AM Online

Insight: Lifestyle Europe

Marc Matthew and Peter Isted, the joint owners of Lifestyle Europe, put their success down to two key principles: detail and people.

Isted pours over facts and figures that tell him everything about the business on a daily basis.

Ask him any performance-related question and a brief rustling of papers will produce the answer – it’s impressive stuff.

“We have to measure everything. If we spend a pound we have to know where it went and what we made on it,” Matthew says. “Even if we don’t have time to read something, we will still measure it. If someone knows that it’s being measured, it makes a difference to their performance.”

He adds: “Every time we waste a pound, 50p is Peter’s and 50p is mine!”

Describing their two roles in the business, Isted says: “I’m in the engine room, Marc is on the bridge.”

It’s a little more complex than that, of course, and the two men have divided the business between them.

Isted, Lifestyle’s chief executive, is responsible for sales and service; Matthew, the chairman, focuses on parts and corporate.

But the point made is that Isted is the figures man, Matthew has the soft skills, the coaching and leadership qualities that are crucial to the success of any business.

And so to Lifestyle’s other guiding principle – people. Lifestyle Europe is the reigning AM retail group of the year, collecting the trophy in February.

One statement in its entry submission stood out: “We recruit for attitude and train for skill.”

Matthew explains: “We have the skills and we can train people, but they have to have the right attitude first. One bad person can ruin a department. We recruit the best because our reputation is key.”

Isted adds: “We were at the coalface in this business so we have the respect of the staff. And they get the rewards from our success. We offer the whole package – facilities, wage, environment, access to the directors and owners, processes, staff intranet and regular meetings.”

He cites the example of when they acquired the Tunbridge Wells Renault dealership: “We changed everything – the staff said we did more in seven days than the previous owners had done in seven years. It’s actually as much a learning curve for them as it has been for us.”

The learning curve started in 2001 when the two men founded Lifestyle Europe, together with a non-exec partner, from the ashes of HMG Holdings. But they so nearly didn’t get their hands on the business.

Their first attempt at a management buy out of HMG’s Ford division was rebuffed by owner Grenville Hancock but when the receivers were called into the failing business, Matthew and Isted finally got the green light. #AM_ART_SPLIT#

“HMG had 58 dealerships at that time. The Ford business made the money, the rest of the business lost it,” says Matthew. “When the group lost some of its franchises like BMW and Jaguar, Ford ended up as the main backer.”

After seven years at the group, he became disillusioned and concocted a plan to buy out the Ford dealerships with Isted.

But while Hancock refused to sell, HMG’s position worsened until finally Black Horse called in the receivers on its security, forcing Ford to follow suit.

The two men eventually signed terms in May 2001 forming Lifestyle Europe. In the end, the delay actually benefited them.

“We paid less to the receivers than we offered to the original trading company,” says Matthew.

Everything was ready to launch as soon as the contacts were agreed. Matthew and Isted had invested just under £100,000 preparing the website, business cards, stationery and signage with the Lifestyle Europe branding.

“We took a big risk in preparing in advance – we might not have got the business,” says Matthew.

“It meant that, after a staff launch evening, we were operational within 48 hours under the new trading name.”

The initial three-year plan forecast profits in year one.

Confidence was high.

They had bought a business that was already performing well at a good price; more importantly, the two men already knew the dealerships and the staff.

Costs were removed and services were brought in-house wherever possible.

“Lifestyle changed from a garage mentality to a retail mentality,” says Isted. “We had an in-house marketing department from day one so we could control the brand. That is our policy – if we can do something in-house we will. We don’t want people doing it for us.”

It’s been seven years of success since Lifestyle was formed – Isted and Matthew even bought out their non-exec partner in year three, five years ahead of plan.

Did business ownership come easy for the two first-time owners?

“There is a learning curve because it’s such a diverse job – it’s an art,” says Matthew. “You learn a lot just from doing your jobs.”

They decided not to have an expensive head office and they have cut out a lot of the pointless reports, such as cashflow reports.

“Managers waste too much time on reports and meetings,” adds Matthew from experience.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# The policy is to lead by example. Matthew and Isted have 22 days holiday like everyone else and they wear the same uniform as the staff.

And you won’t find them driving around in Ferraris or lazing on yachts.

Since the original three-year plan, written to appease the lenders, Lifestyle has stuck to a format of rolling one-year business plans, written by the managers.

“We don’t see the point of a three-year plan because things change so quickly in this industry,” says Matthew.

He has not set any firm growth objectives although acquisitions are part of the plan.

Lifestyle will announce details of its latest purchase this month.

“We want to grow at the right pace in Surrey, Sussex and Kent. We will look at any opportunities, especially with franchises we already operate because they are all dyn-amic, product-led manufacturers,” Matthew says.

He has not set any constraints on the potential size of the business, but adds: “You have to understand the optimum size for the business model – it’s probably around 20 sites maximum. You have to think about the staff as well. They want career opportunities; you have to meet their demands.”

Isted adds: “We never leave any stone unturned; we are always looking to improve. It’s probably a criticism that we don’t have enough fun – we need more play time!”

The business

Name: Lifestyle Europe
Turnover: £94 million
Return on sales: 2.3% (2007)
No of sites: Eight franchised, one Carzone used car centre, one Vanzone used van centre
No of staff: 392
New cars: 8,000
Used cars: 4,000
LCVs: 4,000
Franchises: Ford, Renault, Mazda, Subaru, Isuzu, Iveco

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