Inside an independent: a Figaro of fashion


Tobyn brooks has featured in the pages of MotorPro before, when he talked about his motoring inspiration back in 2021. Three years later, with an expanding portfolio of companies and projects, he continues to inspire.


To fully appreciate the extent of Brooks’s life journey, it’s important to take a step back and understand where he has come from. “I dropped out of school at 13 and quickly ended up as a heroin addict and drug mule,” he reveals. “I lived on the streets for about 15-20 years and suffered kidney and liver failure, undergoing 15 separate operations to fix me. I faced having to have my legs amputated but then met a surgeon in Oxford who suggested rebuilding them using different parts of my body. It was a success and, upon leaving hospital, I decided that I was going to live, not die.


“From there I wondered what difference I could make and, with an interest in cars, eventually bought a Nissan Figaro with money I made selling parts on Ebay. When I sold it, the customer was completely overwhelmed and it was an incredible experience for both of us. At that point, I realised that entrepreneurship was the way to have a positive impact on the world and create things that make people happy.”


This all lead to the creation of The Figaro Shop, where Brooks learned through trial and plenty of error how to do a job, before eventually bringing someone in and teaching them how to do it. Now, the Didcot business is expanding further and going in completely new directions.


How have you developed your business?

I’ve used the original fascination I had with building organisations and teams, alongside the learning and teaching culture that we have at The Figaro Shop. We’ve been able to build proprietary systems and information, and we carry out a lot of the R&D work. About a third of our revenue is in parts, which we mostly research and develop ourselves.


Over the past year, we’ve brought in people that are much more experienced, and have used their skills to help. So we’re now looking at cars as a fashion item and how we can develop the market and the customer base. For example, we’ve just finished a Figaro that matches a Hermès handbag, which is going to a client in Palm Beach, Miami.


The Figaro has the same colours, design and stitchwork as the handbag, and has been colour-matched on both the outside and the inside. Some of the design has been inspired by Hermès, but it’s also about resto-modding the product and making an accessory rather than an identical match. The crossover between cars and fashion has been fascinating to watch.


Do you still maintain cars?

Yes. We have another group of businesses that concentrates on service and repair, businesses we have acquired in recent years. They are completely different but in the same industry, and we’ve instilled the same ethos that we have at The Figaro Shop. They are businesses we’ve taken over after their owners have retired, so we have looked at how to bring in new technology, improve efficiencies and ultimately, how to make them more profitable.


We also want to make sure that the people who work in the workshops feel like they’re loved and cared for. It’s taking transactional interactions and making them enjoyable. It’s more obvious with the Figaro work, but I’d say it’s possible in all transactions within the industry.


How many businesses do you have in the group?

We’ve got The Figaro Shop, Car Crash Solutions and four garages – three that run under the Best Autocentres banner and one under Station Tyres. They are our dedicated service repair centres that are fast-fit and open to all cars.


At one stage we were looking at EV conversions for Figaros, but decided against it because it seemed like the market was still in a fledgling state. It wasn’t something we felt comfortable with at the time. It’s quite attractive but I don’t think it makes a good business model for us yet. I think the market will get there but it will take time.


You recently graduated with a Master’s degree from Oxford University. What was the thinking behind that?

My Master’s degree was in business administration, which isn’t important to get into entrepreneurship, but there will be a point during the growth of the business that we will have multiple businesses operating across several different geographies. When we get to that stage, it will be important to be able to understand subjects such as corporate legal structures.


Having been educated on both sides of the fence – both through formal education and experience – I don’t think either way is right or wrong, but there are definitely benefits to both.


Going into education mid-career was great because it allowed me to take educational frameworks and formats and immediately transfer those to the business. Whether that’s how to make the business perform better or become a better leader, I can put these skills into practice. If I’d done a degree 20 years ago, it might have not been as relevant.


What are your plans for the next few years?

We’re looking to find partners for The Figaro Shop because our research has showed us that we need to be more global. We would love to find a partner in the US because we probably do around 30% of our business there. It’s a market that’s hungry for custom and unique cars, so we would like to do more across the Atlantic.


I’m currently studying computer science and trying to understand how technology and the proliferation of AI are going to change the industry. There are so many things to consider, such as the evolution of image recognition and the fact that EVs don’t need major services. Are we going to reach a point where a technician doesn’t have to service a car, but simply has to take a photo and the technology does the rest?


That proliferation of technology might be with us within a couple of years, so it’s a fascinating time for what is, in some ways, an antiquated industry. I’m interested to see what happens.


This is an edited extract from IMI's new MotorPro magazine, received free as part of IMI membership