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'Excellent grounding' gave Dunkley chance to fly high

Paul Dunkley never harboured ambitions to join the cut and thrust of the motor retail industry – he grew up planning to become an airline pilot and was due to attend British Airways' training college.

Timing, though, is everything and in the late Seventies there was a glut of commercial pilots. Overwhelmed with graduates, BA closed its college to save costs and Mr Dunkley was looking for another occupation.

The Camden Motors chief executive had, by chance, found temporary work during the summer as a car valetor at Air Flow, a Ford showroom in Northampton. The company offered him a position as dealership trainee: seven years later he was general manager with mounting hunger for the motor industry.

Mr Dunkley joined Camden Motors in the mid-Eighties – then a one-showroom, £28m turnover business owned by Barclays Bank – and became a board member in 1989. One year later he was managing director.

He puts his rapid rise down to the “excellent grounding” offered by Air Flow and his business background.

“The motor industry is conservative and suffers from the same faces,” he said. “I brought an element of different thinking.”

Mr Dunkley headed the management buyout in 1996, by which time Camden was a £350m turnover business.

“We wanted to turn Camden from a high volume fleet business into a business focused on satisfying its core customers while entering the retail market – that's what we've done,” he said.

This year Camden will turn over £850m from 30 dealerships, placing it at No11 in the AM100. Next year Mr Dunkley predicts a £1bn turnover.

He believes the company's growth is due to establishing partnerships with “forward-thinking” manufacturers at a time when customer service standards were poor.

“Five or ten years ago the competition level was not great – it was not hard to set our business apart from rival dealers. The quality now is much improved, but there are still opportunities that fit in with our strategy,” said Mr Dunkley.

Camden has built its reputation as a volume car retailer – franchises include Ford, Renault, Nissan, Toyota and Peugeot – rather than specialist.

It has three Ford market areas after acquiring two this year from Ryland. In a quirk of fate, the purchase included the former Air Flow garage where Mr Dunkley started his motor industry career.

“We will endeavour to move into the specialist market with manufacturers whose businesses are becoming more aligned with the retail style of our existing partners,” he said.

He believes there is little difference between retailing volume and specialist marques, as long as the culture is built around empowerment and brand distinction. “We do not have interbrand employees – all our staff specialise on one marque.”

Despite admitting to spending “long hours” at or thinking about work, Mr Dunkley has aspirations to reduce his golf handicap, currently at 14, to allow him to put up a better challenge to his 15-year-old son (handicap six).

In contrast to the perception that most business meetings take place on the golf course, Mr Dunkley has ensured his pastime remains a leisure pursuit: “Only people with a single figure handicap use golf as a business meeting – just like only portly men do business over lunch.”

He was appointed captain of Kingsthorpe golf club, Northampton, in June, a one-year role that requires a 7.30am tee-off every Sunday come rain, hail or shine against all-comers. Such early starts are something he will “absolutely not” be doing once he relinquishes the captain's role.

But his enjoyment of golf goes beyond playing: for the past couple of years Mr Dunkley has managed Ian Polter, a 25-year-old golfer on the European tour currently ranked 11th in the Ryder Cup listings.

That puts him on standby to play when the tournament – postponed following September 11 – is rescheduled next year. Mr Dunkley said: “Ian Polter is definitely a future world star.”

Camden Motors continues to be presented with expansion opportunities, although Mr Dunkley does not expect to be at the company until retirement. New executives will mould the group's strategy.

“Eventually I intend to get out of Camden and see other people take on my role,” he said. “The business hasn't reached its peak and I want to participate in its development, but I also want to do other things – though not just yet.”

Immediate growth will be contained within Camden's current market area, which stretches north to Coventry and south to Croydon. “The logistics are easier, we know the area and resources are less stretched,” said Mr Dunkley.

“The most successful businesses tend to have their roots in a particular area.”

He has an open mind about the opportunities that exist away from the motor industry, though full-time golf professional, with its early weekend starts, has been ruled out.

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