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Cover story: Blue Bell BMW with Sue Brownson

It’s sometimes difficult being a woman in the motor industry, not because of discrimination or a lack of career opportunities; it’s the repeated questions from (mostly male) journalists about perceived discrimination and lack of career opportunities.

Sue Brownson has heard plenty during her 33-year career. 

She’s the only female BMW dealer boss in the UK, the only woman to be president of the RMIF and the first female vice chair of the RAC.

In 2012, she will become the Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers’ first female Master.

Brownson’s had plenty of firsts, but she’s had enough questions about it.

“I’ve been the first woman on so many things, I don’t want to hear about that anymore,” she says. “I get extremely tired of the woman thing – I’m just me, a person in my own right. Being a woman in this industry is not a big deal anymore.” 

Making a start

The joint owner and managing director of Blue Bell BMW got “sucked into the business” in 1975 when her husband Christopher left Rootes to join his father’s plant hire business after it took on the BMW franchise.

“In the first year we sold 35 new and 100 used BMWs. It wasn’t a franchise anyone wanted then,” she says. “Last year, we sold around 3,800.”

She initially went into a finance role, despite having no experience, and worked her way around the business.

She enjoyed the challenge and was quickly hooked.

Growing confidence

When Blue Bell added a BMW franchise in Crewe in 1990, Brownson became managing director of the dealership. 

“I was lucky; I did the regional dealer council job in 1991 and then was made national council chair for three years so I got to know everybody,” she says.

“I communicate well and that gave me the confidence that I could do well in this business without discrimination.”

Brownson has also formed close alliances with other prominent and respected women in the industry – the likes of IMI chief executive Sarah Sillars, NFDA director Sue Robinson and Bentley head of HR Christine Gaskell.

“We’ve always backed each other up and that’s why we have done well,” she says.

Building relationships

In her own business, which she jointly owns with her husband, she has striven to form close ties with the manufacturer – BMW and Mini in Blue Bell’s case. 

“We both have issues; if we can come to terms with that and have a partnership, we will have a great business,” she says.

Her big regret is a growing trend for BMW dealers to compete against one another nationally for sales.

While Blue Bell will travel any distance to deliver a used car, Brownson resolutely refuses to deal with new car customers from outside what she deems as her market area.

“If we took a phone call from outside our territory we would advise them to contact their local BMW dealer,” she says. 

“Customers are trying to get the best possible price and they are not considering that it’s better to buy locally where they will get the best aftersales services. 

“While you will do exactly the same for everyone, it’s good when local people look after local businesses, whether it’s a butcher, fishmonger or car dealer.”

  • Read this story in full in the 19 September 2008 issue of AM. To subscribe to AM magazine click here or call 01733 468659.

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