Through diversity to the stars

Fuel Convey

In this article: Hayley Pells explains how a career in the RAF with tours in the Balkans and Middle East gave her the skills to succeed in the motor industry with her company Avia Speed Shop

What took you into a career in the military and how did it develop while you were there?

I joined the RAF as an Air Cartographer when I turned 18. It’s a small, technical trade that not many people have heard of and when I joined, there were no opportunities for detachments or postings to other bases, everyone operated out of a base within the M25, but it was far enough out of London to enjoy a bit of greenery.

For me this was perfection. I kept kit cars then classic cars and birds of prey, dividing my time between work, central London and the Chilterns. The military offered impatient teenage me everything that I wanted. It had an added bonus, it got my parents off my back about spending my time between the pub or rattling around the Welsh countryside on my motorbike.

The Labour administration made quite a few changes to the military and how we operated and this opened up opportunity for deployment firstly in the Balkans and then the Middle East which were enormously attractive to me. I performed a guard role for a helicopter in Kosovo and, learning from this experience, I told my mother on my second deployment I had gone to Iraq to work in the post room, failing to mention I was actually top cover for a fuel convoy operating out of Basra!

How easy was the transfer to civilian life and working at your family business Avia Speed Shop?

When I worked within print finishing machinery, it was predominately mechanical and electrical in nature, so although designed for a specialised task not that different to the fundamentals of how vehicles work.

Working with various computer software gave me an excellent grounding in business and additional duties within the military that I had, such as visiting heads of state gave me confidence and poise I certainly didn’t possess before I joined which continuously produces dividends when working with people.

All government agencies have a deep affection for forms and processes making gaining MOT approval an easy process.

Sadly, I have not yet found a need in the automotive aftermarket for heli-abseiling but I do have very high ceilings in the workshop and have taken advantage of a need to inspect the lights.

Your business has been growing successfully, what’s been the secret?

We experienced a fantastic period of sustained growth for the 24 months pre-coronavirus. We invested in kit, training and some 4-5 years ago dumped the six-day week. Attrition was down, morale was high and we were diversifying our services into exciting new areas while flirting with the idea of a purpose-built building with the bank. We have an unusual management structure of non-centralised control. It really did feel that it was all coming together and the last 14 years of hard work was worth it. We felt our work was getting noticed and for the right reasons – the biggest challenge was convincing our team to take their holiday.

COVID-19 has been a challenge but you've tentatively started the business back up, how are things going?

We are cycling our team in and out of furlough and running reduced services. The first challenge was creating a safe environment for social distancing. It was quite apparent how customer-centric the business is when the idea was tabled to close the waiting room!

I feel my military experience very much helped this situation, cutting the business ruthlessly back to the basics is not unlike deployment. The aims and objectives are now different and need to be accurately communicated, ensuring that the message is understood and the whole team is confident in the new direction. Bringing the team in and rigorously testing the new methods and environment was the primary focus of the first week. As the week progressed we brought our suppliers back online and the next step is to bring on the waste removal. Once the rudiments of the workshop are achieved, the missing piece of the puzzle, our customers, will be re-introduced.

What advice would you give your fellow independent business owners who find themselves in similar situations?

Independent vehicle repair workshops have a privileged position in that we can choose to be open or closed but it’s OK to acknowledge that sometimes it can feel like all the choices are bad ones.

Analysis of your personal situation can point the way to a choice that fits your circumstance, look at you, your family's, your team's, your supplier's and your customers’ needs and then look at to how you can address them all safely.