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Learning the Ropes

Updated: May 6, 2020

My first job in the motor trade was where my education really started, actually doing something that I enjoyed was a great feeling, the satisfaction of fixing cars is quite addictive, it must be because I've gone full circle in my career whereby I now own my own workshop, even still getting my hands dirty!

My apprenticeship was a bit of a roller-coaster though, the little garage that I worked in was pretty quiet most of the time, I soon found out that this was because the owner was a bit of a con-man. While I was busy laying on my back on the freezing cold workshop floor (there was no vehicle lift), covered in oil and dirt (or making cups of tea when there was nothing else to do), he was busy in his office working on literary fiction.. in his case customer invoices!

Hardly any of the customers were repeat clients, once they had been burnt once they never came back.

I remember one incident clearly, we had a 1970's Aston Martin V8 come in with the gearbox slipping and changing gear erratically. We quickly figured out the cause was a big transmission oil leak, I changed the leaking seal, replaced the filter and topped up the fluid. A short road test proved it was resolved. Total cost of the repair was less than 100 pounds. That customer got charged thousands for a reconditioned gearbox. I still cringe now when I think about it.

Lesson number 1: Don't rip-off your customers!

Then I went from bad to worse.. I moved to another independent workshop that specialised in restoration of e-type Jaguars, the owner was incredibly talented at restoring the bodywork on these old beauties but completely hopeless at everything else. This place only had 3 small garages to fit cars inside, and they were full of half finished projects. So all the other repairs that I was doing I had to do on a gravel floor, outside! If you've ever been to the UK before you will know it rains allot. I can still remember working on my back removing a gearbox from a Transit van laying in a river of rain water! This was in-between fielding calls from customers asking for updates on their cars, there was about 10 cars in the yard, many had been there for more than a year and none were finished. The owner refused to speak to the clients so I was tasked with telling them that he would call them back, knowing full well he never would.

Lesson number 2: Communication builds trust.

I walked out of that job one Friday after the owner borrowed my car to run some errands, instead of topping up the fuel with petrol, he filled with diesel. It started bellowing smoke out of the tailpipe so after a quick sniff of the fuel filler I asked if he'd filled with diesel, he denied all knowledge and refused to pay to fix it. So I quit.

During this time I had to take on another job to cover the costs of my weekends partying, so I was working 4 nights a week in a local pub as a barman. It was one evening there while pulling pints that I got talking to a chap who happened to be a salesman at the local Mercedes-Benz dealer. I was regaling stories of Transit vans and inclement weather when he said I should contact his service manager as they were looking for a technician. So the next day I gave him a call, he invited me in for an interview and again I was offered the job on the spot.

What a breath of fresh air that job was, I was one of about 8 technicians, the most junior one at that, but I immediately slotted into the team. It was a good mix of old, very experienced guys and a couple of younger well motivated guys. Allot of workshop banter, practical jokes and generally having a great laugh. At the same time it was busy. I would be working on between 3 and 5 cars a day, doing servicing, repairs, maintenance and diagnosis so the opportunity to learn was immense. What shocked me most was when I made a mistake, if I diagnosed something incorrectly, or I accidentally broke something while doing a repair, the service manager was cool, as long as we learned from it and didn't do it again he was happy and the dealer would absorb the cost. Looking back I can say this is where I learned the most, learning by not just my mistakes, but the mistakes of others, as well as learning from my successes and the successes of others.

Lesson number 3: Learn from your mistakes

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