BCA’s people-powered leader embraces the digital age

After receiving the Outstanding Achievement award at the Automotive Global Awards, BCA’s Executive Chairman Avril Palmer-Baunack sits down with Alex Kreetzer to discuss her spectacular and fulfilling career in the automotive supply chain

Automotive Global Award

Avril Palmer-Baunack, the Executive Chairman of BCA, which owns We Buy Any Car among many other enterprises, has over 20 years executive experience throughout the UK automotive industry, in companies engaged in vehicle salvage, car sales and hire, auctions, transportation, distribution, logistics, vehicle processing and infrastructure. Her rise to the top started behind a car rental desk, where she found a passion for selling and laid the foundations to her meteoric rise.

Through overseeing extremely high-value deals, including the purchase of BCA from its private-equity owners, Avril's main aim has always been to drive growth along the automotive value chain; and that's exactly what she has done. But behind all of this, it is important to understand the mentality of someone who has tackled the unforgiving and demanding industry that requires hard work, no-nonsense and straightforward thinking.

"My mentality is all about not letting 'radio noise' get in the way,” says Palmer-Baunack “You have to have self-belief and belief in your management teams to allow them to do what they need to do. I have always had the ability to look at things very logically. A lot of people involved in logistics and operational services were not necessarily highly intellectual but are very logical; this tends to make things happen." She doesn't shy away from complexity but identifies it as a business opportunity that will benefit the customer, excited by the different solutions to each ‘impossible’ problem. "The number of times I've started growing a business and people have told me that it will never work; I've always had the mindset that I think it can," she continues. “Yes, sometimes things inevitably go wrong, but as long as there is an end goal it doesn't matter - there will always be some turbulence on the way.”

Palmer-Baunack is extremely proud of the loyal team around her and believes that they have enabled her to have an edge over others. These colleagues have been working alongside her for up to 20 years and their relationship allows them to not just follow her lead, but critique her decisions and suggest different directions to go in. Everyone has to be on the same page and understand that the company is working towards an overall goal. In a large business like BCA it can be incredibly difficult to keep up with everything going on in each division. “We make sure that we set simple goals," she adds. "For us, it is important to communicate across the four big divisions and the smaller subdivisions among those businesses. Luckily for us, the operational executives get on very well, with no politics involved. They can challenge each other around the table and we have such skill sets that there isn’t really an area that one of us doesn't have an in-depth understanding of."

Palmer-Baunack's advantage is that she has done everything there is to do within BCA's business throughout her career, having experience across the board. "For me, the key things are KPIs, everyone having the same goal and actually being accountable for their division and, lastly, communication with each other. Although I set the targets for people, I never interfere in their areas unless they come to me with an issue,” she adds.

The rise of a logistician: striving for change

The logistics industry is all about working your way from the bottom to the top in a ruthless environment. However, there needs to be a level of collaboration and understanding that allows other people to flourish in their own areas but, at the same time, find the balance. "Part of it is instinct and part of it is looking at the key KPIs as it is easy to identify any issues within the supply chain,” says Palmer-Baunack. “We also operate as a proactive business rather than a reactive business, thanks to frequent meetings and calls with each division to stay ahead.” Although she has massive self-belief in herself and the team, Palmer-Baunack has a tendency to always prepare for the unexpected , which has led to her self-confessed nickname of ‘Debbie Doom’. “I am always looking at the scenario of what can possibly go wrong and planning how we can manage those scenarios. 

"But the really interesting thing at BCA is that we are a 70-year-old business and we own a lot of older established businesses but we aim to mix digitisation in order to work as efficiently as possible."

For example, one of the latest additions to the team includes a professor in mathematics whose background was online poker and gaming, and a Chief Digital officer whose background is in building pure digital businesses. This shows how BCA has incorporated a digital identity with other employees who, like Palmer-Baunack, worked their way up from the bottom of the industry. "We were not too sure how it was going to work, but it has been amazing," she adds. "The best thing about the ‘new’ BCA is that we don't have issues with ego or politics, we are a team who works as a family that respects each other’s skills. These guys know that we have to change and, just like us, they are welcoming it. "You can see this trend within BCA's operations, running its first paperless auction last month, which illustrates a massive shift in the logistics industry. Palmer-Baunack and her team have managed to take a 70-year-old business and become the disruptor themselves. "The number of people touching a car through the supply chain is phenomenal, so we knew that we could take time out of this process with technology. For OEMs, taking delay out of this chain is what is most important for them."

The digital revolution

Palmer-Baunack looks at companies like Amazon, which has both physical warehouses and a digital side to its business. She believes that in automotive, and especially in logistics, no one was thinking this way. "We do deal with a large physical asset that depreciates daily, the minute it comes out of the factory or is put on a truck," she says. Palmer-Baunack wanted to take the same approach as digital businesses outside of the automotive industry and highlighted the two major processes: building a network of assets and then having a digital front face. “We have all of the warehousing, the production lines and the logistics of moving the vehicles around, but what we needed to do was digitise this. “For us to be here in 2030-2040, we need to change." This is an industry where, up until now, change has been slow. Since BCA has started this digital push, others have decided to follow, but this is a long process that requires investment in the technology and, above all, the talent. "If you look within our IT department, we have specialists from all over Europe who have never worked in automotive before,” continues Palmer-Baunack. “This brings in real data, which makes a major difference to the way we work. “The industry has finally realised that the digital world is a really important link for the supply chain. This made the industry wake up and realise that it has to change. It has been an amazing learning curve because it allowed us to look at things differently and understand what can be done differently within the business."

For a company the size of BCA, it is highly inefficient to have an influx of technology at once, as it would cause incredible disruption to the business. "The biggest thing we noticed was the people with the huge IT projects that were never finished,” says Palmer-Baunack. “The modern way of digitising the supply chain is about being agile across the board. You cannot invest hundreds of millions of pounds changing because logistics is a low margin business. You have to change with the customer as well. We are very lucky as we have customers such as BMW, who will talk to you about how the business can change and work with us. It is much more about working in partnership and someone such as a BMW is an OEM which you can really work well with and take steps to develop systems agilely.”

The supply chain of tomorrow

Even today, logistics is still not exactly a highly attractive industry for young people looking to kick start their career. To overcome this issue, apprenticeship and graduate schemes are helping these future logisticians understand the potential of the market. BCA has a very strong graduate scheme that nurtures pupils into supply chain management. "They absolutely love the logistics industry and don't want to come out," says Palmer-Baunack. "Logistics is probably one of our most popular areas for graduates because it is somewhere that you can get up in the morning, have a challenge and have a solution by the end of the day. It is really difficult to get young people into the industry, but once they are in they love it. The quality of graduates coming through are changing the way BCA operates, thanks to a new mindset that will help work towards a completely connected supply chain.

"From my own experience, when I went into logistics it was a very male-dominated industry with many having opinions on who could do what, how they could do it and there was no room for change," says Palmer-Baunack. "Young people do not behave in that way; they work much more collaboratively through communication and, in most cases, are actually faster than we were when we started.” BCA is also working very hard to develop people who are looking at working their way through, again solidifying the company's outlook. "Rather than keep going to the existing market and hiring people from other companies, we must instead work hard to develop these youngsters and introduce a new generation to the industry. 

"The successes in the family of BCA will come from the wisdom of experience and age and the energy of youth. I am really proud of the team and there is nothing I would like more than for these people to come up behind me as graduates and work their way up into senior positions. 

"This new breed of logistician is already teaching BCA a lot, raising new questions and challenging things in different areas. The people who are entering graduate schemes are incredibly smart, thinking in a different way to what has been the norm. This is vital in the future of the automotive industry."

Finding the balance

However, with 211,000 cars, more than 800 trucks and 1,200 drivers on BCA estates, there is still a need for the physical side of the business. In reality, there is no drone that can pick up to 11 vehicles at a time and move each one to different destinations. In addition, there is not just one small dealer or leasing company who has the space to store all of these cars in the UK and this will not change unless our island stops being an island. “The real advantage of digitisation is making us more efficient and this effect will allow our customers to be more efficient and, hopefully, allow the whole industry to be more efficient,” says Palmer-Baunack.

Like many, Palmer-Baunack believes that the industry is full of a lot of great people. The network of people she has built over her career has been extremely important to her, especially when dealing in an area where sometimes things can go wrong. “Having strong relationships that allow us to call up and discuss an issue with the other party is not just important to us, but the entire industry,” she continues. “I came up through the industry and I now see guys around me who have built their career around the logistics sector and, overall, have developed into people who really care about it. What I have taken away from all of this is that it isn't an easy industry but it's one you grow to love. There are good and bad days, but it is the employees, from drivers to management, who are prepared to do everything for the company. This is what makes us successful.” 

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