Jenna Niblock (pictured below left) and Tracey McBain (pictured below), in Lookers' digital marketing team, interviewed their boss Andy Bruce (pictured left) for an in-depth look at the company, the staff, the automotive industry, the future of car sales and the one issue that occupies his mind the most. He reveals plans for a new used car centre, personality profiling for staff, their pay and working patterns - and hints at establising the brand in the United States.
Andy Bruce took over from Peter Jones as Lookers' chief executive in January 2014.
The plc, with an annual turnover of over £3 billion, has grown from humble beginnings.
Originally established in 1908 by John Looker the company then sold bicycles, parts and accessories. They went on, in 1910, to sell Ford cars.
Since then through a smart mix of natural growth and acquisition, the company has expanded into one of the most formidable within the automotive industry, offering 31 different car brands for sale.
The business has most recently focused its efforts on developing its culture, with programmes aimed at enhancing the experience of their staff in the knowledge that this will have a positive impact on the customer experience. They are determined to break the perception of the car industry as being old fashioned.
Tell us about Lookers - past, present, future. Sum it up in 20 words if you can.
Fantastic culture, outstanding team, superb heritage and a really great place to work.
Lookers has a large presence in the UK, do you foresee expansion outside of the UK at some point? If so what regions do you think represent an opportunity?
We already have South Dublin Audi in the Republic of Ireland, so if we are going to expand outside the UK that would be a natural place for us to do so.
We have a big cultural affinity with the south of Ireland because we are so big in the North. We are looking at putting a used car operation down in Dublin.
We are doing extremely well with used cars in Northern Ireland under the Usedirect brand, and we are looking to drop that into Dublin.
We are open minded to what else we might do down there. If anywhere else as a longer term bet maybe the United States - we would probably look to work with our existing partners.
Lookers have adopted a strategy of expansion through acquisition. Will this continue and what are the challenges of this approach to brand integration?
We're always on the lookout for acquisition opportunities in both our motor division and our parts distribution business. It's important that they're the right fit strategically and financially so we are very selective about what we progress with.
Staying with branding, how do you deal with the conflicting brand aims of Lookers with the brand aims of the manufacturers on offer?
We don’t even try to compete with the manufacturers brands, we will never ever be as big as Volkswagen, Vauxhall, Ford and so on.
So Lookers, as much as it operates under one banner, i.e. the Lookers' name, it’s really in our view a collection of businesses that reflect the manufacturers brands, we are organised to represent their brand in the way they want it represented.
What makes the Lookers' team so special?
I think they respond well to the empowerment they are given, that of all things separates us.
I believe if you let your staff get on and encourage them to try things, let them make mistakes, let them learn from those mistakes, you just release all this energy and creativity. It’s either that or you just tell them what to do all the time, and that would rely on me being right all the time and that’s never ever going to happen! That’s what makes the team special.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
It's about empowerment and encouragement, making people feel good about themselves. I try to catch people doing things right as opposed to catching them doing wrong. We all perform much better when we're not waiting for the next clip round the ear!
Can you give us your personal perspective on the Customers for Life and NICER programmes? What was the main driver for this initiative when it was introduced?
I felt we needed even more focus and structure around the whole area of customer experience. The key to the whole programme is encouraging staff satisfaction in the knowledge that happy staff equals happy customers. Without oversimplifying it, that's the key to long term success. We also introduced more measurement, including surveying everyone who doesn't buy from us. I'm as interested in their views as the people who do buy from us.
What is the biggest challenge to the automotive industry within the next 12-24 months?
This is a question we get asked a lot. I think new car sales are going to show a modest rise over the next few years, and the main reason for that is we have had five years of below average sales.
The fact that new cars have been rising has a lag effect, so inevitably the maths are dictating that used cars and aftersales will go up.
So, our assumption is we are in a period of growth, albeit it’s not as steep as it has been at the more recent part of the recovery, but we are getting to a more mature period of growth.
How do you keep on top of the car industry? What publications do you read for instance?
I read a lot of the industry magazines, Automotive Management, Motor Trader - these big industry publications. I go to a lot of meetings, and conferences and pick things up. I also try and read the Financial Times as much as possible, not for specific car related stuff but more particularly to see what other industries are doing.
The retail market within the automotive industry can be perceived to be rather male dominated and pushy. What are Lookers doing to change those perceptions?
We are doing a lot of things. One is to use personality profiling to employee people.
Staff are brought in on the basis of their alignment to our NICER values; if you get a highly aggressive controlling person they are not for us. We want helpful, friendly staff.
One of the things that we will probably do is change the way we pay, and we will almost certainly at the same time change the working patterns.
What we have at the moment is a pay structure where its low basic salary, high commission based on closing sales as fast as possible and generally anti-social working hours, working most weekends, often six days a week. That’s not going to attract a lot of the people - we want to attract particularly female staff members.
We’ll have to think about opening hours, we might have to open longer, but that might suit some people who would like to come in at eight o'clock and leave at four and so on.
If we pay them a proper salary with perhaps an element of something to go for, but not based on how many customers did you sell to today, it’s how happy did you make these people feel when they came in.
If we pay them a proper salary with an element of bonus based on customer experience, as opposed to volume and profit, I think we'll attract a much higher calibre of person.
How can a company like Lookers – with 100 years of history - keep all that’s relevant about the past, yet ensure future changes in consumer behaviour and technology are not ignored?
The key for us is to be at the forefront of change, to help to shape the future, not to become a follower. We need to just try and anticipate where things are going and get in pole position.
The biggest change is going to be the influence of digital on retail.
There is one thing that occupies my mind more than anything - what does car retailing look like in 10 years’ time?
Cars will still be sold, but I think that the businesses that will really prosper will be the ones who get this blend of online and offline right.
We had/still have a lot of good people who are doing bits of this, so it’s not just a technology thing, it’s not just a website it’s how the website integrates with when you come in the door and on so on, it’s the full experience.
Lookers represent the largest selection of manufacturer brands in the UK, are there any that we don’t have that you would like to add to the portfolio one day?
We're very happy with our brand portfolio, but we'd be proud to represent BMW and Mini at some point.
Before we let Andy go we wanted to ask him some quick fire questions about his favourite things:
What was the first single you ever bought?
Rat Trap by the Boomtown Rats in November 1978
Who is your favourite artist?
Elvis – I love most of what he did.
Do you have a favourite gadget?
Sonos wireless speakers that connect to Napster
Do you have any pet peeves?
Selfish and inconsiderate people
The Great Escape
Rangers and Scotland
Who is your biggest influence in life?
My parents and my predecessors Peter Jones and Ken Surgenor
Finally Andy can you tell us something nobody knows about you?
I failed my driving test four times, but happily passed fifth time around.