In this series, we get to know our co-operative members. Today we talk with Blackfern Director Roger Castleton about Blackfern’s vision, being a co-operative and how they keep shareholders engaged.
Blackfern was founded in 2014 to provide 14 independent garage owners with collective solutions for marketing, technology and business facilitation. The co-operative has gone from strength to strength and now has more than 1,000 members throughout the country.
Roger – tell us about the vision for Blackfern?
Blackfern’s mission is to provide services to help independent automotive repairers to survive and thrive in the changing landscape. By achieving this mission, Blackfern will in turn be able to provide the driving public with safe repair alternatives at competitive pricing. The two elements we are focusing on to achieve this are technology and people.
What are your main points of difference?
There are several, with the biggest points being:
- We are Kiwi-run, and we are accessible at any time
- We are big enough to matter as a buying group but we are also a small enough member organisation to care
- We always make sure we listen to all stakeholders.
What are the key issues you are currently trying to address?
Access to vehicle data for independent vehicle repairers is the big one, particularly when it comes to electric and hybrid vehicles because of the new technology they have.
Without addressing the issue of access to data, the driving public will have far less competitive access to vehicle servicing. The independent repairer network will also shrink, which will lead to less opportunity for the next generation of automotive repairers to have a go at being self-employed.
There are legislative changes happening in Australia around access to vehicle repair data. We will be observing the initial effects around this and throwing our collective two cents in once the smoke clears here in New Zealand. All independent organisations in our industry have to take a collaborative approach to this. Interesting times.
What is your organisation doing to make itself future-proof?
The COVID lockdowns gave us time to take a breath and address some issues, such as putting in place a robust risk matrix. Part of being a co-operative is always providing the best value to members and that is something that is constantly at the top of our minds.
Co-operation among co-operatives is a Rochdale Principle from 1844: how do you work with fellow co-operatives?
We have a working relationship with FMG, we have produced a joint offering of a tailored automotive workshop product that provides a real alternative for our industry. Both being co-operatively principled businesses has dispensed with corporate barriers and allowed us to focus solely on the needs of the member.
Blackfern is also engaged in the late stages with another co-operative on a partnership offering to members and we hope to be able to discuss this in more detail soon.
Blackfern is just a little player, there is an element of reputational risk for established names to assist the “little guys”. I take my hat off and thank the co-operatives we are working with for their support. Co-operation at its best.
We have, in turn, also provided some small start-up co-operatives with assistance around the start-up process. We have a specialised arm around issues such as small business risk, collection and credit checking. This has proven to be a hit with our members as well as other co-operative businesses.
For Blackfern, what are the main benefits of being a co-operative?
Without a doubt, it is the buy-in we have from our members. With COVID-19, everyone has realised how much we depend on each other and since the lockdown in March 2020, our membership has grown by 23%. We are a close-knit community and independent automotive repairers must see us as doing something right.
Being a co-operative facilitates honest conversations with stakeholders and dispenses with the “them and us”. Kiwis are natural team players in times of adversity, so being a co-operative is a perfect fit.
How do keep your shareholders engaged?
Blackfern now has seven Liaison Managers throughout New Zealand. These are industry experts who visit our members and suppliers, helping us understand any issues they might have and how we can better support them. We keep in touch with shareholders through monthly newsletters and articles in national automotive publications. Once the risk of further lockdowns subsides, we’ll also resume local meetings.
Finally, we have found Cooperative Business New Zealand and its members hugely helpful over the formative years. Co-operatives are like most things in life in that you get out what you put in. The bonus of a co-operative is you do together.