To most people it’s still just plain old Trevor Jones. But the 63-year-old footy referee and car dealer specialist accountant who founded the business is chairman of an organisation whose full Sunday title is ASE Ltd or Automotive Services Europe and has been for the last 20 years.
ASE makes a satisfying study for the Making Money series because its task is to ensure that dealers make as much money as they can from their trade on a daily basis.
But ASE is also in the business of turning itself into a successful international business with a tidy little profit of its own.
In 2009 it achieved a margin of 20% on worldwide turnover of £11 million.
The principal trick is sorting through monthly trading stats for car brands and their dealers and then selling the data back to them in a form that allows them to run the business more efficiently.
And with the business now managed by the younger son of the founder, there is more and more emphasis on getting the output down to such a concise summary that it can be retrieved as one page on a PDA.
Managing director Robert Jones (33) keeps in mind a vision of the zone manager pulling up outside today’s first dealer call and taking his gizmo out off his pocket for a refresher on the financial summary before he goes in.
That’s the snapshot of ASE at its most basic, but it is becoming much more than that.
“We have 169 bespoke management solutions across 31 countries and 29 languages. In the UK there are 350 clients for professional services and we work with 86% of the UK manufacturers.”
There are 110 employees in the UK, but there are also offices in Spain and Portugal, the Netherlands, Florida and Russia from March.
Other countries are covered by contractors while the business volume grows. Between them the country offices process 11,000 sets of business a month and ASE has just spent £1 million on a new computer system to crunch it all. All profit is being reinvested currently.
Robert Jones has taken on the task of bringing in the new business while elder brother Mike delivers the products.
Robert is a veteran of Arthur Anderson, where his specialisation became structured finance for large investment.
He joined the family firm as sales director in 2006 and took charge in March 2008. All the non-family shareholders have been bought out; a 3i heavy-weight has joined the board as a non-exec and in Robert’s judgement “in the last 12 months we have transformed the business into a dynamic commercial enterprise”.
The sales pitch to the manufacturers is a simple one: “Reduce the risk of having a dealer network.”
Robert Jones will also tell the clients that he has a better chance than other accountants and consultants of adding value for the carmakers because all the professionals he employs have car company experience.
Although he does not work for all 26 manufacturers in any market, he does work for all of them in one country or another.
Increasingly, OEMs want more than the raw data from their own network. They want some tailored market analysis as well.
Within the customer companies there is demand for different levels of data for different staff. The boss will want the simplified summary. Managers need the full detail on a small section.
Technology change is very demanding: “We have gone in only two or three years from 20-page documents to interactive web delivery.”
The business plan is simple enough. Every time they pick up a new OEM as a customer for one market they can pitch for business in other markets where those OEMs need data.
They can also go for OEMS in markets where they have not got them as clients. And they can add more services for the clients they have got. It’s methodical, successful and profitable.
There are still new markets to bring in. The US business has only been under development for three years. Africa and Asia are untouched.
There are competitors and in the UK the main players who also provide accountancy and tax services to the trade are BDO Stoy Hayward, Baker Tilly and Grant Thornton.
The data collection side of things throws up Snap-on Business Solutions, Urban Science and APD of Reading.
“Almost all of our growth has been winning market share from our competitors. It’s a business that goes back 20 or 30 years,” Jones said.
Breaking into Russia has been a classic story. When the market took off, dealers were making 10% and nobody had time or inclination to hire a statistician or a consultant in a gold rush.
As boom turns to bust it’s a very different story and those with big investments to protect are now very keen to get better information.
So if the business is so clever, what priorities are imposed on its own operations?
“Our core values are quality and delivering to promise. We work hard on personal development and empowering people and we share success.”
Thoughts of Robert Jones
“The very best UK dealers can make extraordinary profits but not unless the product is right.”
“Make sure that workshops’ income absorbs all the overhead cost. If then you are efficient at selling used cars you will be a healthy and profitable dealer.”
“Profit follows service never price.”
“The more focus and control you have on the business the more money you will make.”
“You can have no control without regular and reliable information on the business. Manufacturers who get the best out of their networks have well trained and interested field forces.”
Sources of profit on new cars
“For very profitable large groups like Sytner the location of the dealerships does not seem to matter nor does the brands that they sell. Brand and location are irrelevant. They can all make 5%.
“In the past, some of the worst brands made the best profit. Lada made more cash millionaires than any other brand.”
Change in progress
“There is a transition to the smaller and more dynamic brands driven by the scrappage scheme and the green movement.”
“Manufacturers make more money in their manufacturing country than in export markets. Export markets will only thrive where there are favourable international tax regimes.”
The 2010 UK car market
“Most people are saying that the market will go back to 2.4 million. That is not a natural level. The right level is about the current one (for 2009). We have got to start differentiating and aiming to sell new cars to real customers.”
“Fast-moving brands like Kia, Hyundai and Suzuki. ”
“The very best dealers realise that it is not just about selling large numbers of cars. Too many new owners are salesmen who take a punt on their own account with very little accounting experience. The business needs appropriate financial controls in every department.”
“Cash planning and forecasting is very weak in a sector where turnover in a year can be hundreds of millions of pounds.”
Robert Jones factfile
Family Married with two daughters aged three and 11 months.
Lives in Disley, Cheshire
Office at Manchester Airport
Fun Food and wine, skiing in Austria. Sailing (on holiday); outdoors with the family.
Drives Range Rover and Q5
Ambitions To see as many countries and cultures as time permits. Down the Colorado in a raft. Retire to a farm.