Battle-hardened Yorkshireman” is not the first impression that comes to mind when you are greeted by a smiling Clive Brook at one of his Volvo dealerships.
However, during the course of acquiring two struggling Volvo showrooms – in Bradford and Huddersfield, seven years apart – from his former employers at Harratts Group, the franchise manager-turned-managing director of Clive Brook acknowledged that he has overcome unexpected and unwanted hurdles to find the “drive” to succeed.
“Ask my family and they will say that I have become battle-hardened,” said Brook.
“Has the move from group employee to franchise owner changed me? It probably has, but I like to think that I have always stood by the same set of principles.”
Buying Harratts’ Volvo operation off Leeds Road, Huddersfield, in April last year marked Brook’s return to the facility at which he started out his automotive career as an apprentice technician.
“I’ve got an ambition to sell a thousand cars. I’m not looking for a bigger site, but I could still do more new cars” Clive Brook
After taking up the apprenticeship at the then Olaf Olsen Volvo outlet, Brook abandoned his plans to study history at university in Newcastle and became a salesman.
“I remember seeing the salesman in their company cars and nice suits and thinking ‘all this grease and mess isn’t for me… I could make a career at that, though’,” he said.
A shift into sales and a year-long stint at JCT600’s Bradford Ferrari operation followed, before a return to the Huddersfield Volvo site to become sales manager, at the age of 25, at what had become a Fletcher Group operation with a second Volvo dealership between Wakefield and Barnsley.
After Harratts appointed Brook to run its Barnsley Volvo operation in the mid-1990s, he was then involved in the acquisition of Volvo Huddersfield and further sites with the same brand in Sheffield, Huddersfield and Bradford.
‘Look, I’ll buy one of your businesses’
While Brook was made Volvo franchise manager at Harratts the purchase of the Leeds Volvo franchise brought an increasing realisation that he had his own ideas about how the business should be run, a situation which came to a head at a group meeting in November 2007.
He said: “I basically stood up in the middle of the meeting and said ‘look, I’ll buy one of your businesses’. I knew that I had effectively handed in my resignation, but I also knew that I needed to do something for myself.”
Brook asked for the Huddersfield site where he had cut his teeth in the trade, but was offered the then ailing Bradford operation and secured the £350,000 funding needed to complete the deal. The mood went from “let’s get going” to “survive or die” as the recession bit and he battled for custom with his previous employer.
“It makes no sense selling cars all over the country. You want customers that you can build a relationship with because they will return” Clive Brook
Eight years on, and the Bradford operation is doing well. Brook is projecting a £17 million turnover for the year, after achieving a £5.5m turnover for the first quarter, which included a bumper March in which the business made just under £170,000 profit.
The Huddersfield operation should turn over £12m, he said.
If his estimates are realised, it would mark an impressive turnaround for the business. Brook acquired it from Harratts Group in spring 2015 as part of a £1.7m move that included the property at both Huddersfield and Bradford sites and which Brook said was two-and-a-half-years in the making.
“It was a drawn-out affair. Before the acquisition was finalised, I got wind of the fact that Volvo had decided Huddersfield was not going to be a market area any more. I actually travelled down to Maidenhead and argued the case of a business which wasn’t even mine at the time. Thankfully, they listened.”
Since Brook took over the Huddersfield facility, he has invested in the building, website and DMS database and increased the headcount from 11 to 20.
Propped up by a used car operation, which Brook describes as “the core of the business”, the two facilities are starting to perform well together, with a current return on sales of 1.3%, but 2% “within sight”.
A used car man at heart
A Volvo man from day one of his automotive career, Brook speaks highly of the current management team at Volvo UK and the direction the brand is taking.
He describes himself as a used car man at heart, however, and keeps the two showrooms’ diminutive forecourts packed with more than £800,000 worth of used Volvos.
Brook said he devotes 70% of his time to the sale of 350 to 400 used vehicles through the Bradford site alone and is targeting the same volume from the similar-sized Huddersfield operation.
Brook tracks auctions and private customers alike in pursuit of sub-100,000-mile, sub-seven-year-old vehicles that can be fed into the Volvo Selekt approved used scheme.
He said the business has changed its approach to used cars in recent years, selling fewer vehicles for low returns of about £1,000 to locations well out of the dealership’s area, and focusing on more profitable sales closer to home.
“It makes no sense selling cars all over the country. You want customers that you can build a relationship with because they will return to buy cars if you treat them well and grow the aftersales operation too,” said Brook.
Although used cars take the lion’s share of his attention, new car sales are also boosting Clive Brook’s fortunes. He is more ambitious than most about how many sales the Swedish manufacturer can achieve in the UK.
The launch of the premium XC90 SUV in 2015 helped Volvo to record 43,432 total registrations in 2015 (up 5.76% on 2014) and 11,508 vehicles in Q1 of 2016 (up 8.07% on 2015) and the new S90 and V90 will join the range this year.
Brook said Volvo officials recently appraised his Bradford site ahead of implementation of the Volvo Retail Experience (VRE) corporate identity – to be ushered in by 2020. They told him he should be selling 300 vehicles a year at the 1.28-acre facility.
“We’ve consistently sold over 400, without any fleet,” said Brook. “I think 431 is the most, which we did in the scrappage year.
“I can see my sites comfortably selling over 500, maybe a little bit less in Huddersfield, but over 500. I’ve got an ambition to sell a thousand cars. I’m not looking for a bigger site, but I could still do more new cars.”
Brook said the full margin profitability of XC90 SUVs retailing for more than £60,000-£70,000 had been a welcome bonus in recent months and a recent visit to Gothenburg brought cause for further optimism about future products.
He said he has expressed his confidence at conferences that Volvo could hit 70,000 cars a year – “I’ve put my name in blood” – but he believes the Volvo Car UK management team talks sensibly about volumes.
“In terms of the product 50,000 is ambitious, but I think where we are today, late 40s up to 2020 and beyond. I can see that.”
Pursuing every sales lead
Personable staff and a friendly approach have helped Clive Brook attract a loyal following in the eight years since the Bradford showroom opened under the new company name.
The West Yorkshire operation aims to be “good” rather than “nice”, though, with Brook admitting: “Nobody wants a nice doctor, they want a good one. I think the same applies to a dealership.”
Stringent lead management processes have been put in place to ensure every sales opportunity is maximised.
Brook said: “Why is there this acceptance that six out of your 10 enquiries doesn’t result in a sale of a car? When I took over the business, I had to deal with that fairly quickly because it’s not a statistic I’ve ever been comfortable with.
“I lost the previous company’s marketing power – Harratts were very good marketers – so I thought the only thing I can do quickly is to make sure we’ve got to increase our conversion.” Brook said he very quickly achieved a 20% cut in lost conversions caused by poor salesmanship.
He established a DMS system that allowed the business to log data and analyse the performance of sales staff and employed Harrogate-based Cymark Dealer Services to carry out post-enquiry research via follow-up calls. Based on a continuous follow-up of a strictly maintained showroom diary of customer data, these can help to determine if or why a sale was lost.
The system allows Brook to monitor the success of his business and, potentially, get a “second bite of the cherry”.
He said: “I know how the ones who bought cars feel. It’s the people who haven’t bought – the six out of the 10 – . It is expensive, but it’s a low cost relative to the output. For me, that process is probably identifying a car a week. Across the two businesses, that’s a hundred grand.”
Brook also employed Selby-based Autoweb Design to look after the business’s website, determined to understand “from what point the business can initiate the sales process”.
The online presence has helped to generate leads, but Brook does not believe the future of car sales lies with the internet.
He said: “Carwow cannot demonstrate a car. They can’t do a product presentation of the car. The internet is not necessarily going to give a customer the best buying and ownership experience because they might just buy the wrong car.
“That’s definitely where we come in. Recognising people early in the journey. I don’t want my salesman to shut down on a customer as soon as they find out they aren’t buying a car today, I want them to be excited at the prospect of the future sale and make sure that they come back.”
Putting a local focus on aftersales
Brook acknowledged that he sought to sell used cars across the country at very small margins to get off to a strong start after acquiring the Bradford franchise in 2008, but he said a focus on the local market has since evolved.
Locally sold used cars now come back for servicing, helping an aftersales operation that accounts for 42% of the business’ profits (£99,000 during Q1 for Bradford).
Emac provides the business’s service plans and it currently has penetration of 90% on new cars and about 40% on used, said Brook.
“We look at the 10% of new car customers who don’t buy it because there’s something wrong if they don’t,” said Brook. “Three years at £300 or £500 for five years. It’s a great deal.”
Clive Brook’s technicians are currently undergoing training to become multi-skilled teams (MST), a process which will see teams of two working on vehicles to cut a service times to an average of 27 minutes and a basic service down to 20 minutes (Read ‘Will many hands make light work of servicing? in May’s AM).
Brook said the idea will benefit his operations – where space is in short supply – by allowing customers to wait on-site while work is completed, potentially increasing showroom visits and minimising potential parking problems.
However, he does have concerns about the Volvo Personal Service (VPS) concept, which asks technicians to deal directly with customers.
“We’ve got technicians who came into the industry because they like talking to engines, not talking to people,” he said.
“I’m not sure. We’ll probably get to that, but it will require people who are different, perhaps, to the people that we’ve had in the past.”
Clive Brook’s 10-year growth plan
Profitability is a word that continues to crop up in conversation with Brook.
He said he has seen plenty of instances where dealer groups have over-reached themselves through rapid acquisitions and he has no desire to expand his own operation beyond Bradford and Huddersfield just yet.
Brook is keen to see growth, however, and has ambitions of achieving 3% RoS.
He said: “I have no desire to own a yacht in Cyprus. The money we generate will be put back into the business. I want to see it grow.”
The plan currently extends to 10 years, but Brook, now 52, said he would be making clear his eventual “exit strategy” to staff imminently.
He said: “In time, I would love to see succession, for a member of the senior management to step up.
“I may well be involved in the business at 65, but not with everyone else dictating what is going to happen. It would need to be the right time to leave the business and not when Volvo or Kia, Mercedes or Ferrari are knocking on the door saying ‘you stupid old git… get out’.”