From the start, I have to state the following that I have never owned or maintained a car, nor do I possess a driving licence.
Yet throughout much of my working life, fate has somehow conspired to ensure that I have spent much of my career working in the automotive parts supply industry.
It has to be said that I have enjoyed much of what I have done, gained some invaluable experience, and met and worked with some amazing and inspirational people throughout all this time.
So how on earth did I get myself here? It’s an interesting story (I hope!) and one I’m ready to share with you all now!
After leaving college, my first job had been at a computer hardware distributor in Oldbury, and I had loved it as I was doing what I was interested in. I had learned about how to build and assemble PCs to both pre-designed and custom bespoke specs, as well as packing and dispatching wholesale component orders for our reseller customers, and dealing with over-the-counter trade enquiries.
I’d been there for around a year, and was practically running the place – not bad for someone with no formal IT qualifications – when that went tits-up, and the owner disappeared back to India. I was effectively made redundant, though it took them a week to tell me, as I declined their offer to move to their ‘head office’ in Mansfield and continue working there.
So I’d been unemployed for several months, and finding myself unable to get any kind of similar work, due to lack of said IT qualifications (despite my experience and knowledge I was even turned down by PC World, because in their own words “we’re looking for salespeople, rather than people who know what they’re talking about”), I strode into the Job Centre in Smethwick one day, determined to apply for “any job I thought I was capable of doing”.
I spotted a job advert for a ‘shop assistant’, and it turned out the shop in question was just down the road from where I was still living with my parents, a short five minute walk away.
It was at Auto Shop UK, a car parts and accessories retailer, and despite knowing nothing about cars or car parts, I somehow got the job! I was happy because I was earning some money, rather than relying on the pitiful amount of income support I was receiving at the time. I figured this would do for now, until I found a job more suited to what I was looking for.
Having been shown how to use the retail computer system, I started off merely as a ‘checkout operator’, and then soon started receiving training on how to use parts catalogues to look up parts for specific vehicles. (This was before electronic catalogues with VRM lookups, proper old school!).
Mistakes were made of course, that was only natural, some customers got upset when they got the wrong parts for their car. But it all became a crucial learning experience.
For a job I only intended to last ‘for a few weeks until I found something else’, it was remarkable that I lasted there for around five years, progressing to the role of Assistant Manager, as well as helping out in the newsagent store next door, which the owner also owned. That in itself was also a valuable retail learning experience.
Eventually, a disagreement with the owner led to me walking out of the job, and I found myself unemployed again, which was upsetting because despite my initial intentions, I had grown to love it, and had become quite respected amongst our regular customers.
It was actually my mum that found my next job – I had been looking unsuccessfully when one day she showed me a job advert she had come across in our local newspaper, the Express & Star. The job was for a counter assistant at a ‘busy’ car parts store in Great Bridge, near Tipton. It was a bit further away from home, and it entailed travelling by bus, two journeys actually, one into West Bromwich and then another on towards Great Bridge, but still less than an hours commute.
I got that job, at CCS Bulldog, and while it was in a similar line of business, it was quite a different experience! There was a network of branches, in Sedgley, Kidderminster, Kingswinford and Halesowen, but the ‘flagship’ store in Great Bridge was geared more towards ‘retail’ rather than ‘trade’ customers.
Compared to Auto Shop, the set up was a bit ‘antiquated’ – there was no computer system for processing sales orders or for stock control, much of anything was done manually with few records taken.
But I worked with a great bunch of people, and I still have fond memories of the times we shared there.
It was also the place where I was first introduced to ‘online retail’ though at that point in the early 2000s it was very much in its infancy.
I stayed at Bulldog for a few years, but then I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I think I started to ‘tire of’ the whole automotive thing, and desired to do something different with my career.
In 2003, I had started looking on the side for new job opportunities, and eventually something came up which I couldn’t resist.
A PC manufacturer/distributor in Halesowen was looking for staff and I duly applied for a position there. I once again found myself in a position where my lack of formal IT experience was going to hold me back, however having convinced the interviewer of my own personal ‘practical experience’ I successfully got the job on a ‘trial basis’, and at least was given the opportunity to prove how capable I was.
Having started as a ‘trainee’ PC builder, after about six months I was the ‘production supervisor’, not a bad progression! Sadly, the company collapsed into administration unexpectedly one day, and I found myself unemployed once again. A lot of the staff there ended up at SCC’s National Repair Centre in Oldbury, I nearly didn’t make it due to my lack of ‘formal’ qualifications, but I ended up accepting a position as a ‘trainee’ printer repair technician.
So I started out knowing little about repairing printers, yet within two years I had become quite adept, and was doing much of the work that the supposed ‘senior’ technicians didn’t want to do. Although I really did enjoy that job, sadly the company didn’t really appreciate my efforts, and they reneged on a promise to review my ‘junior’s’ salary. It wasn’t that big of a deal at the time, I was still living with my parents and was earning enough to get by, but it still left me a little embittered.
One day out of the blue, I had a message from my old manager Richard at Bulldog, who had moved on to the car accessory wholesaler Maccess, and was the manager of their Birmingham branch located in Erdington. Maccess had done a deal with Quinton Hazell and were looking to expand their car parts proposition to offer a same-day delivery service to local motor factors.
I was offered a position there as a ‘parts specialist’ who would be based on a brand new parts counter within the cash and carry warehouse. The salary was significantly more than I was earning at SCC, so the decision was easy enough to make, though I am not a person who is motivated by money.
It didn’t take long to settle in to my new role, and I didn’t even mind the longer commute by bus too much. As much as I enjoyed what I was doing, it could get very hectic and stressful at times, especially on a Saturday morning when I was on my own, with just an hour to pick and process the orders for delivery, and those vans needed to leave on time, then you get some time-waster on the counter who wants a ‘quote’ for a load of parts, and then quibbles about the price, “I can get those cheaper from GSF” etc.
I was at Maccess for about two years and I really did enjoy my time there and worked with a fantastic bunch of people.
The Big Move
While at Maccess, at the ripe old age of 30, I had finally moved out from my parents’ house, and was sharing a house in Bearwood with my brother, who was working for a bank in Birmingham city centre.
Things were changing at Maccess though, and not all for the better.
I was once again ‘tapped-up’ by Richard who had since left Maccess and gone on to Unipart Automotive. The company was planning on opening a brand new branch/distribution centre in Solihull, and once again Richard was tasked with recruiting a team of ‘parts advisors’ for telesales and counter sales.
Struggling with some personal issues, as well as struggling with debts that I had allowed to build up, I was lured in once again by the salary increase. But it would mean that I would have to relocate, as it would have been a little impractical to commute from Bearwood to Monkspath by bus every day.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise; as it turned out my brother had been toying with the idea of moving to London, as several of his close friends had already relocated there, and my decision to move out also gave him the impetus to go and follow his own path.
So that’s how in September 2008 I ended up moving to Acocks Green in Birmingham to live by myself in a one-bed flat, to take up a new job in nearby Solihull.
A New Chapter
Unipart Automotive was a strange company to work for, but also quite enlightening. The company was famously very ‘process-driven’ (The ‘Unipart Way’, best practices and all that), but I also found that my role was more ‘sales-driven’, and at times I found it very uncomfortable – it wasn’t enough to just pick up the phone and answer incoming enquiries, I was also tasked with ‘cold-calling’ customers to try and get them to place orders.
There were bits of the job that I hated at times, our stock profile seemed to be ‘wrong’ and we never seemed to have much of what our customers wanted, despite having a huge range of stock being a regional distribution centre supplying other local branches. I ended up suffering from a loss of confidence in my ability.
The job didn’t seem to suit me as a person, however there was a bit of a turnaround when I was tasked to take on a role for a new contract that Unipart had won, the supply of parts to the AA for their new ‘Service & Repair’ offering they were rolling out in London. That’s right, the AA were going to start servicing and repairing customers cars on their driveway, and despite the AA technicians and their customers being in London, the parts requisitions were going to come from Solihull!
It started off straight-forward enough; we’d get orders for service parts for specific vehicles, which we’d then bag up and dispatch via courier for delivery to ‘lock-boxes’ in London, from where the AA driver would pickup and then go to the customer’s address to carry out the work.
The big challenge was if the wrong part(s) had been sent! It then became a nightmare trying to liaise with other Unipart branches in London, in order to get them to send a delivery van with the correct part to the customer’s address.
It all ended up becoming incredibly stressful, and it was a relief when the project was taken away from our branch.
Richard didn’t last long as branch manager, and I think there were three or four different managers during my time there.
Funnily enough, over time, the sales staff had also changed, so there was actually a point where when some of our customers who had previously refused to take me seriously as a ‘parts advisor’, were actually asking for me personally.
It was too little too late for me though, as I had already decided I didn’t want to do this anymore.
Despite the ‘confidence boost’ from our customers, I was still under appreciated by the management, so I started looking for new opportunities…
A change will do you good
I applied for and found myself with the choice of three new job opportunities in a short period of time.
First was at TPS in Newtown (Birmingham), and the second was at Sytner in Solihull.
The third one, which I accepted, was at Blueman Autoparts, a small independent motor factor in Sparkbrook, Birmingham.
They were specifically looking for someone to work on their growing online business selling on eBay, as well as dealing with the regular trade counter enquiries.
To be honest, apart from the brief overview of the website that Bulldog had running, I didn’t have much experience with selling on eBay, apart from my own personal attempts of course.
It was all fascinating stuff though, and after being given a ‘crash course’ on online selling and using the listing software we had, it suddenly became an all new experience.
Had I finally found a job that I was really suited to? Most probably yes! However some internal company politics came into play, and despite the online aspect of the business growing in stature, for reasons beyond my control I found myself ‘ousted’ and demoted to the trade counter, where I was once again pushed into a role that I was never really comfortable with, as I am no ‘pushy salesman’.
Even An End Has A Start
In March 2014, Blueman went into administration, and yet again I found myself unemployed (oh dear!) however not for long as I quickly picked up a job at nearby KMS in Digbeth, who were also expanding their online business and using the same EsellerPro (now Volo Origin) software we used at Blueman.
That was always going to be a short-term solution to keep me going, as the owner of Blueman – who had been financially shafted by his business partner, which led to the demise of his company – had already approached me to join a new online-only business he wanted to set up.
I actually worked for him on a ‘voluntary basis’ for a few months, while the new company was being established, then in August 2014 I handed in my notice at KMS and joined the new company ARKS Global full-time.
We have since gone on to achieve great things, and while automotive parts & accessories are still a key part of our business, we’ve not been afraid to expand into other market areas, some with great success, some less so.
At a length so far of eight years, this is also the longest job I have ever held, so it is fair to say that I really do still love this job, I feel valued and appreciated in my role, and I have been allowed to express a great deal of creative freedom, without being held back too much by ‘processes’. (And coincidentally ARKS Global is not doing too badly as a business either
Let me do what I am capable of without being ‘fettered’ and this is what happens.
To The Present
If you contact us throgh eBay or elsewhere because you’re looking for parts for your car, then there’s a good chance that I’ve already advised on the correct part you need to order.
Not because I’m any kind of ‘expert’, but because over the years I have gained experience and knowledge to be able to do so.
If that makes me an ‘expert’, then that’s great. I don’t always get things right first time, but I have always tried my best.