AMA Group has been on a massive buying spree in the last couple of years and is now a billion dollar business. Sam Street caught up with Panel Division CEO Steve Bubulj to hear about integration, ADAS strategy and future plans.
Bubulj is well known in the industry from his time at insurers such as IAG, Youi and QBE. My first question to Bubulj was what is it like being a ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’?
“There’s always been a ‘fence’ between the repair industry and insurance industry. Once upon a time it was a high fence but that is now much smaller than it used to be, so it wasn’t such a big jump,” he said.
“Having worked in the insurance industry I have a good understanding of what our customers want and if we don’t get that bit right, then there is no business.
“Coming over wasn’t really a hard decision in the end, the only hard bit was that I was in a great team and company at QBE at the time.
“The opportunity to work with Andy (Hopkins) and the team here was too good to pass up. There are so many good people here and there’s a great culture of supporting each other,” he said.
With the advent of ADAS and other vehicle technology challenges, the straightforward fixed cost repair system is less tenable, how is AMA Group navigating this?
“We have many arrangements with many insurers and they are all different. In terms of that obviously we agree to an average price and volume. Yes, it’s absolutely a fact that margins are being constrained because of a number of factors.
“Number one, volume has been an issue because of the dry weather with less accidents and that has had impacts across the entire industry. Secondly, take ADAS aside, if you normalise that you still have the issue of the input costs that are coming in that weren’t there 18 months ago - or if they were it was on a very small scale.
“We’re also seeing a change in the car parc, our parts count is going up per car. Then there’s all the associated costs and items with radar and other technologies.
“So, the current commercial agreements can’t go on forever and we are working with our partners to find a sensible mechanism to work with in the future.
“We know from both local and global reports that claim frequency is expected to decline over time, and cost of repairs will go up.
“The organisation here has been unbelievable at being competitive – supply chain, parts, consistency of production. There will be an increasing focus on price because we have to get our heads around ADAS.
“Safety and quality are paramount. How do we get our customers back on the road quickly when ADAS will impact cycle times? If cycle time goes up that impacts the volume – so that has to impact commercials, excluding any of the increase in costs during operations. Thirdly, how do we ensure that our ADAS solution is competitive?
“We’re working through various options concerning ADAS solutions both in-house and outsourcing. So we’re getting a better handle on the costs and the challenges.
Capital S.M.A.R.T integration
“While S.M.A.R.T is operating its own model, it is being integrated into the group.
“The philosophy around integration is that the S.M.A.R.T business is dedicated to Suncorp and that’s set up so well. To interrupt operations and try to melt that down into the AMA Group makes no sense. So, there’s an integration team set up which is well underway, including procurement under the banner of shared services.
“It’s interesting that you have two companies doing the same thing, with the same ethos yet are very, very different.
“Dave Merino runs S.M.A.R.T and we talk every day and that helps us to get a consistency around people and culture. Going forward there will be one procurement department, one finance, one HR, one IT. That’s where the efficiencies and scalability come from.
“The great thing about acquisitions or mergers is that you learn so much from the other party. It’s an opportunity to pick up the best of all of the businesses.
“It is also the opportunity to stay ahead on issues such as customer privacy where the regulations are going to be changed.
“One of the many attractions for businesses that want to join AMA is all the intellectual property that we have around regulations, data protection and compliance which they would have to work that out themselves.
“Also, it’s attractive to be part of a group. We’re seeing groups pop up everywhere so there is a growing philosophy of scaling up and defragmenting in order to deal with the many challenges in the repair industry from technology to regulation.
“As regulations change there is more complexity and compliance cost, so we have to work to make that as simple as we can,” he said.
On the gnarly question of market share – AMA says the smash repair in Australia is worth $7billion and it has $1billion, which works out at 14%. Other sources put the industry value at $5billion, although whether that includes the hail repair market is unclear.
Targeted acquisitions and diversification
Bubulj says while the integration process takes place acquisitions have slowed down a little. “We have a lot to do internally so where we do add businesses, they will have to be complementary and add value to the skill and capability of the organisation. We are being more selective and targeted.
“We’re also looking to diversify. So where we were just panel before, now we have truck and bus. We’re looking at some great opportunities in the rural space, there’s some exciting things in the pipeline there. We’ve got Darryl Maloney who is now on board and he’s absolutely rocketing, we have a strong pipeline.
“There’s so many opportunities to look at you are constantly evaluating what is the right focus for the core of the company. We’re working closely with a couple of manufacturers as well – how do we bring those ties closer together, particularly around information sharing and methods.?
“All of that will form part of our thinking to grow the business, which we have every intention of doing. Capital S.M.A.R.T will also continue to grow.
“We may look into diversifying into the hail space. We are currently setting up operations in Canberra to help some insurers as there is a lot of conventional repair required on the hail-damaged cars.”
The scale of the company has necessitated different skill sets of the board and there has been a restructuring in recent months. But what about the man at the top?
“Working with someone like Andy Hopkins is a privilege,” Bubulj says. “He’s a classic entrepreneur, very focused on the people in the organisation and is as enthusiastic and energetic about the business as he was the day he started it.”
With a shortage of panel beaters how does AMA maintain the technician staffing levels it needs? AMA group now employs 4,500 people across the group.
“That’s a hard one,” said Bubulj. “Retention is a big focus for us. And there is some churn because of a number of factors. There might be a hailstorm and wages rise and you may lose the technicians who are seeking opportunities. The advantage we have now, particularly with Capital S.M.A.R.T on board, is that we can offer something more in terms of a career path.
“Part of our core business planning for the next few years is quality and training. We’re building leadership programs, we’re really focusing on leadership and technical capability. We also have a number of strategies to attract young people into the industry.”
There’s been a drop in AMA share price since the acquisition of Capital S.M.A.R.T, how stressful is it to be measured by share price?
“It’s the reality of being an ASX listed company. We are here for the long term. The nature of this business is that setting up sustainable initiatives is vital to give us longevity.
“My experience of having worked for a few ASX businesses is that you have your good times and your bad times, there are many dynamics. Of course financial performance is acutely important because without our shareholders and investors we can’t do the great things we are doing.
“Like all things it’s a balancing act, and we have to make sure that everything we are doing today will serve us well in the future.
“Training is going to be a huge investment, all of our centre managers, production managers and estimators will be undergoing ADAS awareness training. ADAS is a topic that comes up every month at our management meetings. We have to ensure we have the capability to fix cars safely.
“We’re working really closely with I-CAR to ensure we have a robust training schedule. It’s not just technical and leadership skills that we invest in but also learning the soft skills and customer service training which is more and more important into the future.”