Success of this family business owes much to its dedication to having the right people, says chief executive Tim Holden
The simplest option is usually the right one. There is a tendency to overcomplicate things in business and striving for simplicity is a key pillar for Norwich-based Holden Group.
It’s one of the four values that drives the company’s ethos and this, alongside its focus on staff development, has led to its successes, according to chief executive and third-generation owner Tim Holden.
It became the top rated Volvo sales department in the network for customer service at the end of 2019 and the group also won the AM People Investor Award last year.
Holden (pictured) said: “Every time we have a decision to make we default to the simplest one. Every time, it has always been the right answer.”
His 10-year plan to double the size of the business from £55 million turnover to £100m came to fruition seven years early (last year), through a combination of happy accidents and forging ahead with the plan when opportunities arose.
Holden went from three sites (Volvo, Honda and Renault) to six within 12 months, adding Kia, MG, Isuzu and another Volvo.
While this new chapter for the business kicked off last year, Holden has a long history, dating back to 1928 when the then owners employed Tim’s grandfather, Ernest, as an apprentice.
Ernest got on well and progressed at the company until World War II when he gave the owners an ultimatum to either let him buy the business or he would leave to fight in the conflict.
Holden said: “I think my grandfather was frustrated by doing all of the work and not seeing any of the return.
“He had to borrow money from some local farmers but it became Holden’s in 1943.”
Tim’s father Tony was also involved in the business, starting out as a mechanic in 1960 and later running the company. He became instrumental in steering it towards being a franchised car operation in addition to its roots as a local repair garage and truck specialist.
Holden said: “I always feel very indebted to my dad because one of our greatest strengths is the culture we have. He was instrumental in professionalising the business.
“I inherited that and I will never take that for granted. It makes you appreciate how difficult it would be if you were starting from scratch. The core of what we had here was so good in terms of how we look after our people and customers.
“I feel like it’s down to me to protect that.”
Holden wasn’t always destined to join the family business. In fact, his father actively discouraged him.
Whether that was genuine as a way to make sure there was no legacy pressure or a clever bit of reverse psychology is up for debate, but Holden was always drawn to the industry and cars.
After deciding business studies at university wasn’t the right fit, Tony convinced his son to join a rival dealership first, rather than starting out at the family business.
Holden said: “He was right. It was going to handicap me to come in as a complete novice and to have that added pressure of being the boss’s son.”
He did a year at another dealer group and then joined Holden as a sales executive in 2001. He moved to different departments to give him a grounding across all, before becoming a general manager and then on to a fast track to take over as chief executive 12 years ago.
Holden said: “The recession happened and that forced our succession plans at the group. It was getting truly difficult and my father was working part-time at that stage. The chief executive at the time was also ready to retire.
“We had to decide that either was going to have a go or we’ve got to come up with some other solution. It was time to get involved.”
The Holden ethos
Holden points out that while everyone describes the group as a family business, he’s the only family member that actually works there.
Despite that, Holden said staff feel like they belong as part of an extended family.
He said: “Colleagues help each other and it’s a collaborative environment. We all want to get the job done and make it as easy for ourselves as possible.”
Infighting and politics are banned. That’s partly down to Holden’s approach but also a symptom, he thinks, of Norfolk itself, saying “it just does not wash around here”.
He said: “Perhaps in big cities it’s different. Norfolk is quite unusual because it’s populated by lots of family businesses that are well run. We’re very conscious of our reputation locally.”
“Values were never formally recorded previously. They were inherent because of the culture of the business. But, taking on other outside businesses meant formalising what the business was all about.
“This would make it easier for new people that join us to see what is expected of someone that works at Holden.”
The four pillars are simplicity, which Holden sees as being the most powerful one for him personally. In addition, caring, focus and deliver.
Holden said: “We didn’t want the values to just be four words up on a wall with senior management able to recite them.
“We have a working group that’s looking at ways of bringing them to life a little bit further. That will happen this year.”
Holden said the litmus test of the four-word ethos isn’t if people can recite them, but is more whether they can be seen in evidence day-to-day.
Investors in people
Stepping into the spotlight and shouting about the group’s achievements is not a particularly comfortable position for Holden.
While he’s proud of the company’s achievements he summed up his no nonsense approach to recruitment as something similar to the All Blacks New Zealand rugby team’s “no egos policy”.
The point of the policy is to avoid inflated egos and make everything focused around teamwork.
Holden said: “I’d rather have a vacancy than have the wrong person. If I look after the employees, it’s incumbent on them to look after the customers and then that looks after the business.”
The business is passionate about people and he believes they will always be the differentiating factor at a business. He gets enjoyment by seeing people do well and fulfilling their potential.
Holden has established an in-house management development scheme, providing structured career progression for key members of staff, followed in 2017 by the re-appropriation of a non-mandatory training budget to staff – with each member receiving £150 to learn a new skill.
So far, employees have funded scuba diving lessons, butchery, sailing, skiing, computer skills, driving lessons, accounting and HR/training qualifications.
One staff member even learned sign language to better serve the needs of a deaf customer.
The business abandoned its cumbersome appraisal process and now encourages employees to set a goal to focus on.
They also established an opportunity for employees to recognise the contribution of their colleagues through a weekly ‘Good Egg’ email.
Employees are also encouraged to embrace a work/life balance by taking extra holiday days rather than annual salary increases.
A five-day working week for sales teams has been implemented.
Moving to five-day working was introduced by giving teams the responsibility for making the rota work.
If it didn’t work, things would go back to the way they were.
Giving that autonomy to the teams has made it a success and it has now been rolled out to the newly acquired businesses, too.
In 2018, Gavin Drake, a life coach who runs twice-monthly counselling clinics, was appointed to the board to ensure employees remain a key focus.
But ultimately, Holden said that you can introduce different initiatives, with some working more than others, but that it all really boils down to having trust in your line manager as an employee.
Holden said: “That’s often cited as the most common reason why people leave a job.
"If we have a great management team that genuinely has its employees’ best interests at heart and you’re in a high trust environment, that can be really powerful.
“We’ve tried various initiatives and that has won us awards, but you’re really just giving an invitation to staff to have a conversation about their state of mind, whatever it might be, their challenges and concerns.
"At its heart I want people to be able to talk about what they want.”
Holden used to get frustrated by people thinking they could solve a problem by handing in their resignation.
But now, even if people do leave the group, there aren’t the surprises that there used to be and it allows the group to plan ahead around staffing.
Having the company values in place helped with the confidence to expand.
Holden’s acquisition of Hylton Gott Volvo in King’s Lynn and the two-site Norfolk Motor Group (NMG) were all finalised within a couple of months of each other last year.
Holden said: “We were actively looking and as soon as you start those conversations things start falling into your lap. Before you know it you’re pitching to Kia to see if it’s a good fit after we had discussions with the general manager there at NMG.
“I’d always got on really well with the person that ran Hylton Gott and we had an open conversation about what they wanted.
"We had both deals going on at once and they both came off.”
Holden was already experienced with the Volvo brand, having its own franchise already in Norwich which is in the process of upgrading to new corporate identity standards in Q1 this year. But Kia, MG and Isuzu are all new franchises for the group.
Holden has changed the management structure across the business to put general managers (GMs) in place for each brand and promoted Cheryl Cooper internally to operations director and Sean Johnson to finance director.
They are responsible for the day-to-day running of the business.
Holden said: “I’m really determined to see that people do things their way rather than just my way.
“We have quite a lot of franchises and it’s very hard to be an expert in all of them.
"We expect the GMs to be the technical hands-on experts and then Cheryl and Sean’s job is to ask them the right questions.
“My job is to ask Sean and Cheryl the right questions to get the best out of them.”
Holden said the 10-year business plan was put in place to take the group to the next level. It was the feeling that the business had grown as much as it could as a three-site group and to go further meant expansion.
Holden said: “It has taken the business and all of us to the next level.
"Every employee at any level is on a journey with us and the company needs to provide new ground for people to journey over.
"The acquisitions have given us head room for everyone to lift their game a bit.”
The Hylton Gott Volvo site in King’s Lynn is already in the black and the other two locations will be earnings positive this year.
NMG employees voted to rebrand as Holden, while Hylton Gott will keep its name due to the reputation it has built up in the local area.
Making the company self-funding and free from external debt is one of Holden’s priorities going forward, rather than looking for further expansion.
However, Holden said he would be open to expanding with existing franchise partners in East Anglia should the right commercial fit arise.
He said: “The business has been through so much change in the past 12 months we want to have as a stable a platform as we can.
“We certainly wouldn’t want to take on more franchises. It all has to be based on commercial viability rather than anything to do with vanity.
“Scale for scale’s sake is not something that switches me on.”
The biggest triumphs
Integrating the new businesses was one of the biggest challenges of the past 12 months, but it was also one of the biggest triumphs.
Holden said: “Taking on Hylton Gott, which was a franchise we were already familiar with, has gone really well.
"As a business it feels very familiar to us, which is lovely.
“NMG’s employees have been really receptive to the change in ownership and it has the potential to be a brilliant business once it aligned with Holden’s values and processes.”
He said that with both acquisitions there is a great opportunity to ask staff their opinion on how things had been run in the past and what needs to improve and change.
It’s at this point that staff can be completely candid because they’re not going to get anyone else in trouble, he said.
Aftersales was also a big success for Holden last year, posting its best ever results. But there has been no silver bullet.
Holden continues to be modest and matter of fact about it all.
“We’ve got the right team of people in place. They know what they’re doing and they’ve got on with it. There’s not been a secret lever.”
Holden has been pleased with the performance from the Renault business and his Honda dealership has been through a difficult time but ended the year on a high note.
Holden said: “We have to finish the building work for Volvo in Norwich which is being upgraded but that should be done in Q1.
“The other big thing is moving all locations to the same dealer management system. I’m not looking forward to that, but it will mean all of the sites will be working from the same system.
“After so much going on last year, we’re looking forward to relative normality.
“I’m feeling more positive in terms of the trading environment and I hope customers are feeling more confident now too. We try to ignore the noise and concentrate on what we can affect.”
Basic pay v bonus
Holden acknowledges that the discussion around increasing basic salaries for sales executives is a live issue, but he also describes it as a red herring.
The conversation about increasing basic salaries is not an issue he faces.
He said: “I don’t feel like it’s a numeric problem. If someone is confident they have the tools, that’s all that matters. Where you cut the line between bonus and basic is not the most important thing.”
The more important factors, he feels, are being confident with the level of technical knowledge, the ability to follow a process, being part of a good team and having a manager that is supportive and focused on development.
He said: “It might be more symptomatic of some of the bigger businesses that might need to take a one-size-fits-all approach for convenience.
"I don’t decry the need for that, but, at the same time, I think there are so many other factors.”
Targets and the new car model
Holden thinks new car targets and pricing transparency are ripe for change.
Targets are an emotive topic for retailers because it’s a factor that can turn a dealership from profitable to not viable.
He said: “Bonus targets strike me as a very high risk way of running a dealer network.
"Some of the games you end up playing at the end of a quarter to get cars registered can mean you lose sight of the fact that there is a customer at the end of all of this.”
Holden doesn’t profess to hold all the answers as to what should replace it, but suspects it needs to evolve to becoming more demand-led, particularly as he believes the industry has been characterised by oversupply and environmental pressures will be more prevalent in the future.
He said: “Having an income model that’s a bit more predictable would certainly benefit the industry.
“This would be an agency model with retrospective fees as opposed to vehicle margin, which, let’s face it, we just give away anyway.”
Holden is sympathetic that it is down to manufacturers to move away from a bonus system that has been ingrained in the industry for so long.
Whatever manufacturers move to has to mean they can still reach their own volume goals.
He said: “It feels like a plaster that’s being pulled off quite slowly.
"We can see it’s going to be different in the future on new car bonus but I’d rather we get there quickly now so we know what normal is.”
Holden thinks price transparency needs to change quickly too, citing that customers don’t question the price of an iPhone.
HOLDEN GROUP FACTFILE