John Day was apologetic about the venue for the interview. “I hadn't realised it was the smallest dealership in my business,” said the chief executive of Quicks Group. “Even at one visit a week, it will take me a year to get round the whole network.”
Mr Day, speaking at his Moto Baldet Citroen outlet in Kettering, Northants, was glad to be able to say “business” in the singular. For, in June, when he took over the 49-outlet Quicks (2001 turnover will be around £550m), he discovered three businesses within the group.
This dated back to the takeovers of the Laidlaw, Godfrey Davis and Caverdale dealer groups: “elements of their cultures are still around”.
There were three regional directors – running the South-east, Manchester and Ford in the Midlands; Scotland's Laidlaw; and Ford in southern England.
“There was a surprising amount of autonomy,” said Mr Day. “Each had its own human resources department, for instance, but I have already dismantled the old structure. I hope this will act as a catalyst for change within the group.
“People – and Quicks employs 2,500 of them – like to feel they are all working in one business.”
Mr Day has followed other bosses of major motor retail groups in reorganising by franchise. Tom Fairgrieve (who was running Laidlaw, and Ford in the south of England) is responsible for the whole Ford retail operation which will this year turnover around £300m, 60% of Quicks' total.
The group's new specialist brand business (Jaguar, Land Rover and Chrysler Jeep) is headed by Frances Thomson, who set up Sytner Group's north London business. Previously, she and Mr Day were divisional directors at Lex Retail. Mr Day has streamlined the reporting structure, with franchise managers for the volume brands reporting directly to him. “It means I can focus on the issues and I don't see the point of intermediaries,” he said. “It's good for people like me to 'stay wired' – it's easy to lose touch, though I know you couldn't run a business the size of Pendragon the same way.”
Mr Day, 52, who took over at Quicks after five years as an Inchcape Retail franchise director, started as a trainee at Lex Brooklands in 1971. After promotions, he left in 1988 to become a Lex Retail divisional director.
He was managing director of Lex Autosales (the group's used car superstores) from 1994-96 and departed after a strategy disagreement. Mr Day uses this experience in his new role as successor to Richard Barber, whose sudden departure cost Quicks more than £500,000 in a salary pay-off and costs. “Quicks has an interesting history,” he said.
Mr Day's swift action since June says much, and he acknowledges Mr Barber left him with important plus points. “Quicks still dominates car retailing in the North-west,” he said.
The group expanded when it was run by former Ford Credit boss Alec Murray. Richard Barber joined as part of the acquisition of Caverdale in 1997, and became the successor to Mr Murray, now enjoying a number of non-executive automotive chairmanships (including that role at the Caledonia motor retail group).
The perception in the automotive industry is that Quicks lost its way after Mr Murray's departure. There were rumours that Lookers – also Manchester-based, and confident under Fred Maguire – might make a bid.
That notion was met with a wry smile from Mr Day, as it has been in the past from Mr Maguire. Now, at Quicks, the focus is on getting right the business as it stands today, and growing later.
Ford would continue to form the basis of Quicks, he said. Peugeot (four dealerships) is the next most important manufacturer to Quicks which has five “still profitable” MG Rover outlets.
There have been disposals of premises and a few more will follow, with some possibly to redevelopers.
Mr Day's priorities now are to make Quicks more profitable and to improve the flow of information within the group. “Most businesses produce too much information, especially car retailers,” he said. “A fantastic volume is generated between dealers and manufacturers.
“I want Quicks to identify the information and data needed to ensure we maintain excellent contact with customers.” Because Quicks' business is based on volume brands, Mr Day believes it is essential to take advantage of technology in running aftersales departments more efficiently.
In the mid Eighties, he said, the cost of running an average Ford dealership was covered by aftersales revenue. Now the department contributed only 60% of the cost.
“This is why our long-term strategy is growth,” said Mr Day. “In the short-term we will improve our existing operations and in the medium term establish key partnerships with manufacturers.”
The strategy was outlined to analysts this month when Quicks presented its half-year results. Year-on-year, turnover was marginally up, to £306.597m, with pre-tax profit falling 42% from £2.9m to £1.7m. The group blamed exceptional costs, including £650,000 to close its Iveco Trucks operation, and Mr Barber's departure.
Mr Day is identifying those sectors of Quicks in operation when he arrived which he believes can be developed. These include a call centre in Edinburgh which books services for customers with loyalty to six dealerships (some are in England).
“This could be the basis for something exciting,” he said. “Customers' experience in using dealership service departments is not good, especially at 8am and 5pm. Once you take away the ringing phone, you start to make progress.”