, who obviously enjoys caring for those close to her. “It’s nursing that makes me a businesswoman,” she continues. “I’ve always had to know what’s happening. I was not one to sit around not thinking about my husband’s business, I got involved.

“When he was given the business by his father it made sense for me to help – with administration and accounts to start with. From a nursing point of view there’s a huge amount of transferable skills. Prioritising, being very organised, getting the fundamentals right – processes, procedures, methodology – it’s all very key to nursing and equally to business.

“My business is very much based on ‘how would I like to be treated?’ And this is where the nursing comes in. If you follow the model you can have a successful business. Running the business ethically is very important to me. Being able to treat franchisees, suppliers and customers in the way I’d like to be treated.

“People are grateful for getting a good service, but we’re only giving customers what they should have anyway. And from a woman’s side, The Wheel Specialist is about being able to go to get your car sorted and not be faced with leers or pin-up calenders, to know that your car is safe, to understand what’s an easy process and to be treated pleasantly.”

This quality of service is the real key to Ginny’s success, reflected by her award as ‘Woman Franchisor of the Year 2013’ by the Encouraging Women into Franchising group, and achieving the coveted QFP standard – the Qualified Franchise Professional – by the British Franchise Association.

But despite the spiralling sales and recent glory, Ginny takes care to remember the traditional Birmingham firm that started the story: Lap-tab Ltd, with its history of metal coating, ironing boards and folding armchair tables from the 1950s.