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Family pride drives Vardy's expansion

Peter Vardy normally works a 12-hour day running his £1.3bn turnover company which is the UK's third biggest motor retailer.

"My wife says I worked the same number of hours in 1982 when I took over the family car dealership - so she thinks I couldn't have been much good at it," he said. Then, Vardy promised himself he would never look back on his life as a series of lost opportunities. He won't. For him, there is pride that the company still bears the name of his late father - Reg Vardy - who started delivering coal with a horse and cart in Houghton le Spring, near Sunderland, in 1923. Reg, who later moved into car dealing, would have been astonished at the growth.

Reg Vardy plc manages to retain something of the feel of a family business even though it was floated on the stock market in 1989.

Vardy and his 4,500 employees take pride in wearing a golden 'V' on their jackets. There is a strong foundation for the national brand strategy to be driven, in part, by the internet.

As executive chairman and chief executive Vardy, 52, sits at the hub of a Sunderland-based business split into divisions and considerable responsibility is devolved to the directors running them. Each runs a business with a turnover of £150/400m, supported by a regional financial controller.

From Monday to Friday Vardy shapes the continuing growth and development of his company. He was one of a group of retail chief executives taken by Jaguar to China this month to discuss strategy and feel the pulse of an evolving economy.

On Saturdays, Vardy likes to drop into some of his dealerships for a chat with staff and customers. "You need to stay close to the coal face at least one day a week," he said. "I started by managing a business but now I am managing people."

Sunday is a day of rest. Vardy's faith is pivotal to his life, and he plays the organ or piano in the church near Sunderland where his family has always worshipped.

"It is a pity Sunday has become like the other days of the week for many people," he said. "You don't sell more cars or more bread and Sunday trading undermines family values. Sunday should be a time for your family and your children - a day of rest, as it was always intended to be.

Vardy has typical Geordie values of commitment to family, straight talking and hospitality (he pours the tea during the boardroom interview).

Reg Vardy plc sponsors Sunderland and a red shirt signed by the players hangs in a case in the boardroom. Vardy is not that interested in football - and feels no need to pretend he is - but goes to a few matches a season. He sees the value of soccer in building a national brand.

Vardy could easily be viewed as the UK motor retailers' champion, though it is not a title he would choose. He is one of three bosses with a £1bn-plus turnover company based on car sales.

But unlike Trevor Finn (Pendragon) and Ian Ritchie (Lancaster) Vardy does not operate with a wedge of Ford Motor Company money (and influence).

"I have always taken the opportunities as they came along for the business," he said. "We still enjoy developing it - I never guessed in 1982 we would have 80 dealerships by now. The management challenges change as you go from 30 to 40, or 60 to 80. If we continue the same pace of growth, we will be up to 130 or 140 outlets within three to four years."

Last year Graeme Potts, his right-hand man, left to run his own show at the RAC. The two men used to attend the same church and still do when Potts visits the North-east. Now the scale of the business - and Vardy's ambitions - demands a divisional split by manufacturer, and Vardy wants fewer of them. "We are fortunate to have a lot of exceptional people working for us," he said. "Many of those in senior positions started as junior salesmen - they are putting into practice as directors everything they learned as general managers.

"As a company, we are changing all the time In that way, he is totally in tune with carmakers' strategy though Reg Vardy plc has enough clout to make them listen. Behind the amiable exterior is a northern toughness and global travel has not altered the straight forward, entrepreneurial approach he inherited from his father.

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