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Making Money: Autotorq

It was one of those chance meetings that led to today’s set up at Autotorq – one of the big providers of websites for UK car dealers. 

Stewart Niblock, now chief operating officer, met Clive Jackson, owner of the company Global Beach six years ago and they stayed in touch. Eighteen months ago, the phone rang. They met up. Autotorq was born.

The idea was that they could only push their embryonic dealer website business, and make money out of it, if it was separated from Global Beach and had its own management.

Niblock’s experience in tackling start-up ideas and forcing change was ideal. A year later and that is happening. Niblock has a long list of brands that take website design and function from him. 

The trick he still has to pull off is to show dealers how much can be achieved on the net and how much more cost-effective it can be than traditional marketing and trading.

Some do get it. “We talked to a dealer recently and the cost of what he wanted was going to be quite expensive. But he knew. He understood. “We used to send out 7,000 letters that cost a pound each,” he said. “Now, on the internet they cost a penny each.”

“What is terrifying is the speed at which internet trading is conditioning consumer expectations. Some dealers mix old habits with new technologies and it just does not work. 

“Dealers tell us that they get no successful leads from the website. But what is happening is that they get the leads, take 24 hours to open them and then a couple of days to respond. That is a crime,” Niblock said.

“When Google arrived and gave people instant access to providers, the game changed and people expected to get things moving within 24 hours. Then the expectation became four hours. Now it is two.

“Any longer than that and the punishment is harsh. People move on. They move to a different brand. And they don’t come back,” he added.

Autotorq is an international business. It is based in Fulham with a small central team of only 25 people, but the five-year plan is a successful business in 50 countries and 21 languages. It sounds ambitious, but there is a determination to reinvest. 

“There are no greedy shareholders wanting a dividend,” says Niblock. “One of the great things about Clive is that he reinvests everything. Our two-year target is to double turnover (which is below £5 million).

The business model is demonstrated by Global Beach and Autotorq’s joint effort for Bentley. 

Global Beach looks after the OEM site and Autotorq creates trading websites for all 50 international dealers which are fully compliant with Bentley’s house style. 

Each dealer will want some individual preferences while marrying up to national customs and presented in as many as 20 languages.

“It is complex work. You can have the best concept in the world for PR and marketing, but if you do not co-operate with your customers it will not work. Some manufacturers are willing to learn and do things in a better way. Others just do not get it.
“We are the glue between OEM brand compliance and dealer flexibility,” he added.

“We do a lot of analysis and have proved that web customers are six times more likely to buy if the programme takes them straight to the dealer site rather than to the OEM’s corporate site.

“For the dealer, you have to be first on the search list. Anywhere below that and you are stuffed. 

“Manufacturers will say it is OK to be third. It is not. If you are third, 87% of traffic is going to your competitors.

“We have formulae which shows how much it is worth spending to get first or second place. We have proved that the difference between second and third can add £85,000 a year to the bottom line,” he said.

Manufacturers have varying degrees of control over the traffic that filters out to the dealers. Ford allows dealers to compete. Citroën – which has very good internet presence in the UK, according to Autotorq, and which is another of its customers – has a mandated solution.

With Ford, Autotorq has spent a long time on what the industry calls User Goal Completion. It involves tracking the eye movements of the surfer as he moves over the site. 

Other industries are running ahead of the car business in terms of their sophistication and the amount of effort invested in web marketing. 

The airlines are a great example of direct selling and giving decision-making to the customer. Amazon is excellent. Dyson has appointed a digital managing director and made direct selling through the web a completely separate business to the retail chains.

Niblock has a particular interest in connecting with the bloggers around the car retail industry. Things go wrong with cars; the bloggers get busy. The carmakers try to ignore it. That no longer works. 

The web generates communities of common interest and for the providers – no matter how big a company they might be – the task is to get involved in the same spirit. It’s the new age – honesty, openness and integrity. It would be good for the carmakers to engage.

Sharing the risk

Stewart Niblock has strong views about the automotive industry’s attitude towards the web.
“I am disappointed with the car industry. 

They have young products but not the young frame of mind. They tend to think that it is all about brand awareness on-line. 

But the system has to ripple back to dealer orders in the end to be of real use.
“We had one dealer who left us last year because we did not have the solution delivered in the agreed time. But we still work with them. They really get digital. 

“We are looking at how to build the relationship because it is all about an attitude of understanding what needs to be done. It is no use if we just tell the dealers what they need to buy, or they are just telling us what they want.

“One of the advantages of our position is that we do all the dealer sites across the world for some manufacturers. We get to see all the regional variations and the best ideas drawn from the differing inputs from many cultures.

“We would love to find the car manufacturer who has the balls to approach web selling in a radically different way. I am willing to look at the risk and reward of varying
solutions and to share the risk.”

Stewart Niblock's career

Stewart Niblock was born 1960 in Canada to Scottish parents.

1976 Joined the avionics division of the Civil Aviation Authority

1985 Began a series of general management roles doing something new every couple of years. Stayed 20 years.

“I became a change manager. I was good at breaking down barriers and making things happen. I like working with people and influencing people. People need to know that there is
something in it for them if they do things differently.”

1999 Joined the Easy Group to work with Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of EasyJet.
“He said we were going to take a risk and launch three companies in six months.”

The first was the car rental company EasyCar. There was no staff or anything. We just had to get it running. We got 2,500 cars and ran it. We launched Easy Cinema and Easy Cruise and looked at men’s toiletries. Then I ran the portfolio team.”

2004 “It was time to go. Not everything that Stelios does is successful and it is not always easy to know looking in from the outside what is working and what is not. The companies all still exist. He never admits failure and never shuts anything down.”

“I started advising on corporate ventures – mainly wealthy people needing help with a start-up. I have done some corporate strategy with Rolls-Royce and Hertz. A common theme was how to use the internet effectively.”

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