30+ years in a family business

With one-third of Australian marriages ending in divorce, there’s something to be said for a couple and family who can not only work together day-in-day-out running a successful business, but are still happily married 32 years after the business commenced.

Enter Meredith Abbott who, with her husband Brenton and oldest son Ben, owns Fleurieu Crash Repairs in Victor Harbor.

And it’s obvious when you walk into the business that although usually considered the domain of men, this crash repair business has a more feminine, welcoming touch to it … and Meredith is proud that she’s been able to have that influence.

Meredith laughs when you ask if she has ever been tempted to pick up a hammer and beat the panels, but admits it might be just a little therapeutic.

Clearly no raving feminist, Meredith accepts that the crash repair industry has been traditionally a man’s world.

“We still get some men who you get the vibe that they just want to talk to a man,” Meredith said.

“So, my answer to that is, let them.”

A compositor by trade (that’s almost a historic term today for someone who arranges type for printing or keys text into a composing machine for printing), Meredith has spent almost all of her life living and working in the Victor Harbor area. She grew up on a farm at Hindmarsh Tiers.

The couple met through Rural Youth.

She literally married into the crash repair business after Brenton decided to go out on his own, starting the business in McKinlay Street (near where National Pharmacies is today).

“Brenton said, ‘If it works out (the business), I’ll marry you’.

“So in 1986 we got married.”

Having left school at 16, and not having any secretarial or accounting skills, except for nine months of a secretarial course at school, Meredith had a steep learning curve as she stepped in to help out with the payroll, accounts and cleaning in the early days.

“I didn’t become full-time until James (her second son) started at school,” she recalls. And that was 20 years ago.

“Brenton says I’m not analytical, but I did a few one-day training courses and had some help from other people along the way.”

And, like many of us, Meredith also found herself juggling motherhood and a career or business.

“I had help from the in-laws and from friends driving the kids to school,” she recalls.

“I always made sure that I was home when they got home from school, at least while they were at primary school.

“It was an advantage sending them to Tatachilla as it bought you an extra 45 minutes at the end of the day, but it meant I usually got the job of opening up in the morning because they had to catch the bus so early.”

The business has continued growing over the years, moving to its existing premises (although much smaller) in 1996. Today the team includes 15 people.

While many business owners struggle with the thought of a succession plan – who will take over the business or who will buy the business – Meredith and Brenton were pleased when their eldest son Ben decided to take up the trade while still at Tatachilla College at McLaren Vale.

“He studied panel beating while at school under the VET program. He would attend school and classes at TAFE as well as work here after school and other times as part of a VET traineeship.

“Then when he finished he had decided to become a second year apprentice panel beater with us and as a third generation panel beater in Victor Harbor Brenton says he’s a natural.”

The couple’s other son, James, had an interest in computers and established his own local computer business. He’s currently working in Canada.

“I don’t know that I ever thought seriously about the boys taking over the business.

“It can place pressure on kids thinking that they need to follow that path.

“We’re certainly not ready for retirement, but it’s nice to know that Ben is keen to continue in the business that we’ve grown.

“I think in some ways it would be easier to simply sell your business to someone you don’t know because I want to help him (Ben) out more to ensure it’s a success.

“If you sell the business you can basically have a handover period and then leave them with it.”

And if you thought the idea of working with your spouse, partner or kids was dreamy, Meredith admits it probably wouldn’t be her first choice.

“I have found it hard at times, particularly when we were sharing an office,” she says.

“We always have to be aware of not talking about work at home and we don’t get time to talk about home at work.

“Going out for a meal or travelling to Adelaide in the car is a good mutual ground for discussion.

“I think too that you tend to speak differently to each other than you probably would to anyone else in the office, which is not always good.
“We tend to be a lot more demanding on each other than anyone else too.”

But, despite spending so much time together during business hours, Meredith and Brenton still enjoy being together in their leisure time too, including attending yoga. At one time they also shared a mutual interest in Apex, but growing older and waning interest in Apex locally put a stop to that.

Fleurieu Crash Repairs has gained an enviable reputation for its quality equipment and expertise, something which Meredith attributes to being members of the Carcraft Group and ensuring they stay up-to-date with the latest training and information that’s available.

The workshop boasts the only Car-O-Liner Chassis Straightening System with electronic measuring on the Fleurieu Peninsula. It also has a specialised Rapid Air Distribution System (oven dryer) to ensure the best possible paint finish in the least possible time.

“When people ask me what else would you do, I tell them, ‘Probably nothing’, because I do like it (working in the business).
“I enjoy helping people and helping the staff.”

She is so proud to see one of her reception staff achieve her dream of buying her own home, something she alluded to as a goal during her job interview four years ago.

As well, their second year apprentice was recently placed second in the World Skills Spray Painting Competition, competing against third and fourth year apprentices.

But customer service is one of Meredith’s fortes.

“Sometimes it can be just the relief of a cup of tea,” she said.

But more often it is about getting a replacement vehicle for someone left stranded or helping ensure that someone driving a dangerously damaged vehicle can borrow a car while theirs is fixed.

Although not offering towing services the business is on call 24/7, so it can mean problem solving and coming to the shop after hours to organise loan cars after crashes. Fleurieu Crash Repairs has a fleet of eight vehicles, with others available if needed.

The business has won numerous awards, but the ones Meredith is most proud of are the 2011 Victor Harbor Business Association Construction and Trade Award (because it was judged by an interstate team and it involved a rigorous judging and documentation process); being named Country Repairer of the Year in 2015 by Paint and Panel Magazine; and the 2011 Small Business Award in the Advantage Regional awards.

And you can see the sparkle in her eyes as she also shows Brenton’s more personal awards for being an original Foundation Member of the Carcraft Group 20 years ago and his Lifetime Achievement Award presented by The National Collision Repairer Magazine in 2016.

So, what are her tips to those going into a business as a couple or family?
• Have separate offices.
• Have separate interests outside of work.
• Try not to talk work at home and vice versa.
• Go out for the occasional meal together.

Meredith Abbott Fleurieu Crash Repairs
FAMILY OPERATION: Meredith Abbott is flanked by her husband Brenton and elder son Ben; together they work in their business Fleurieu Crash Repairs in Victor Harbor. Ben is a third generation panel beater.