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Revealed: Industry’s ‘best kept secret’

It’s been described by its own members as the “best-kept secret” in the automotive retail sector, but the work it carries out influences policy and strategies that affect every carmaker, franchised retailer, independent dealer, repairer and supplier in the UK industry.

The Retail Motor Strategy Group was set up four years ago by the Department of Trade and Industry to provide a forum in which leading automotive executives could discuss the hot topics affecting the industry – and decide on appropriate action.

During the first couple of years, however, the group descended into a talking shop where heated debate took place but no action agreed. In summer 2005, under the new chairmanship of highly respected SMMT president and former Ford of Britain chairman Roger Putnam, the RMSG undertook a critical review of its functions and role.

Three sherpa groups

Putnam says: “The RMSG is the first time in my 40 years in the automotive industry that we can strive for consensus and a united front. I felt it was an opportunity to question some of the key issues that we face – areas where consensus is difficult but not impossible – and I have been encouraged by the passion and commitment from all parties involved.”

The RMSG now focuses on three areas of most strategic importance to the automotive sector – Block Exemption Regulation, customer service standards and human resources. Three ‘sherpa’ parties are tasked with identifying the issues and formulating a plan of action.

Pendragon chief executive Trevor Finn heads the BER sherpa, Vauxhall retail sales director Duncan Aldred leads the customer service standards sherpa and IMI chief executive Sarah Sillars fronts human resources.

The DTI plays a secretariat role on the RMSG. It’s keen to provide support and advice, but not to lead discussions or direct the group – unless an arbitrator is needed. “The RMSG was a classic case where the Government could help people to identify solutions to problems that they couldn’t find on their own. We can facilitate, but it’s not our group,” says Ben Rimmington, director of the DTI Automotive Unit.

“The RMSG has helped Government to understand the full range and perspective of the sector and its complexity, and it will help us to take appropriate policy decisions.”

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Despite the recent set-to between the SMMT and RMIF over the industry code of practice, the RMSG has been an unmitigated success. It has brought together all sides of the industry – carmakers, franchised dealers, independent retailers and repairs, suppliers and trade bodies – for the first time in a formal setting to discuss the hot topics.

Rimmington adds: “The group enjoys strong discussion. People want to identify solutions for the sector and put aside their personal differences – they are taking the big picture view.”

Bringing the industry together

Members speak warmly of the contributions of Chris Bowden, the former RMSG secretariat from the DTI Automotive Unit, who has since joined another DTI department.

IMI chief executive Sarah Sillars calls it the “best and most influential group in the UK”, while RMIF chief executive Matthew Carrington says: “Chris Bowden and the RMSG have been a big help in bringing the industry together.”

The strategy group’s influence also extends beyond the UK’s shores. Rimmington believes the work carried out by the sherpa groups will be studied with interest by the European Commission, particularly on Block Exemption.

“The more we find common ground in the UK, the more our voice will be heard in Brussels,” he says. “In terms of influencing EC proposals and having input into consultations, our views carry more weight if they have the backing of lots of people – so if the sector can move to a common view, we will have a better chance of success.”

Winning this backing will require the group to be more open about its objectives, with all members playing a role in keep the industry up to date with developments.

“The RMSG is not a closed shop – it’s a transparent advisory group that is working for the good of the whole sector,” says Rimmington.

The RMSG members

Duncan Aldred, Vauxhall
Eamon Bradley, Jardines
Sue Brownson OBE, Blue Bell
Simon Caffyn, Caffyns
Matthew Carrington, RMIF
Kevin Davis, DTI Competition Policy
Chris Etherington, Unipart
Trevor Finn, Pendragon
Jonathan Goodman, PSA
Martin Hall, FLA
Ken Keir, Honda
Edmund King, RAC
Roger Knight, Marshalls Group
John Lewis, BVRLA
Christopher Macgowan, SMMT
Fred Maguire, Lookers
Bert Morris, AA Motoring Trust
Alec Murray, NFDA
Jim O’Donnell, BMW (GB)
Roger Putnam, SMMT (Chair)
Patricia Richards, Automotive Skills
Ben Rimmington, DTI Automotive
Sue Robinson, NFDA
Maurice Rourke, Dutton Forshaw
Keith Sayfritz, RMIF/Greenhous
Sarah Sillars, IMI
Graham Smith, Toyota (GB)
Paul Williams, Bristol Street

  • This is an excerpt from a four-page feature in the June 16 issue of AM. To subscribe click here.
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