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Leadership for the industry

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders: it’s a name that requires some clarification.

‘Motor Manufacturers’ is logical – the SMMT is known for its work lobbying Government on legislative, environmental and other high profile issues on behalf of its carmaker members.

The ‘Traders’ title is less clear. Although the SMMT has a handful of franchised dealer members, it can’t claim to represent their needs, nor those of the repairers.

Christopher Macgowan, chief executive for the past seven years, says the Traders tag is a historical part of the SMMT’s name and, after 104 years, he’s not about to change it. “When a chief executive decides to change the name of the company it usually means that chief executive is doomed,’ he says. “It’s the same as redecorating your office!”

But Macgowan believes the full title does have relevance today. “Our role is to provide leadership on behalf of the entire industry. While we have no wish to tread on others’ toes, our fundamental stance is that the SMMT is the motor industry body,” he says. “We provide leadership and coordinate policy to the Government so that it can provide coordinated policy.”

As a former chief executive of the Retail Motor Industry Federation, Macgowan chooses his words carefully: “As the industry evolves, we have manufacturers in our membership that are hugely involved in the retail sector, such as Mercedes-Benz or Renault, with their own dealerships. While it is right and proper that franchised dealers and independents have their own trade association, it is also at the top of the agenda for lots of our members. That will become even more apparent in the future.”

#AM_ART_SPLIT# No pressure for greater dealer role

Members of the powerful Department of Trade and Industry Retail Motor Strategy Group (RMSG), of which both the SMMT and RMIF are members, suggest a need for the SMMT to play a greater role in the franchised dealer sector. One retailer has even gone so far as to tell AM that the DTI is encouraging this to happen.

Macgowan is quick to deny the claims. “Has there been DTI pressure? No. If it was raised, I’d be surprised if it was from the DTI,” he says. “But, as I said, we are linked at all levels of the industry and we try to take a single approach to all issues.”

Relationships between the SMMT and RMIF have been strained since Macgowan switched chief executive’s roles in 1999. Both sides have accused the other of being obstructive and of running personal agendas, but the RMSG has helped to open dialogue. Macgowan now talks of “good relations at the moment”.

He adds: “The DTI is to be congratulated for the RMSG. It is the only formal body where manufacturers and dealers come together and it has helped relationships.”

Last year, the SMMT ruffled a few feathers by developing a code of practice for the repair sector, picking up the reins following the high profile collapse of the RMIF’s CarWise scheme. It has now been adopted as an industry code under the wing of the RMSG and has the RMIF’s full support.

Super-complaint is still a threat

The development of the Motor Industry Code of Practice for the repair sector helped to fend off the National Consumer Council super-complaint. But the code needs to pass stage one OFT approval by September and be fully approved by September 2007. Macgowan adds: “The super-complaint is still there and we can’t take our foot off the accelerator.”

Macgowan, who was thrust into the public spotlight during the ‘rip-off Britain campaign’ in 2000, says his first two years at the helm of the SMMT “were like hell”. His biggest challenge was to get the Labour Government to become industry friendly. Macgowan believes the situation has “come 180 degrees” thanks to the SMMT’s hard work.

His personal highlight of recent years is his Automotive Desktop service, put together in his own time, which emails motor industry news to 9,500 subscribers worldwide. Macgowan also professes an “unhealthy passion” for Jaguar cars. But, despite a career spent largely with British Leyland, he admits to being “not much of a petrol-head”.

“I’m more interested in the way the industry works than in the way the car works,” he says. “It’s an industry where relationships will continue to evolve. Consolidation is a commercial reality and there is a need for balance between manufacturers and dealer groups – I believe we have that in the UK.”


“We try to take a single approach to motor industry issues”

- Christopher Macgowan

SMMT’s agenda

1 Environment To nudge environment up the agenda by making drivers aware of the green credentials of modern cars.

2 Regulation Via the European Cars 21 group to ensure the industry is taken into consideration when developing legislation.

3 Skills shortage Through Automotive Academy and Automotive Skills, identifying the skills required by the industry.

4 Technical legislation How tomorrow’s cars will be governed by regulations such as Euro V, telematics and road user charging.

Christopher Macgowan key facts

  • Joined the SMMT in June 1999 as chief executive
  • Previously worked for the RMIF, British Leyland and Massey Ferguson
  • Listed in Car Magazine’s top 300 biggest hitters in the motor industry
  • President of BEN – the automotive industry-wide charity
  • A member of the Government’s Motorists’ Forum
  • Chairman of the CBI Trade Association Council
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