Boost Interviews Tim and Mandy Fleckney of Espar Ltd
What is it like to run your business?
There are four of us in the office, we deal with the orders, packing and shipping. Orders are placed verbally over the phone or by email. Most days there are several orders in our inboxes as soon as we fire up the pcs so we hit the ground running. All of our business is done by phone or email so we rarely have face to face contact with our customers. We also take messages for the engineers who spend most of their time out and about covering Devon and Cornwall.
We help people identify what they need, from a rubber seal to a complete heating system. The majority of our customer base is trade; Princess Yachts and South West Ambulance Services are just two of them. However, we also pride ourselves on supporting smaller businesses as well as boat or motorhome owners. We have installed heating systems into countless vans which are being converted into motorhomes. We have also ripped out and replaced some very dodgy and potentially dangerous installations!
Being a small company, we are able to see each order through from beginning to end. When we are not processing orders, we are checking in stock making sure we have enough spares to support the emergency vehicle sector. We also design heating systems for boat builders and vehicle body builders.
Primarily a heating company, we would find ourselves much quieter in the summer months. We have always dabbled with aircon but 3 years ago we promoted this side more. As a result, we are now as busy in the summer as we are in the winter.
What does a typical day look like at the office?
We are all usually in well before 9.00am. We start answering emails and telephone calls straight away. With customers based throughout the UK, we are kept busy with orders, queries, technical enquiries, servicing and repairs. We have a large onsite warehouse full of well-chosen stock; we have built up our stock holding through years of experience and it is usually the case that we have the very item a customer needs ready for immediate dispatch. We also have a large vehicle workshop equipped with a 28-tonne lift, heater and air conditioning servicing and diagnostic equipment, so often there will be all types of different vehicles passing through the workshop keeping our engineers busy.
What got you started in what you are doing?
Espar Ltd is owned by Mandy and Tim Fleckney. Narrowboat and Dutch Barge owners for over 30 years, they not only knew of the Eberspacher brand but fitted them into their own boats. Tim used to work on the Thames as a chandlery/service manager. He convinced the owner to apply to become an Eberspacher Dealer. Tim became the resident expert. In 2001 Tim and Mandy moved to Plymouth to take over an existing Eberspacher dealer from the owners who were retiring. In the package, they inherited Alistair Scoble, another Eberspacher veteran. The previous company was involved with a few different products which were not where our expertise lay, these activities were gradually scaled down, the company was renamed Espar and become a sole Eberspacher dealer.
What experiences/qualifications do you have that brought you into what you’re doing now?
We have had very few staff changes over the years. Our core people have remained with us for a very long time now. Several years ago Tim contacted Mark, an ex-colleague from the Thames days’. Mark lives in Cornwall so he was happy to come aboard. Mark, Tim and Alistair have over 100 years of Eberspacher experience and knowledge between them. Mark and Alistair are the only Eberspacher accredited engineers in Devon and Cornwall. Mandy joined the company in 2002 as a sales administrator. In 2012 Rebekah joined us. If you phone the chances are it will be Rebekah who answers. Mandy and Rebekah know 100s of part numbers so they are able to help identify parts. We have recently welcomed Chantal into the group. Chantal has web design and social media experience, so she is dragging the company into the 21st Century. So she knows what she is promoting, Chantal shadows Rebekah. Every order placed is processed and packed by Rebekah and Chantal.
What would you say are some of the biggest barriers to entering your chosen market place?
Like many other businesses, we are up against online sellers. Eberspacher products are not cheap and a bargain found on the internet will often end up not being the deal it first appeared to be. We are kept busy on the phone trying to help people that have ended up with something purchased online that isn’t quite what they expected, we always do our best to assist. Sometimes if we are lucky, we might end up selling extra items to help these customers get to where they wanted to be but it is frustrating as often people get angry with us despite the fact that we didn’t sell them the product and are actually doing our upmost to help. We try to remain positive as we know that our customer service and technical experience is what makes us stand out.
What would you say are the most important characteristics about being in your line of work?
As representatives of Eberspacher, an old and very well-established German family business, we know we have to perform to the highest standards. From the friendly, cheerful greeting on the phone, to the customers’ issue being resolved by the engineers, we pride ourselves in our professionalism. We have two large warehouses of stock. As long as the order is placed before 14:00 and we have it in stock, the order will be sent out that day.
What part of your business do you find most satisfying?
Knowing that we have a good reputation not only with our customers but also within the industry. When our suppliers as well as fellow dealers contact us for advice, we know we’re doing something right. We also love it when a boat or motorhome owner calls us and says that a friend recommended us. Supplying the ambulance service has always been a great privilege for us. Knowing that we’ve sent them the correct parts or that our engineers have ensured that a frontline A&E ambulance has been put back into service in part because of work we have carried out, gives us a great sense of pride and this has been particularly the case during lockdown when every ambulance kept in service is more important than ever.
What part of your business do you find dissatisfying?
Spending hours on the phone to advise someone wanting to convert a motorhome only for them to announce that they are going to buy a cheap kit on the internet and get their mate to fit it. Not only is it our time wasted, but invariably, at a later date, the customer ends up having to come back to us for further help and advice. Also, we pride ourselves in having a vast stock of parts but every once and while, even we are unable to supply a particular item, usually this is because our stock has become depleted due to an issue with the manufacturer. It is always frustrating not to be able to fulfil an order and all the worse if it means a customer has to wait for a repair to be completed. Luckily this doesn’t happen very often! Phrases that make us groan “I’ve just bought a cheap Eberspacher”, “My mate is going to service my heater, what does he need”, “I don’t want to pay for a marine exhaust, just sell me a bit of the exhaust pipe and I’ll fix it myself”. Trust us! We’re the experts!
How does your business differentiate itself from its competitors?
Experience! There are now so many places where customers can go to buy product but people who really do have ‘the knowledge’ built up over years of dealing with all things Eberspacher are few and far between. Selling a box, with very little knowledge of what is inside it, never mind having a grasp of any technical issues that a customer maybe presented with, is easy. Eberspacher is a technical product, there are different rules and regulations applicable to different markets, what is acceptable for a vehicle, could be totally unacceptable in a boat. At Espar we know how to make Eberspacher safe and compliant, a box shifter only has one goal, to shift a box and turn it into cash.
What are the biggest challenges your business is facing in the coming 6 months?
Obviously Covid-19. If it were not for the pandemic, we would have no real concerns.
Do you think the business will overcome these challenges, if so how?
As a supplier to the Ambulance Service we have continued operating albeit with a skeleton staff. Remaining open has also meant we are still able to supply our other customers who are continuing to work through this period.
What are your major successes these past 6 months?
On the whole, no different. We have attended trade shows, kept ambulances on the road as well as the catering vans that drive around delivering cakes and pasties.
How did you achieve these?
It’s just part of the job. It’s what we do.
What would you say to a younger you?
You learn by listening.
Respect those teaching you.
Remain polite at all times.
Attention to detail is key.
If it’s quiet, pick up a broom.
You won’t always find the answer on Google! Turn your phone off and listen to the person with 40 years of knowledge.
How do you market your business?
The industry is changing so we’re having to adapt. We have started advertising in leisure magazines. Chantal has been campaigning through social media and has started working on a new website which for the first time for us, will include the opportunity to purchase product. Selling online is very new to us.
With the current coronavirus now in full swing, how are you preparing for the economic aftereffects of the lockdown?
As far as the economics, we have been in talks with the bank but purely as a last resort fallback. We are lucky that we do have some reserves in hand and of course we entered the lockdown with our shelves heaving with stock, so we are optimistic.
Over the next 12 months, 2 and 5 years where do you see the business heading?
Dipping our toes into online selling, we are hoping to reach more retail customers. We will still support our trade customers though. As four of us are creeping toward retirement, we are looking to the younger ones. We are hoping to recruit trainees and we were actually looking through applications when the lockdown hit us.
Do you have plans to expand and grow the business?
In order to make us more relevant to retail, we had booked to attend a number of shows and exhibitions this summer using our new purpose-built exhibition unit. Needless to say all the shows have now been cancelled but we will rebook for next year and have another go!