This year celebrating its 40th anniversary, Ultra Tune has grown from a small store in Box Hill, Victoria, into a national franchise network with more than 270 outlets across Australia. Catering to both fleet and private motorists, the 100 per cent Australian-owned brand offers vehicle servicing, mechanical repairs and tyre maintenance – all while ensuring fast, efficient and cost-effective customer service. A leader in the automotive aftermarket servicing industry, Sean Buckley took the reigns as Ultra Tune CEO in 1994. With his background in business and marketing management in Australia, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan, and his lifelong love of cars, Sean said he didn’t think twice about accepting the job.
When he arrived at Ultra Tune, however, the business was facing turmoil and financial ruin. “There were serious issues with the royalty exemptions on service work and mechanical work, and the existing rental leases were signed at a time when there were no market reviews, so they were incredibly high. We had to renegotiate the royalties and the lease on each franchise, which took us about five years. This restructuring had to be done because if you don’t have profitable franchisees, you don’t have a business.”
After acquiring management and shareholding control in Ultra Tune, Sean also made the difficult decision to shut down 30 of its 70 stores at the time. “In those days, we were well behind our competitors in terms of our national reach. It was only when those remaining franchises turned profitable that the business really took off over the next decade. Today, we’ve surpassed those competitors and we have 274 successful franchises across the country.
“We’re now tackling the problem of a shortage of labourers – there just aren’t as many mechanics nowadays because it’s widely viewed as a ‘dirty industry’,” he explains. “So, we’re working hard to improve our image and our unique value proposition to attract more mechanical workers. I can’t give too much away, because our strategy is something none of our competitors are doing.”
Tuned to lead
Today considered an industry leader in its technical field, Ultra Tune employs specialist personnel from a range of disciplines to provide first class back-up and support to franchise owners. Sean says that the company’s technical and training staff are highly qualified – some having previously owned and operated or managed an Ultra Tune franchise. They are constantly being updated and instructed on the latest technical innovations and procedures.
Sean says being denied access to vehicle manufacturer repair and servicing data has caused problems for Ultra Tune in the past, but he is optimistic about the future following the success of the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association’s Right to Repair campaign. “We need access to all the data that manufacturers have so we can service the cars properly – a task that is becoming increasingly difficult as cars become more high-tech. These days, they’re essentially computers on wheels,” he explains.
“As a result, the art of mechanical repair has changed dramatically – the old way of playing around with an engine until we find a solution is long gone. Today, you find the faulty part, take it out, replace it with a new one and away you go. The margin for doing the repair work is limited to the number of hours it takes you to do it.”
“The art of mechanical repair has changed dramatically – the old way of playing around with an engine until we find a solution is long gone.”
Sean says Ultra Tune’s customer support IT platform already services more than 1,500 customers daily, providing immediate access to the customer’s data and demographics, as it pertains to their vehicle’s service history.
When it comes to culture, Sean says Ultra Tune wouldn’t be where it is today without the comradship, innovation, perseverance, and calculated risk-taking of its staff. “We pride ourselves on being nimble and cutting-edge and we’re lucky to work with a very motivated bunch of people,” he says. “We invest a great deal of time and money in our IT platforms and monthly staff training to improve their mechanic and management skills. We’re in the process of upgrading this training system this year to ensure we stay ahead of the game.”
With a keen eye for innovation and strategy, Sean isn’t afraid to do things differently. This approach is evident in the brand’s controversial, but highly successful, ‘Unexpected Situations’ advertising campaign which has featured the likes of international icons Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mike Tyson and most recently, Charlie Sheen. “We embarked on this campaign about five years ago and it continues to be very successful for us,” he says. “I’m excited to say that our seventh and eighth television commercials have just launched.”
1. Electrified – The transition to emissions-free mobility will become
a global requirement.”
2. Autonomous – The development of self-driving vehicles will reduce the use of public mobility platforms and offer mobility to a wider group of users.
3. Shared – Professionally managed fleets of shared vehicles will reduce the cost of mobility.
4. Connected – Cars will communicate with traffic management infrastructure or with vehicle occupants and the outside world, becoming a ‘third place’ between home and workplace.
5. ‘Yearly’ update – Cars will be updated annually to integrate the latest hardware and software developments, and react to changing requirements of shared fleet buyers.
Building on the best
Looking forward, Sean hopes to strengthen Ultra Tune’s streak as the market leader, increase strategic alliances with other automotive leaders, and continue to deliver a personalised customer experience. Realising consumer choice is a powerful thing, Sean believes it’s essential to reinforce Ultra Tune’s status so it’s top-of-mind for Australians. “The industry we’re in is a flat-to-decline market, so we have to be prepared for losses at all times. The number of cars in Australia is rising, but because of new technologies, they’re a lot more durable than they once were. This means that there is less need for mechanical repairs and servicing.”
According to Sean, the ‘greying’ that’s occurring in the automotive servicing industry presents a massive expansion opportunity for Ultra Tune. “A lot of the guys who run the independent mechanic repair shops are getting into their 60s and 70s, so they’re retiring and essentially walking away from their shops. About five years ago, there were more than 42,000 independent car workshops in Australia. Because of the ageing ownership, that number has now reached about 22,000 and it’s very important that we pick up that market share,” he says. “Another focus of ours is getting the business of the company fleets out there, so that we are their mechanic of choice.”
When it comes to true success, Sean says it means nothing unless you’re doing something you love. “I’ve always been passionate about cars and horses, so I followed those passions into the business world and I’ve seen great success from them. You should chase the passion, not the money,” he explains. “It’s very hard for people to get around that because when you’re at school, there’s a lot of pressure for you to figure out exactly what you want to do with your life. But if you make those big decisions too early, it could cost you down the line. My advice for young people entering the business world is to find something you love, hit the ground running, and the money will follow.”