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Centenary dealers

Two world wars, the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the crowning of Britain’s second longest ruling monarch and the only time England has held the World Cup aloft – some businesses have ‘seen’ it all, writes Debbie Kirlew.

2011 has had its fair share of 100-year celebrations. Perhaps, most notably, Ford’s century in Britain, while with its intrinsic British heritage, Rolls-Royce celebrated 100 years of its most famous mascot, the Sprit of Ecstasy.

Not quite the icon it is in America, but nevertheless Chevrolet also celebrated its centenary year in 2011.

These brands, as well as many more, would not be enjoying their current status without their network of dealerships.

And there are several whose businesses also date back 100 years or more. These dealers have thrived, adapted and survived without government backing and multi-million pound marketing budgets.

For each of the businesses and dealer groups featured here, there are plenty more who have been around for as long or are due to celebrate their centenary this decade.

This feature is dedicated to you all, we tip our hats and sincerely hope that you will all be in business in another 100 years to come.

County Motor Works: established 1907

County Motor Works (CMW) is enjoying a new era while bucking the current trend.

At its four-acre site in Chelmsford, Essex, where it currently represents the Vauxhall, Chevrolet and Alfa Romeo franchises, as well as being approved repairers for Subaru and Fiat, new car sales are up 44%, used car sales have increased by 70% and finance income is up by 90% while aftersales has risen 20%.

That equates to a total turnover of £19 million to the end of September compared to £15m for the same period last year.

But it hasn’t been plain sailing. The business, which first opened in 1907, has endured some difficult times and although it is still owned by descendants of the founders, it was recognised that new blood was needed.

That new blood came in the shape of managing director Mike Gamble who took the helm around a year ago and has successfully steered CMW back on course.

He said: “We have been going through a fairly major transition since October last year which has seen us streamline, introduce new processes and basically bring the business into the 21st century. We are delighted that our measures have worked.”

On the brink of signing two new franchises, Gamble is facing the future with a certain amount of enthusiasm.

No doubt founder John William Austin would admire Gamble’s entrepreneurial spirit and commercial zest.

The son of a London-based printer who went to Glasgow University before working for the East Anglian Daily Times and The Essex Weekly News as a general engineer specialising on the printing press, Austin acquired the print works in Chelmsford with the help of his father.

It wasn’t long before he was applying his engineering skills to the new automotive industry and by 1913 he was successful enough to need larger premises and built a state-of-the-art showroom for the time and extensive workshop.

Leading up to the First World War business was thriving and notably CMW supplied and repaired all sorts of vehicles for the Ministry of Defence.

In the years that followed the business continued its development and in 1919 became the Buick agency for General Motors. When in 1925 General Motors purchased the Vauxhall factory at Luton, CMW was the natural choice as agents for the brand throughout Essex.

However, when John William Austin’s son, also John, was demobbed at the end of the Second World War he returned home to his family and business, which was in a sorry state. Undeterred, John, now aged 95, brought the business back to its former glory throughout the 50s and 60s.

Caffyns: established 1865

The Caffyns story could easily be the story of Britain from the Victorian age to the present day.

William Morris Caffyn was apprenticed to his uncle in 1856 to learn the trade of “ironmonger, tinman and brazier” before opening his own shop in 1865 in premises adjoining the present site of Caffyns’ head office in Meads Road, Eastbourne.
An entrepreneurial Victorian, in 1871 William Morris obtained a petroleum licence expanding his services to include ‘lamp and oil merchant’.

But it was a chance visit from a new breed of people – a motorist – which was to have far reaching repercussions for the business.

The driver needed a place to keep his four-cylinder Renault and asked if the butcher’s shop veranda could accommodate the vehicle and a further, similar request convinced brothers Percy and William Caffyn, the sons of William Morris, that the motorcar had a lasting future.

In 1903 the brothers took over the business and opened their first garage which they called a ‘coach house’ and in 1904, the premises were enlarged to hold 16 cars and the name “Caffyn’s Garage” appeared on the fascia.

The brothers’ ambition saw them continue to expand, develop and acquire additional premises, opening a new garage in 1906 with space for 100 vehicles while agencies held included Argyll, Belsize, Clement-Talbot, Siddeley and Wolseley.

Even the war did not halt their expansion, though, like many companies, the business began the manufacture of wartime supplies.

Percy’s two sons, Sydney and Edward, joined the company in the 1920s although the Second World War saw them pursue two very different courses; Sydney remained at home while Edward pursued a distinguished military career.

Sydney secured government contracts which kept the business operational as well as contributing to the war effort.

Caffyns’ premises were damaged in no less than 79 separate bombing incidents.

A total of 370 Caffyns’ staff served in the Forces, 18 men did not return and their names are on the Caffyns’ Roll of Honour.

Peacetime saw Caffyns re-equipping premises and reorganising the business.

By 1965, 100 years since William Morris Caffyn opened his first shop in Eastbourne, the company had a turnover of more than £10 million and a staff of more than 1,500.

Unusually, both brothers received knighthoods, Edward in 1963 and Sydney in 1972.

Expansion continued in the 1980s, including spreading to the neighbouring counties of Dorset and Hampshire.

By this time Caffyns had added marques such as Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Audi-Volkswagen to its portfolio.

New franchises were added and new services were introduced including ‘menu pricing’ known as Flexi-Serve in 1985 which was so innovative that it featured on the BBC programme Top Gear.

Sir Edward died in June 1990 at the age of 86, after 65 years of service to the company.

In the same year, representing the fifth generation of the family, Simon Caffyn, now chief executive, joined the company after clocking up considerable experience with American management consultants, Andersen Consulting and large national motor group Mann Egerton.

Sarah Caffyn, who has responsibility for human resources, is also on the plc’s board.

Simon, who joined the board almost 12 years ago and was appointed chief executive in 1998, believes a clear vision has helped keep the business operating for more than 100 years as well as retaining the Caffyn family links.

He said: “Clear values centred on customer service, value and integrity are vital ingredients for longevity as well as the ability to keep adjusting and developing as the environment changes.

"For example, we have reacted to the current climate by restructuring to concentrate on premium and premium volume franchises which are proving to be more resilient.

"We have a strong balance sheet enabling us to take up opportunities that may arise. Our strategy means we now have fewer, but larger, more resilient operations, such as our new flagship Land Rover dealership in Lewes.”

Employees with excellent pedigrees are also highlighted as essential for the success of any business.

He adds: “We have generations of employees and customers – I once met a customer who knew my great grandfather! We have quite a number of ‘families’ who have worked in the business.

“I think if our founder William were to see the business today, he would recognise the key values are similar to those of 1865,”

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