Recycler to Watch: Silver Lining

May 1, 2023 | Industry

Allen Prebble, owner of Silverlake Automotive Recycling celebrating 77 years in operation, shares how perspective is the key to building a sustainable business.

By Caryn Smith

My business journey has been inspired and influenced by attending the ARA Annual Convention & Expo for almost 40 years, benchmarking and learning from others in the industry to improve mine and my team’s skill sets.

Having the chance to educate yourself every year at the ARA convention is a great way to enable continuous improvement and momentum in your business.

As I talk about it, things keep popping in my head about how valuable ARA has been to build Silverlake; very instrumental on the education of how we built the business.

The membership of the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) is known for its legacy family-built companies now run by second, third and fourth generation owners. Each generation brings new ideas to the table that keeps them progressing with the times. This phenomenon is industry-wide, spanning the globe. As the association gears up to celebrate its 80th anniversary, a story not often shared is how the U.S.-based association is a valued resource for family-run businesses in other countries.

Allen Prebble has built a top-notch facility in the U.K. with education from the ARA.

We reached out to ARA advocate and volunteer Allen Prebble to hear how ARA has impacted his business. Silverlake Automotive Recycling, based in Hampshire, UK, is celebrating its 77th anniversary this year, and according to Allen, has significantly benefited from almost 40 years of education through the ARA convention. The results have been remarkable.

Before we get to Prebble’s thoughts on how he built Silverlake, let’s look at where the business is today.

All Business at Silverlake

Established in 1946, Silverlake remains a family-owned business managed by Allen Prebble, son of the founder, Norman Prebble. It delivers a range of services to customers through its full- and self-serve certified facility.

The company began with three staff, one recovery truck and worked from the family’s garden shed. Today, Silverlake has 140 staff and is the largest employer for automotive recycling in Hampshire, UK. Operating across the UK from a 10-acre Southampton site, the company runs a fleet of 26 vehicle transporters and ten delivery vans. The Silverlake team processes over 35,000 vehicles a year and utilizes the UK version of Pinnacle to manage inventory. What remains unchanged over the 77 years are the family values placing quality and customer service at the heart of company culture.

Anticipating market needs and investing for the future has been pivotal to business success. Allen had the foresight to see the commercial opportunities and potential for growth in supplying reclaimed parts to the insurance, fleet management, vehicle repair and maintenance

markets. He also recognized that professionalism and industry standards were critical to customer confidence.

Silverlake is known for its high quality parts that are safely shipped in premium packaging to minimize damage.

So, in 2020, Silverlake became one of the first automotive recyclers to achieve VRA Certification to the UK Standard for Reclaimed parts, for its quality graded, warranty assured reclaimed parts. Demand has grown by 235% since 2020, with supplies of new OEM parts suffering delays due to Brexit, COVID and, most recently, the war in Ukraine. The company is proud that their customers benefit from costs savings of up to 70%, guaranteed speed of delivery and reduced carbon emissions.

As a VRA-certified business, their focus is on ensuring the customer knows as much as possible about the part they are buying, providing high resolution images, a quality grading and full provenance details. The parts are also supplied with a six- to 12-month warranty, dependent on the nature of the part.

Their outdoor vehicle storage is impeccable and maximizes space (right).

For Silverlake, growth will continue with the UK government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution requiring industry to achieve carbon reduction targets. The 2030 UK ban on the manufacture of petrol and diesel vehicles will see reclaimed parts as the environmentally friendly, cost-effective option for repairing existing fossil fuel vehicles.

Silverlake has a low 7% return rate on parts, which is one of the market-leading rates in the UK. The business monitors parts returns and their causes as part of its focus on customer service excellence and continuous improvement – often it is due to the part no longer being required or having been incorrectly ordered.

Like in the U.S., parts number accuracy is an ongoing marketplace challenge and can cause frustration. Silverlake assists customers with part number accuracy by building relationships with the leading motor manufacturer brands and using technology to cross reference parts numbers to achieve improved clarity.

The company invests in staff training, parts warehousing, and technology to streamline its ordering/inventory system and expanding its delivery fleet. Since 2004, they have been a significant driver of growth as a member of e2e Total Loss Vehicle Management, a nationwide network of progressive salvage and recycling agents servicing the insurance and fleet management industries.

The U-Pick-It (UPI) self-service and full-service recycling facilities are designed to give its customers options. The company monitors market demand and uses data analytics to determine the breakers and parts to target for supply to customers.

With adherence to strict professional standards, the full-service team of vehicle dismantlers remove the parts, quality grade them, generate high-quality images of the product and produce a detailed provenance report. Full-service parts are provided for sale via the Silverlake website, strategic partnerships, industry platforms such as eBay UK and the e2e network. Orders placed are delivered within 48 hours, packaged to protect them during transit, either via the delivery fleet, couriers or postal service, depending on size and location. Full-service parts can also be purchased over the counter.

The U-Pick-It Yard at Silverlake is stocked with 350 vehicles and continually updated. The facility and new stock are promoted to customers via the full range of social media channels daily.

The industry has experienced huge change during Silverlake’s 77 years. That pace continues with developments in ADAS, autonomous vehicles, electrification of road transport and environmental requirements. The future of auto recycling is full of opportunity, and Silverlake is investing in EV/HEV capabilities, building a dedicated workshop and is ready for increasing volumes.

This success story reads great, and is to be admired, yet all this was not accomplished alone.

Educational investments in his people and their skillsets are a top priority for owner Allen Prebble, because that is precisely how he learned to do it. Getting educated.

The Heart of Silverlake

Automotive Recycling: We can see that you have built a successful business. Before we hear how, share with us some history and about how you got into automotive recycling.

Allen Prebble: Silverlake started as a very small business repairing cars in 1946, when I was a twinkle in my father’s eye. When I was young, there was a significant change in vehicle registration documentation that made repairing damaged vehicles less profitable. The business became a body shop, and then it focused on selling used car parts and salvage vehicles. I grew up in that era. As a child, I was around the business, and started working with my father at age 16. It was a baptism by fire. He put me in the tire shed stripping wheels off tires, and I didn’t like that much. So, that was my first week.

Before I settled into the business full-time, I did try other things. I attended mechanical college for a year, which wasn’t for me. I took a six-month break from Silverlake to work with my brother-in-law who owned a body shop, but I found I enjoyed taking the cars apart, but not so much putting them back together.

Back working with my dad, when I got my driving license, I drove the company truck picking up cars, working the yard and selling parts.

During this time in 1978, through my dad’s reputation, we were quite fortunate to secure a contract with Eagle Star Insurance for the recovery and disposal of total loss vehicles, which was a business milestone, leading the way for more corporate contracts. These collaborations were pivotal to our success. We began getting better quality vehicles, it was quite a profitable period for us.

When I was 19, my dad fell ill with diabetes, so I was left to run the business – dropped in at the deep end, so to speak, to find my way. My dad returned a year later, but he really didn’t want the responsibility. At 21, I became managing director of Silverlake, but he was looking over my shoulder saying I bought cars for too much money and things like that. So, that became more of a challenge for me to prove him wrong.

AR: You say the ARA has been instrumental in your business growth. How were you exposed to the association?

Prebble: A local business competitor Roger Fry from Car Components in Gosport was a member of the ARA, and he invited me to join him at a convention in Nashville back in the 1980s. I really enjoyed it. I went to as many of the sessions as I could which I found inspirational and intuitive. I was able to pick up new ideas around running my business which I could apply when I returned home. There was also interest and support from ARA members encouraging me to grow the business. That’s how my relationship with ARA started.

I have attended almost every year since; it has been 37 years. I’ve met lots of lovely people and I went on many yard tours while attending ARA. Things are different in America, but I brought ideas back to the UK and adapted them to improve my business through education and operational efficiencies. I enjoyed everything about it.

I have always adopted a progressive approach to developing my business. Collaborating with peers in the industry here in the UK, networking with large and small businesses in the U.S. at the ARA conventions and taking advantage of yard tours gave me the confidence to try new things. It remains a key opportunity for me to gain insight on innovation and best practices.

AR: What were some lessons you have learned from attending the ARA convention?

Prebble: In San Antonio, Ron Sturgeon did a talk on selling on commission. He was one of the guys I got ideas from. Back then all the sessions were recorded on cassettes, and I found that very useful.

Another impactful session was a presentation by the WD-40 CEO about their effective levels of staff and customer engagement and operating in 134 different countries.

I think one of the best sessions was a couple of years ago in Dallas, where Heather Christie did the keynote speech. As leaders we must cast a vision and help our teams. That was the most inspiring talk I ever heard about vision, explaining how to engage and work through Silverlake’s team. Articulate the vision and the change needed, explain why you’re doing it, once you feel you have engagement action it, and deal with any resistance by revisiting the vision and why it’s important.

Another session where I invested significantly was on the DISC profile and achieving through people. As a result, I returned home and engaged with Thomas International to carry out behavioral analysis of staff.

In Charlotte, a presentation focused on purpose and posed the question: Before they go to work, what does your staff need to know about what they are doing that day? It focused on their purpose, which leads to staff retention. As a result we gave staff more clarity through job descriptions.

Silverlake has one of the highest rankings on Google with circa 3,000 reviews; a session on social media at ARA ten years ago allowed us to appreciate the importance of social media for the future of the business and we have invested in our social media presence since.

And, of course, there is the networking, sitting at the bar sharing stories, meeting new people. I still love it to this day, and plan to go this year in October.

AR: How has all this education impacted your business?

Prebble: Learning things each year has helped us to grow the business into the size it is today; it’s been a big education for us. This is the reason why I see the value in returning every year.

My business journey has been inspired and influenced by attending the ARA Annual Convention & Expo for almost 40 years, benchmarking and learning from others in the industry to improve mine and my team’s skill sets. ARA members want to help you and there’s no conflict or competition. I’ve been fortunate to learn about things that I would not normally learn about, by attending the ARA. I can share with attendees what we have done here in the UK. It’s nice to give something back to those trying to grow their own business. We have visitors through the years come see our facility, as well.

Having the chance to educate yourself every year at the ARA convention is a great way to enable continuous improvement and momentum in your business. The content of the sessions reflects what is going on the industry and broader business learning, so that helps you to stay current on the latest thinking. There’s so much warmth and respect between the members it feels a really supportive environment.

AR: What are some challenges or accomplishments that have impacted your success?

Prebble: Several things come to mind. Challenges included finding talented, passionate people to join the team and then learning how to best manage them as the business grew. We have been fortunate to build a core team of people who have remained loyal to the business.

The VRA standard is a recent accomplishment. It is a quality control standard like ARA Gold Seal. We were one of the first to get this accreditation and are now heading into year three of renewing it. It is built around warranty standards, quality control, customer service and providing customer confidence in what we do.

We also trialed repairing/maintaining vehicles on site to get a quicker turn around and control costs as the vehicle fleet grew. It proved more cost effective to establish an in-house mechanics team for our fleet and dramatically cut down-time for our vehicles.

AR: What is your business philosophy?

Prebble: We are a professional business. We are working on our carbon footprint. We are doing good for the environment. We are helping people with small budgets keep their car operating safely. We take a lot of pride in what we do as a business.

My motto has always been, if we can give people what they want consistently and sustainably, we will always get what we want and be successful in what we do.

As you get on in your career, the key is to maintain the energy that goes with change. Make sure your people understand why you need to do it a different way, and then believe in it and do it.

Running a business is about people, and success is achieving through others. If you can keep motivating your team, I think that’s a great skill. People have a purpose. Don’t let those that are difficult and don’t want to embrace positive change distract you from building up the positive team players; or you risk losing them. Give them time and recognition so they feel valued.

ARA education helps you understand these business situations. The ARA University is a great tool for U.S. ARA recyclers. It is not always going to translate 100 percent to your business. Customize it; the basic ideas are good, so take the positive from it.

AR: You bring a team to ARA’s convention each year, dressed in signature shirts, why is this important?

Prebble: Yes, it seems to be a running joke with our Silverlake shirts, LOL, but we enjoy it. We come as a team and wearing our shirts gives us a sense of unity. I have always brought an enthusiastic team along, trying to help my staff learn things I have learned through the years.

It is important to give them the opportunity.

If you are going to invest and bring your team, make sure that they’re passionate about your business and explain to them why they’re going. After the convention, we have a meeting to discuss what we all learned. I ask them what they would do differently in our business than what they did before.

AR: What leadership positions are you involved in?

Prebble: I was an ARA regional director for many years and am a board member for the British Vehicle Salvage Federation and the e2e network. My team also attends numerous industry events throughout the year including I Love Claims, VRA Conference, ATF Professional Conference, Vehicle Recycling Excellence Awards, CARS and IRC.

AR: Tell us about Silverlake’s U-Pick-It facility.

Prebble: We have always had a self-service facility, U-Pick-It, it is how I started selling parts with my father. We currently have about 400 cars. Ideas for improvements came when we visited yards in San Antonio, at an early convention I attended.

I think the self-service model is good advertising to bring people in, and it helps people keep their car on the road cost-effectively, so we feel we’re providing a service to the community.

We have people who came with their father as a child, and now they’re an adult bringing in their children. Four generations of families in the local area use the U-Pick-It yard and it has a community-feel because now we’ve been going 77 years. It’s quite humbling.

It’s good to be a business that has stood as long as we have, and I take a lot of pride out of that, carrying it on and want to keep on providing that service to the local community.

AR: What is happening with the EVs in the UK?

Prebble: We are regularly getting EVs through our insurance contracts. We are recycling them safely and selling the batteries for second life. The market is evolving and changing, and we are embracing the change.

We have ongoing training for all our staff to handle EVs and we continue to invest in acquiring the latest skills needed.

It’s a different world and I think it’s in its infancy. There are many concerns about EV sustainability and whether we move quickly to hydrogen or remain hybrid.

The number of moving parts components on the electric compared to an internal combustion vehicle is greatly reduced; what’s that effect going to be? I think there’s going to be a window where our industry will be even more valuable. Consumers will not to be able to get the parts needed to repair their vehicles. So there is change and opportunity ahead.

AR: What about vehicle technology parts sold as a recycled part?

Prebble: There are always opportunities around technology parts. A bumper with a camera inside is significantly more expensive to replace, so that represents opportunity. Cars are being built with increasing amounts of technology on board and as auto recyclers we must adapt to the change and seize the opportunities it presents.

AR: What is the one thing you are most proud of?

Prebble: I took a business from my father, and I’ve grown it. We’ve built Silverlake over time on our reputation and we’ve been sustainable. We created a facility that we are proud of and made the business professional. Hopefully, we can help other people learn from what we’ve done and are quite happy to show people around what we do. Build the foundation so that it builds for the future.

So now I am investing in people more than anything. I don’t want to get myself into a situation where I get complacent, I want to still push the envelope and go to the next stage. As long as I’ve got people around me that can come on that journey with me, I’ll keep going. My daughters work with me remotely because they have children now. Yet, I’ve got many loyal members of staff that have worked for me for a long time, some of them over 30 years. I feel responsible for them and their families and I’m committed to giving them the security they need. As a team we have a united purpose and we take great pride in being part of a business that has a good standing in our industry and the local community.

Back to Business

AR: What advice would you give to others?

Prebble: Reinvesting, ideally a minimum of 80% of your profit, is essential to fuel your business growth. Deciding how to prioritize that reinvestment is critical. This will be determined by your growth goals, business strategy and the road map of activity you set to achieve your goals. Make yourself and your team accountable by setting KPIs and measuring progress regularly.

Be clear about your offering and your market and develop your strategy from a brutally honest position. Identify your strengths and opportunities and how you can capitalize on them and acknowledge your weaknesses and threats, developing ways to mitigate the associated business risks. Invest in specialist consultants when the business requires expertise that is not already present in-house. That might mean IT, HR, training, marketing, finance, compliance, or it could be a non-exec director with a commercial or corporate background.

Understand your market and monitor it closely but don’t obsess about your competition – focus on your strategy and the things you can control. Scan the horizon continually so that you can be proactive, prepared for change and always compliant. Believe in yourself, trust your instincts, and never stop learning. Invest in educating yourself about the industry and your market.

Thinking like your customer will help you to deliver the service that they want; not a service built around your assumptions that you will then struggle to sell. “Two ears, one mouth” is never more applicable than when it comes to understanding your customer. Regularly and consistently ask for feedback on your service and really listen to and analyze the answers. Act on the insight you gain, both positive and negative. Make service excellence your mantra and build your reputation around it; growth follows naturally when you do.

When things are going well, consider how you can scale and do more of the same. If your customers want a service you’re not delivering, see that as an opportunity to increase sales, assuming it fits with your overall proposition, and set about finding a solution to deliver it. When you get poor customer feedback, acknowledge it, investigate it and if warranted, hold your hands up and apologize and then set things right by the customer. That way, you turn a complaint into a positive customer experience, and the learning helps you to improve your business processes.

Your vision and growth strategy are ultimately delivered by your people, and they require your leadership. Clearly and regularly communicate your vision and plans for the business and explain the part your people play, both as teams and individually, and the value they bring. They need to buy into the plans, recognize their role and feel valued and inspired to deliver what the business needs.  

The time is right for those planning growth. I’m a firm believer in the philosophy “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” Prepare for every aspect of your growth strategy and collectively celebrate every “win” along the way with your people.

As I talk about it, things keep popping in my head about how valuable ARA has been to build Silverlake; very instrumental on the education of how we built the business.

I’m always willing to give something new a try, and if I was to give just one piece of advice to anybody else, it would be to make sure you surround yourself with people better than yourself, that are as engaged and passionate about your business as you are.

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