THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
The Chief Executive Officer of All Vehicle Accessories, Melissa Sangster, has had quite the journey so far
In what is a predominantly male-dominated space Melissa, or Mel as she prefers to be known, has run a successful business for more than 20 years.
Mel’s journey is both inspiring and interesting. Today, she’s considered a ground-breaking business leader, with a wicked sense of humour and a passion for singing.
She was born in Melbourne into what was already an automotive family. Mel’s father opened Sangster Windscreens in the bayside town of Frankston and after building the business, it was sold so the family could move north.
“My dad was a car guy, and that just rubbed off on me,” said Mel.
“He worked on cars his whole life, and we were around cars from when we were very young.”
Mel’s personal car collection is as eclectic as she is and includes a restored 1962 Kharman Ghia, a fully decked out Toyota Prado 4WD, a 1970 Leyland Moke, and a 1971 Kombi Van.
“I also have a 2014 Soft Tail Harley and a 2021 Fonzarelli electric scooter, and my brother is currently restoring a barn find XY Ute that I found,” Mel added.
Mel also recently purchased a 1957 Woodie, which is currently at the signwriters being set up as a show car for another business venture, Farmcare. Apparently, it will be a real head-turner when it’s done.
Following the family’s move to Queensland, Mel attended five primary schools and four high schools that she believes contributed significantly to the highly adaptable person that she is today.
“At the time, it was hard changing schools so frequently, but now when I look back on it, I know those challenges set me up for success in my career,” Mel explained.
“The frequent moves taught me how to be resilient and how to quickly get a read on people, and today I’m as comfortable in the boardroom as I am on a bush track.”
Mel’s family eventually moved back to Victoria, where she would finish Year 12.
“I’ve always liked having fun a little too much, so I didn’t attend school that often in my final year, but I managed to pass and was accepted into Applied Science – School Teaching majoring in Physical Education as I always loved sport, before changing my major to Myotherapy. But I quickly discovered that University just wasn’t for me,” she explains.
Throughout high school, Mel had worked at the family business, Towbar City, during the holidays, which helped her develop her skills as a salesperson.
“I have a natural affinity with people that allows me to build great relationships and quickly identify mutually beneficial opportunities,” Mel explained.
Mel’s first job outside of the family business was in retail fashion. While she knew it wasn’t for her, it certainly helped develop a set of valuable skills that have served her well throughout her successful 20 plus years in business.
“I am not into fashion, but my time there wasn’t wasted,” Mel explained. “It taught me to sell at a retail level and also built my resilience and empathy.”
Mel’s career has included marketing at several gyms across Australia, which ultimately led her into a role at Fernwood Female Fitness centres, where she helped build the brand into the household name it is today.
Following her stint at Fernwood, Mel accepted a marketing position in sports medicine with Elastoplast. Still, the lure of the automotive aftermarket was too strong, and Mel took the plunge, purchasing the family business, Towbar City, from her father.
“I have a passion for the automotive industry, and when my father approached me in 1997 with the offer to purchase the family business, I knew it was the right move,” Mel said. “But it wasn’t all easy sailing.”
Mel’s father purchased Towbar City in 1985 from Eric Hayman, the founder of Hayman Reese Towbars, but Mel had big plans for the business after her acquisition.
“In 1998, I purchased Van & 4WD Extras in Bayswater,” said Mel. “It was in receivership when I acquired the business.”
Ironically, the business had been owned by Mel’s father and his brother many years before, so she knew it had the potential to be a success again.
Between 1999 and 2000, Mel acquired two more businesses to add to her expanding automotive portfolio, Roof Rack City in Thomastown and Autoworx in Brighton.
“I felt that each new acquisition was strategically located to cover the major markets in Melbourne,” Mel explained.
In 2001, Mel combined all the businesses under one banner, AVA, All Vehicle Accessories, to build brand equity and streamline the business processes, but this was not without its challenges.
“It didn’t take long for me to realise that AVA was bleeding due to rent and staff issues,” Mel explained.
“So, I condensed it down to two stores, one in Port Melbourne and a second in Thomastown.”
While a restructure of this scale is tough, Mel reported that the business is thriving.
“No matter what life throws up, I always try to take away a positive,” Mel remarked.
“While lockdown and the pandemic have been tough, especially in Victoria, domestic travel is booming, and more and more people are discovering this beautiful country of ours in 4WDs, so the category is solid.”
Mel and her team at AVA have enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with ARB. Still, as this issue of the magazine goes to press, the Port Melbourne store is currently in the process of being converted into an ARB Authorised Partner.
“The timing is right, and we’re extremely excited about aligning our business more closely with this iconic brand,” Mel said.
“Their range, quality, and product development road map are second to none, and we know that this will signal a new period of growth for AVA.”
Traditionally, AVA sourced approximately 80 percent of its revenue from new car dealers. But with the rebrand of the Port Melbourne store to an ARB Authorised Partner, Mel and her team are aiming to secure upwards of 80 percent of revenue from retail customers in the area.
“It’s a big change in our business model, but we have a strategic roadmap that will ensure we hit this target,” said Mel.
Mel has combined her passion for the automotive aftermarket with her purpose, to help those who are not as lucky as the majority of the population.
“Separately to AVA, I also purchased a division of Tieman, which I rebranded as Vehicle Access Solutions,” said Mel.
“This business converts vans and buses for wheelchair accessibility. My purpose in life is to make a difference, and this company certainly allows me to do that.”
Vehicle Access Solutions is a purely B2B business, with clients including BUPA, Yooralla and Gen U as well as many city councils, education departments and taxi companies around Australia.
Vehicle Access Solutions is a national business with workshops in Port Melbourne and Campbellfield in Victoria, and Banyo in Queensland, while Mel’s brother, Scott Sangster covers Tweed Heads in New South Wales.
“While Scott’s business, Motor Accessories Direct, converts vehicles for wheelchair access, they have developed a reputation for decking out 4WDs, tradie utes and vans,” she added.
Of course, managing two businesses presents Mel and her team with many challenges. In the past, and as with many business owners, cash flow kept her awake at night. But following the successful restructure of AVA, this has become less of an issue.
As a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest challenge facing Mel and her team right now is the lack of vehicles and products, but this is basically affecting the entire automotive aftermarket at this point.
Looking further ahead, Mel believes that regulatory issues will throw up the most significant challenges.
“Growth is critical and can often be hampered by red tape and incompetent political decisions,” said Mel.
“We have experienced that in the past with Bullbars, but the AAAA lobbied the government successfully for the benefit of the entire industry.”
Of course, Mel has been a long-time supporter and AAAA Member, and she considers the information and support they provide invaluable.
“The AAAA keeps us abreast of any potential compliance issues. They go into bat for major issues like sharing of data, provide us with access to international shows and facilitate business between members,” said Mel.
“I know our businesses wouldn’t be as strong without their support.
“We also use their HR and Legal services for HR compliance.”
To find out more about AVA and Vehicle Access Solutions, visit www.avagroup.net.au