Interview by Tom Cummingham
It began with a mobile service van 30 years ago. Today, Sparks Commercial Services is a significant player in both the Renault Trucks Network and commercial vehicle sales and service in the south. The story of Julie and Michael Spark could have been plucked from countless songs or movies. She was 13, he was 16. It was a chance meeting at a local youth club. They hit it off instantly. “We didn’t know when we first met, but we also attended the same school,” Julie recalls. The coming together would not only be the start of a 37 year-long love affair, but also a business relationship that would span almost three decades.
Today, Sparks Commercial Services employs 121 staff, with an annual group turnover in excess of £26m. Like all first-generation businesses, this tale hasn’t been passed down from father or mother to son or daughter, with hazy facts recycled for more than they’re worth. Neither own rose-tinted spectacles. Instead, it’s one of true ambition, determination and a strong will to survive. Smartly presented, we meet the couple at their newest facility at South Marston Industrial Estate, 10 minutes from the Swindon junction of the M4. “It has been blood, sweat and tears,” Julie explains. This is the first of many references to those three important words during our interview.
“We both wanted to run our own business from the off and made no bones about it,” Michael recalls. At the start of the firm he was a mechanic for a transport company. Julie worked for a truck rental operation called DJS. Their first venture together was a Mercedes-Benz 307D van, which Michael describes as being bought ‘in a thousand pieces’. Rebuilt and sign written, Sparks Commercial Services was born on April Fool’s day 1990, and things started well. “We knew quite a few people in the industry, so the company gained clients fairly quickly,” Julie remembers.
One of their early clients was her former employer, DJS Truck Rental. Michael spent the initial four months in business out on the road doing roadside and mobile repairs, but the very first job working for himself still remains fresh in the memory – fitting a set of frost covered curtains on a Mercedes 1617 at 7am. “It was a freezing cold day and I remember thinking I must be mad,” Michael laughs. The company needed a workshop, and it came in the form of a rented property. When they say workshop, they really mean a farm building in the New Forest accessible via a cattle grid. “It was in a tiny village called Newbridge. It was single-skinned with no heating and no running water. We toughed it out for 18 months to two years, but knew we’d have to search for something more suitable,” Michael recalls.
“We became experts in workshop relocation,” he laughs. They would load tools and workshop consumables last thing on a Friday and have them in place for first thing Monday morning. “We got that bit down to a fine art; there was never any disruption to service,” he adds. New business was coming thick and fast, so eventually the couple settled into what was a former Southampton bus depot while waiting for a green field site to become available. The company’s first purpose-built workshop was opened in October 2001, on land purchased over a year earlier. The modern-looking, £1.2m, five-bay workshop and office facility on Southampton’s Hounsdown Business Park, elevated the business to a whole new level, attracting a customer base they may have only dreamed of previously. “We never looked back from that point,” says Michael. “Blue-chip companies started taking us seriously. We gained big customers such as waste management and energy giant Veolia. In fact, we still have them as a client to this day.”
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
While Julie and Michael have no immediate plans to head off to a sunny desert island, they do have a long-term eye on the future. Sons Matt and Tom are actively involved in the business – the former on the workshop side and the latter in service – and the aim is to develop a strong, adequately tiered management structure in the business well before the founders consider taking a back seat. Enter Sparks commercial director Wayne Petherick, who joined the business in October of last year. Having worked for Renault Trucks Commercial for 19 years, Wayne started his career as an apprentice technician, before moving on to manage wholly-owned dealerships at Exeter and Bristol, latterly becoming regional sales manager western region of the UK. “You often end up at the same network meetings, so I have known Michael and Julie for quite some years,” he explains.
In addition to delivering growth targets for new and used sales, aftermarket and now rental, Wayne says his job is to use his years of experience to form a platform from where Matt and Tom can take the business forward. “It’s been interesting coming to a family business. The decision-making is easier. We can act quickly to customers’ requests because it’s our business,” he enthuses. Having a wide remit fits with his previous experience of multi-sites. “One of my major aims is to develop truck and van sales. Customers say it doesn’t matter what brand you buy, it’s the back-up. Sparks has a great reputation for aftermarket service. We need to carry that forward in sales with the truck range and the new Red Edition Master van. It’s exciting times.”
Most independent businesses in the maintenance and repair sector might find their fortunes transformed if they could align themselves to one of the big seven manufacturers. Having a big brand’s totem pole stuck in your front lawn delivers plenty of benefits, but it takes a considerable amount of investment to be part of an OE network.
With the connection to the port, Sparks was looking after a lot of car transporters, a decent number of which were Renault. “As a big parts customer we had thought about the possibility of becoming a Renault service partner,” Michael recalls. Opportunity knocked in 2004. Sparks bought a site in Portsmouth with a nine-bay workshop plus two trailer bays. By 2007 it had purchased a service dealer in the same area. “This move introduced us to Derek Brinklow, network development director at Renault Trucks,” says Michael.
A year later Sparks put a deal together to take control of wholly-owned dealer Renault Trucks Commercial at Marchwood, a five-minute drive away from the company’s Southampton HQ. Given the fact 2008 is stuck in people’s memories as the year of a global financial crisis, Michael believes the purchase was undoubtedly one of the best things the business did. “In addition to a workshop, Marchwood also came with a sales dealer agreement,” he adds. Sparks were edging closer to a full-service operation. The third depot in Poole was added in 2012. In another conversation with Brinklow, Michael indicated he would be interested in further expansion. This came to fruition in June 2015, when they did a deal to buy an established service dealer in Swindon.
The facility in the town’s South Marston Park needed a large amount of investment, but the potential was obvious. “We managed to buy the plot of land behind the dealership so since 2015 we have added an ATF lane, a tacho lane and with access from the rear it is a time-saving drive-through workshop,” Julie explains. “We put a huge amount of effort into getting staff to mirror the processes of the other depots. We want the customer experience to be the same, no matter where they go.”
Training is readily available across the company, as is active involvement in Renault’s apprenticeship programme. All locations take apprentices ever year and are always looking for additional trainees. Each site has a number of master technicians, with additional members of staff completing the Renault two-year training course. Many staff have been with the business for 20-plus years, leading Michael and Julie to recognise the achievement with long service awards and gift vouchers. To achieve continuity, the umbrella they sit under has to be as watertight as the business they’ve both created.
Michael describes the culture at Renault as one of inclusion: “Being a sales and service agent for Renault Trucks has brought huge amounts of added value to our business. You can feel a bit isolated when you’re running your own company. However, in addition to being able to pick up the phone to each other, there are regular conference calls with UK managing director Carlos Rodrigues and the rest of the network. They serve to remind us we are not alone.” That said, the information flows both ways when you’re a sales or service agent for one of the big seven, including close scrutiny of service levels.
At present, 42% of revenue is derived from truck sales and 58% from aftermarket. Sparks is probably at odds with plenty of businesses who sell first and worry about fixing later. “Aftermarket drives everything we do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a customer with one or 100 trucks. If you look after them, everything else naturally flows through,” Michael stresses. Around £750,000 worth of parts are held across the group at any one time, with an impressive first-time pick rate of 93%. There are 17 Renault Trucks 24/7 roadside assistance vans, and every site has a dedicated parts delivery van.
Approximately 45% of the workshop business is non-Renault. We wondered if this could lead to conquest deals for the sales team? Sparks ‘can do’ attitude to customer service often sounds the death knell for rivals. “We recently sold Renault in a conquest sale to a DAF customer purely based on the service we gave them with their previous trucks,” Michael admits.
Southampton and Portsmouth operate on a 24/7 basis, with Swindon only closed from late Saturday until 6am Monday. After a successful tender process, Sparks won the contact to run Iceland’s Swindon VMU in 2016. The frozen and non-frozen retailer currently uses XPO Logistics to manage its warehousing and distribution operations, although asset ownership remains with Iceland. Once the preserve of contract hire and leasing fleets, R&M contracts are now a significant added value to any new truck sale and a much-needed revenue stream for a dealer’s workshop.
For customers operating locally, Sparks also offers its own R&M service contracts, in addition to the offer from Renault Trucks. “The former is best suited to customers under our umbrella; those who operate in a local radius or whose trucks are serviced by our workshops as a matter of course. If they operate nationally or internationally, then Renault-backed R&M is the best way to go,” Michael explains. Sparks now also offers approved ‘Used Trucks by Renault Trucks’ from its Swindon site, taking it closer to the goal of providing a true one-stop-shop.
Truck rental is another new offer recently developed, hitting the ground running with one customer taking 10 tractor units. “I can see this side of the business growing considerably,” Michael says. While recent events with the coronavirus pandemic have changed the way the workshops operate, they have remained busy. Sparks did need to furlough some staff at the start of the lockdown, although, at the time of our interview, the picture was changing quickly. “I still believe there are opportunities,” Michael insists. “It’s like 10 minutes have passed, not 30 years.
Comparing the size of the group now to when we had the old Mercedes van, it feels surreal,” Julie reminisces. The couple had a business plan at the start but everything changed when their two sons, Matt and Tom, began working alongside them, and they have since been joined by daughter Abbie. “We still enjoy the challenge and have a strong desire to drive the company forward.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
The next generation of Sparks’ to head the privately-owned family business are already being moulded, in the form of siblings Tom and Matt Spark. The eldest of the two brothers, by little over a year, Tom says: “I went from school straight into the family business as an apprentice at our Southampton depot.” That was 10 years ago; today the 26-year-old spreads himself across the business in a wide variety of management support roles.
Matt works primarily as a breakdown technician, often working remotely, including weekend callouts. He is also one of the staff members undergoing Master Technician certification. “I find the most difficult jobs are often the most rewarding,” he told us. Both are incredibly tech-savvy, which has led to a focus on less traditional customer-facing areas of the company. “Our parents have done a great job building the company up to what it is today,” Tom accepts. There’s no complacency at work, both he and Matt are fully aware that when the day comes, they have huge shoes to fill.