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How to thrive in a downturn? Good old-fashioned hard work, says Aberdeen franchisee Willie Forsyth

How to thrive in a downturn? Good old-fashioned hard work, says Aberdeen franchisee Willie Forsyth

What do you do if you’re a successful business owner and an economic downturn makes it look as if the wheels are about to fall off your livelihood?

“You get up and go out and find new customers,” says Willie Forsyth – and that’s exactly what he did.

As the owner of The Wheel Specialist in Aberdeen, Willie was used to a healthy trade in wheel refurbishments from wealthy car owners being paid shedloads by the offshore oil industry.

Then the market price of oil crashed from more than $100 a barrel to a fraction of that, and tens of thousands of jobs (and some very enviable cars) vanished from the area.

With everyone pulling their horns in and trying to survive the catastrophe, having their car wheels restored or prettified suddenly wasn’t at the top of their priorities.

Willie’s business didn’t dry up, but the amount of work coming in from private car owners was falling – and he wasn’t about to just sit there and worry what might happen next.

“I spent a week doing research on Google, looking at all the potential new and used car company clients in the area” he says. “Then I called the trade customers who hadn’t given me any work for a while, put a refurbished wheel in the back of the van, and went on a tour of the motor trade.

“Once I’d established the right person to contact at each business, I started at one end, knocked on doors, and showed them what I could do.

“I offered a special trade price for a painted wheel and another for a diamond-cut.

“Most of the companies were sending their wheels out of our area which cost them extra for transport, so we were making their lives easier by offering free collections and deliveries for vehicles and loose wheels.”

Willie knew how difficult it could be to find a good wheel refurbisher long before he became a franchisee for The Wheel Specialist.

He was a partner in a car rental company and needed wheels refurbished or retouched when a customer kerbed them, as frequently happened.

“We could never get anyone to come and refurbish alloy wheels for us in a competent way,” he recalls. “If a customer kerbed a wheel, we didn’t want to rent it out to the next customer like that.

“Our only option was to use a mobile operator who masked the tyre and painted the wheel with an aerosol can, usually the wrong colour match, before charging us £60 for it.

“There was no-one around here who offered a drive-in, drive-out service with a more durable powder-coat finish”

That frustration was still at the back of Willie’s mind when events took a tragic turn. His brother David, a partner in the car rental business, came home from work one day and passed away suddenly with an aneurism.

With Willie and the rest of the family still reeling from the shock, the funder for the business required an immediate guarantee for the debt – despite knowing of their bereavement and grief – and the business had to be wound up and its assets sold.

Willie returned to the oil and gas industry for a few years, still thinking about the niche in the wheel refurbishment market, and by pure coincidence, received an e-mail from the Businesses For Sale website containing an advert from The Wheel Specialist, which was looking to recruit franchisees in Scotland.

“That was exactly what was missing here in Aberdeen – and within an hour I was on the phone to The Wheel Specialist,” says Willie, the excitement of the moment still clear in his voice.

“They told me the demographics showed there were 400,000 alloy wheels in the area, and they were very professional, so I flew to head office on Boxing Day and went to see a franchise in Birmingham.

“Then I flew to Newcastle, and everything was exactly as I’d been hoping for – professional people offering a professional service, and all chrome and glass without a speck of dust anywhere.”

Willie paid his deposit the same day, and after rigorous training and assessment, became The Wheel Specialist’s Man in Aberdeen.

With the comprehensive marketing and business support that all franchisees receive, Willie established a thriving trade… only for the oil price collapse to take away a good part of his custom from car owners.

His initiative to focus on trade customers – garages, body shops and dealerships that needed dinged wheels undinged and tarted up – paid off handsomely.

His business had come 90% from private car owners and 10% from trade, whereas it’s usually 40% public and 60% public for most franchisees.

But Willie’s one-man mission to turn that around took his business to 50% private and 50% trade, increasing his turnover by 40% – and even after the recent Coronavirus lockdowns, his business is significantly up, year-on-year.

His methods proved so successful that Willie trains new franchisees in nurturing the motor trade, and even helps others generate sales from the sector.

But does he have any regrets?

“I’d rather still have my brother here and be working with him,” says Willie, “but I’m really pleased with what I’ve achieved with The Wheel Specialist.”

And so, no doubt, are the car owners and dealers of Aberdeen whose wheels, thanks to Willie, are giving them unalloyed pleasure.

The Wheel Specialist

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