In 2011, after years of acute drug addiction and homelessness, Tobyn Brooks did something surprising and remarkable. He started a business. He didn’t have anything: no business experience, not even an email address.
Starting by selling car parts on eBay, he saved enough money to buy a Nissan Figaro – the cult retro vehicle of which only 20,000 were ever made. The Figaro had not been intended for sale in the UK – it was a grey import.
Providing repairs and maintenance for the owners of Figaros proved to be a niche as neat as the car itself. As Nissan ceased making a specific part for the Figaro – and it made very few in the first place – Brooks stepped in. His Figaro Shop would get parts made as well as carry out repairs and soon became a trusted source of information for all Figaro owners.
But this has not been easy. Few founders will have faced similar early struggles. As Brooks’ business developed, his health deteriorated dangerously. He was struggling to walk because of the damage inflicted on his vascular system. As he spent several months in hospital and longer in rehabilitation, his business colleague Danny Smith stepped in. The pair agreed a deal in which Smith gradually took a stake in the business.
“At the time it wasn’t clear whether I would completely recover,” he says. “But I did – and our partnership became very strong. Generally, he deals with the operational side of the business, and I deal with the growth.”
And now, from their 25-strong repair shop in Didcot, Brooks and Smith have big plans. The facilities are already being used for general accident repair. The acquisition of a small group of garages is under way, which will bring revenues to £4.6m and the employee count to approximately 40.
Today, the proud claim is that the Figaro Shop is “the world’s leading specialist Nissan Figaro garage.”
That’s because it not just for British owners. Overseas owners started to ship their Figaros to Didcot for restoration. Nearly two-thirds of the Figaro Shop’s parts travel outside the UK and EU, mostly to the USA.
It’s an opportune time to grow. Throughout the pandemic The Figaro Shop has increased revenues, profits and headcount. “We have made some great strides,” he says. International expansion is on the cards: “we will at some point open a branch in in the USA,” he says.
As the Figaro Shop has grown, it has drawn support from Oxfordshire LEP, both through grants (to boost its digital presence) and via its eScalate programme for scaleups and socially minded enterprises. As a result he became part of the Scale Up Network run by Oxford Brookes Business School. “Meeting my peers was helpful,” says Brooks, “but so too was meeting the people who are running the groups. It’s enabled me to connect with many mentors, consultants and advisers. I have been learning about the practices we can adopt from bigger businesses but also what corporate traps we shouldn’t fall into.”
One area for potential growth is the electrification of classic cars although this is an expensive process. In this area, he says, R&D tax credits have been important for the company.
It is just one aspect of what Brooks describes as “ecological repair.” Another aspect is using recycled materials instead of leather that has traditionally been lavished on classic cars. “We want to look at creative ways to be more sustainable in the long term,” he says.
To grow, talent presents a real challenge. “We hire on attitude and then teach people,” says Brooks. “It’s much more successful to hire people who will fit with our culture and have the mindset that will help them get further – and then worry about the skills.” One source of recruitment has been the Army; The Figaro Shop is a signatory to the Armed Forces covenant.
“It’s important to give other people a chance,” he says. “The automotive industry has brought me success and happiness and a feeling of belonging, of being able to contribute. I want to help other people find that.”
This is the wider mission that he has set for The Figaro Shop. “My big goal is to try and prove that a socially focused enterprise can be highly profitable and commercially successful,” he says.
“The automotive industry has brought me success and happiness and a feeling of belonging, of being able to contribute. I want to help other people find that.”
Tobyn Brooks, Owner, The Figaro Shop
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