BS Motorsport Ltd Q&A - Neil Bainbridge
Interview with Neil Bainbrige, Director, BS Motorsport Ltd at Westcott Venture Park.
What was your first job?
My first job was in a Porsche dealership in the Lake District where I worked as an apprentice for three years before continuing my studies at college. I used to walk past the garage on my way to and from school, I washed the Porsches at weekends and eventually they took me on as an apprentice mechanic aged 16. I gained invaluable experience and travelled to and from Reading completing dealer-training courses under the Porsche training scheme. At the time I earned just £16 a week, ten of which went to my mother! I’m very happy to be still doing what I love to do 39 years later.
Describe how your career developed to the present day
Once fully qualified, my brother lured me away from my weekend surfing life in the Lake District to work as a mechanic in the South of England for twice the salary. My second job was with a company called Autofarm 1973 Ltd working in their restoration racing division where I was signed off as a racing driver. I worked with them for four years before setting up my own business aged 25.
My first business, based in Stoke Mandeville soon out grew the premises so we moved the operation to Winslow where the business focused on the race preparation and running of Porsche cars - I’ve probably driven more high performance cars than most people dream about. We had a full race team, trucks, vans, 14 staff, and I would spend around three days a week driving on circuits.
However, things changed dramatically when I spent 10 days in a coma following a big motorbike crash in 1995. I was in hospital for a full year as it took them six months to repair the bone and rebuild my shoulder then a further five months to transplant nerves from my leg into my shoulder in an attempt to restore functionality to the arm. There was some response in the arm, but I broke it a couple of times while skiing, so we decided that the best way forward was to have the arm removed completely. In my sport a prosthetic arm would have got in the way, so I said no to the offer. I was left-handed, so it meant learning to do everything with my right hand but the will to survive and the thought of motorsport kept me going.
As a result of the accident, I lost my first business but in 1996 I contacted one of my first apprentices to help me kick-start a new business. We worked out of a little shed in Stoke Mandeville (the same place as I first started from) for about four months before moving to Westcott Venture Park and we’ve been here ever since.
When we first moved to the park we had a full race team, trucks, vans and plenty of staff but as the recession hit the race side of the business looked less lucrative so we diversified back into what I know best, which is historic Porches and engine development.
Our work now ranges from servicing, repairs and restoration to race preparation, maintenance and development. We continue to work with all the Porsche specialists in the region including Autofarm, the company responsible for me moving to the south of England all those years ago. Most of the serious Porsche specialists including Porsche UK have used our services at some point as we are the only workshop to have our own engine test cell.
We have been at WVP for over 15 years now and have watched the site develop, grow and improve over time. In the early days we lost a few key customers as they wouldn’t take their cars over the big speed ramps at the old entrance to the park. The work WVP has completed on the new entrance, onsite security and road infrastructure have been big plus points for us and it keeps the customers happy as they feel secure when they go through the gates.
What are the key responsibilities in your position?
In a nutshell, keeping it all going, progressing and expanding the business. We have basically more than doubled the size of the rental area we occupy at WVP and the plan is to end up with the entire unit at some point.
Describe a typical day
My day starts with feeding the dog, I leave the house by around 6:30am and arrive at work by 7am in order to catch that key time in the day before the telephone starts. As it’s my business everyone calling in wants to speak to me which does become difficult so I’m usually one of the first onsite and one of the last to leave. As a family business my son Ian is in charge of the day to day running in the offices and keeping the accounts running smooth along with Gina my wife who has helped the business grow to where we are now.
What has been your best decision?
My best decision was to pilot a zapcat boat 2,200 miles around Britain for charity, it took 21 demanding days to complete but it was an experience I will never forget.
It all started in 2007 at a BBQ when I jokingly said that we should just jump on a boat and go around Britain. I was sure I could make it happen so made it my mission to accomplish from that day on. So in 2009, aged 50 and with only one functional arm, I set off to take on the challenge accompanied by a land support crew and boat.
Two weeks before we were due to leave, a sponsor who had promised us £15,000 for a camper van and other logistics found he was unable to do so, so the land team had to make do with ex-army beds and bivvy bags.
Believe it or not the hardest task was collecting money for the two charities we supported CLIC (Cancer and Leukaemia in Children) and Lizard Lifeboat and despite our best efforts we did not manage to raise enough money.
We had some hairy moments, not least as we were travelling in the worst weather conditions despite setting off in June. Within the first four hours at sea our satnav, tracker and VHF all packed up as we were pushing through a heavy swell of 8 to 12 feet. We headed for land as fast as we could and eventually with the help of two eagle-eyed ladies, the Coastguard and our land crew we made it back to sea to continue the challenge.
Before anyone sets to sea in a zapcat on a demanding journey, I would advise them to make sure their mind and body are strong enough for it, their mind especially. You need almost tunnel vision to keep going, day after day. Those nine, ten or eleven hour days took a lot out of me.
Otherwise it was brilliant, especially round the North of Scotland where I saw literally millions of Puffins and when we went across the Bristol Channel a shoal of dolphins followed me, there were so many incredible highlights and I have flash backs about all the things I experienced to this day.
I still have the zapcat as I kept it out of sentimental value, although I am sure it will get used again as there has been talk of taking a bunch of Marines around Britain and I’ve also offered to take the security guys out on it.
Although an incredible experience the downside was that completing the challenge nearly killed my business. Funding issues with the bank caused problems as at the time I was installing the engine test cell within the workshop.
Although a bad experience at the time, this taught me to think very carefully about funding and as a direct result we are now completely self-funded with no overdraft or bank loans. We are now well positioned to further expand the business which will hopefully be my next best decision.
Do you run an apprenticeship scheme?
Yes we have trained up three apprentices whilst at WVP. In July I took our current apprentice to complete an 8 hour race in Le Mans and then Spa to complete 25 hours of racing.
Do you have a good work/life balance?
I do spend far too many hours in the workshop but I completely switch off from work when I get home at night.
My business is my hobby so even in my own time I tend to work on looking after engines, at the moment I look after the boat engine for Ben Jelf of Jelf Racing. I first met Ben when he was an eleven year old, racing powerboats, he’s now World Champion, European Champion, has held the British Speed Record, the British Sprint Championship and many more.
Supporting Ben gets me out of the workshop and we quite often make a family weekend of it when travelling abroad, in fact we are off to the Czech Republic in two weeks time to support Ben in the World Championships.
What are the biggest challenges facing your business today?
Employment is an issue as it’s difficult to find the staff, especially when the work we do is so specialist. Bank funding is inevitably always an issue, having said that and as previously mentioned we try to make sure everything we do here is self-funded.
Is there anything in your business that really irritates you?
I hate things being untidy, I can work 24 hours in a day but I can’t work in a mess.
How do you see your company developing over the next five years?
We are expanding the business with the launch of the new secure storage area for customers, which in turn should generate additional service, testing and development work.
The expansion of the business will create new job opportunities and we are currently advertising for two mechanics and a workshop manager, which we hope to have on board within the next 12 months.
Our new secure storage area can accommodate up to 80 high value cars on two levels of the building as we installed a mezzanine floor and a commercial lift. We launched our new restoration workshop in July, complete with a new tearoom and shower room for the team.
We have come a long way in the last 12 months and that trend is set to continue. The next plan will be to take on a further building to advance the storage business.
What do you do to motivate your workforce?
The guys here are brilliant, all self-starters, I rarely have to tell them what to do, they just get on and do it. We are likeminded, all into motor sport, so we all enjoy what we do and are very lucky to work on the cars that we do.
Clearly working in motor sport industry brings with it genuine perks, for instance we are taking a £1.5 million car to Spa for a track day soon and the guys here get paid for doing that. Getting paid to enjoy yourself can’t be a bad thing!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
If you’re going to do a job, do it properly.
What would you like to do when you retire?
I doubt I ever will retire - I will be one of those guys who will pop into the workshop on my Zimmer frame to see what the boys are doing!
At the end of the day, I am still feeling lucky to be alive…