Lots of motor businesses have that family-run vibe, but at Chambers the business really is run by the whole Howes family.
Chambers was started in 1920 by Harry Chambers. It began with the Ford franchise. After test driving a car and liking it so much Chambers applied for a franchise.
The first generation of the Howes family to be involved with the business was back in 1938 and the company has stayed with Ford ever since.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Chambers expanded with Peugeot and now this year with Mazda.
Nigel Howes has been managing director for 20 years and is based at the Ford centre in Sutton Coldfield.
Wife Janice is based at the dual franchise site in Tamworth selling Peugeot and Mazda brand franchises.
The couple had worked together at the same dealership, but a little bit of space in a professional relationship has proven essential, according to Janice.
She has been working in the trade for more than 20 years. She started on the switchboard at Chambers before working for Lex and then at Reg Vardy as sales manager and brand manager.
She returned to Chambers to take over the marketing side and train the sales executives, but a position as general manager became available.
She said: “I was going to settle for the easy life and work part-time, but I found it very difficult to step back. It was a really good opportunity for me.
“We weren’t sure how it would work as husband and wife, but it’s a very family orientated business and those values really show. It’s worked really well and it’s nice to see that Sam and Danielle want to carry it on.”
Both daughters started doing administration. Sam is now a business manager and Danielle head of marketing.
Sam said: “I’m learning all aspects of the business ready for when I take it over. I started out with admin, now I’ve moved on to the sales floor.
“I will eventually move on to servicing and learn all the aspects of aftersales. If I still enjoy it after all that then I will be happy to take on the business.”
While the daughters are learning the tricks of the trade, Janice admits she’s also still learning on a daily basis.
She said: “Each manufacturer has a different way of doing things and you have to get used to that.”
The decision to add Mazda to the portfolio was made three years ago because the Tamworth site needed another franchise to make a profit.
Janice believes Mazda compliments the Peugeot franchise and doesn’t take business from the French brand.
All the new business coming into the Mazda side is from customers that have never bought from Chambers before. Chambers is an MPS and RX8 specialist and that is helping to attract a different type of customer.
A lot of customers are drawn in because of the sportier models, but it’s not necessarily what they’re buying.
Janice said: “Initially we were a bit concerned about the Mazda6 because we’re not used to selling saloons with the Peugeot franchise at Tamworth.
“But it’s done really good retail business because people see cars like the Mondeo as a ‘repmobile’ so the Mazda6 is something a bit different. We’re also doing really well with the MX-5 and Mazda2.”
Chambers achieved Mazda’s quarterly target despite it being a cold territory for the franchise with only a small amount of promotion.
Janice said: “We were amazed with the number of customers coming through the doors and it coincided with us switching our website live on January 12. We’ve just been very good with following up all enquiries that have come in.”
In order to build on the early success of the new franchise, Chambers has organised a ladies’ night fashion show and is getting involved with local radio to help promote it.
Customers of the Ford site have been buying for years and entire families will go to the dealership to buy their car and get it serviced. Chambers’ Ford site has a strong customer database which it uses to great effect.
The Peugeot and Mazda site doesn’t have such an historic customer base, but it’s getting there.
Janice said: “When you start to add in the sale of the vehicle, the part-exchange resale value and the servicing, the business you get from one family is so much better than having to go out and find one new customer.
“Our database at Tamworth is pretty huge now and it’s starting to get to the stage where we’re building up those relationships that the Ford site has.”
Chambers runs a loyalty scheme with vouchers for customers who recommend the business to friends and family.
The group has also developed its own service plan which is incorporated into the point of sale and helps keep customers coming back to the business.
Plans for the future
The Howes are only prepared to grow the Chambers’ business further if they can keep that family touch on the sites they acquire.
There is space to take on another site, but it all depends on whether there’s a family member willing to take the reins.
Keeping staff happy
People who work for Chambers tend to stick around. Most of the service technicians have been with the Tamworth business since it opened five years ago.
The Ford site has had the same sales team for five years with some putting in more than 10 years’ service.
Sam puts the low staff turnover down to a flexible way of working and a higher starting wage.
She said: “If a customer comes in at the Ford site and wants a used car or a new car there are no hard and fast rules on who has to deal with that customer.
"It’s a very flexible way of working.”
When people do leave, they tend to come back. Of six sales executives at Tamworth, four are on their second term after leaving.
Janice said: “They had gone to non-family run businesses and they no longer had as much of
“My door is always open and anyone can come in and ask me anything or suggest anything.”
Sales executives are paid a bonus when they hit volume targets. If they do it for three months in a row, there’s an extra bonus and an even bigger bonus follows six months in a row.
But Janice believes it’s not just the money that keeps the staff, the business is also flexible with its holiday scheme.
“We’re not an easy touch, but we actively encourage short-term sabbaticals (typically a month) as long as we have six months’ notice.”
Chambers had a record-breaking year for new and used car sales last year. Investment in building the Mazda development was ongoing and no redundancies were made to help battle the recession.
Service retail hours were also up.
Janice said: “We were very focused and we’ve an excellent used car buyer which really helped set us apart.
“In a situation like the recession you’ve just got to remain upbeat and take every opportunity.
“Profits were really helped with used cars. You could buy a car and it would be worth more the next month.”
Janice said: “As the prices started to harden in Black Book we went back to working to a very strict 90-day policy for used stock turnover. We hadn’t been as strict before last year, but we really did prepare for the worst last year and it never really happened.”
Online auctions have really worked for Chambers, allowing employees to stay on-site while buying in quality stock.