Interview – Darren Guiver, Managing director, Group 1 Automotive

Interview - Darren Guiver

An Interview With The Managing Director of Group 1 Automotive

DARREN GUIVER is managing director of Group 1 Automotive in the UK. The company’s portfolio covers brands that include Audi, BMW, Ford, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Mini, Seat, Skoda, Toyota, Vauxhall and Volkswagen.

Guiver’s journey to the top reads like a Hollywood success story, starting with a sales apprenticeship and including numerous gambles along the way, including setting up his own retail group, before selling it on to Group 1, a giant of the US automotive retail scene.

He shares some of the lessons from along his journey, as well as highlighting a charity challenge he is undertaking in support of BEN later this year.

Your rise from sales apprentice to retail group owner to managing director of Group 1 is remarkable. Were you always going to work in the car industry?

“Yes, I think so. From my early teenage years, I was the one with pictures of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches on my wall. I knew pretty early on I wanted to go into the car industry straight from school.

“I actually applied for a technician’s apprenticeship at a Perry’s Ford dealership, but I didn’t pass the assessment. I ended up being a trainee sales exec instead – because there wasn’t an assessment for that!”

How do you look back on that apprenticeship experience?

“I’d just turned 17 and I worked in accounts, the PDI centre, on the service reception, on the sales floor and more. You name it, I did it. I was given all the jobs that no one else wanted to do, and I had a sense even then that if I just got on with them with enthusiasm, it would stand me in good stead. Not everyone has that attitude. I learned a lot and stayed grounded, and I think it meant others had an opportunity to see something in me.

“My attitude has always been to take the positives from any adversity. If something stops you, I enjoy the process of finding a way to work around it. How can I get around that adversity and make it a positive, whatever the scenario is? I’ve never been driven by the financial aspect of what I do. It’s always been, ‘I want to be successful at what I do’. The financial bit can follow behind.”

You were a sales manager at age 23. What advice would you give to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

“Well, I was living in Essex and the dealership was in Colindale, north London, so it wasn’t seen as a prime opportunity. But I wanted the responsibility and I wanted to take the next step – even if some of my peers didn’t see it as an obvious step up.

“I very often see people in our business go, ‘Oh, I’ll wait for the Audi job to come up rather than take a chance on something else’. I don’t subscribe to that approach. Don’t narrow your field of vision; take what’s in front of you and see what you can learn.

“As it was, I was in that role for only three months. An opportunity came up in a more prestigious location and, because I now had experience, they asked if I wanted to do it. A few times after that, I earned my wings selling unfashionable brands, in order to be considered for the bigger ones.”

How did your degree in retail automotive management at Loughborough fit in?

“It was an incredible opportunity, and I still support the course now because of what I took from it. I think 23 of us started the course and seven finished; there was massive attrition because of the workload on top of your job requirements. But that in itself was a learning experience – if only to decide how much work is enough. You don’t always need top marks; you just need to get through and juggle the challenges you have.

‘If something stops you, I enjoy the process of finding a way to work around it’

“It was gruelling. I remember the nights driving home, pulling up and eating while I read the books or wrote the essay. But I think it gave me a different level of thinking.

“That’s one reason why Group 1 sponsors three students on the course each year. The main thing I learned was to slow down – not to live on my nerves and make quick decisions, but to analyse the facts and make the right decision when I was ready. The balance shifted; I learned to make less instinctive decisions and became more strategic in my thinking.”

How did you move from manager to business owner?

“I was running 10 sites for HR Owen at the time, five of which were Audi. They felt it was hard to make money on an Audi site in London – and don’t forget, this was a bit before Audi really took off and became the brand it is today.

“Anyway, they were looking to sell them off and, sure enough, the five non-Audi sites went. That made Audi nervous, and they approached me and said, ‘We’d rather be in control of this with someone we know and like, so why don’t you make an offer’

“It was one of the most daunting conversations I’ve had. I went into the owner’s office and asked if there was a chance. He smiled, said someone else had made a generous offer but if I could match it then I could have them. My business partner Kim Richardson and I laid everything on the line. I was nervous, remortgaging, borrowing all that money. Few of the sites had been established long, so they didn’t even have data that we could draw on to pull in customers. Hindsight says we knew what we were doing buying Audi dealerships… but no one knew that at the time.”

You built that business up spectacularly, and then sold to Group 1?

“I wasn’t particularly looking to sell, but I had a number of approaches from companies that I said no to, because I didn’t feel they’d be a fit for me personally. I didn’t want to stop. But the Group 1 offer felt right. The timing was good, the flexibility they offered was good and they indicated that I could stay on and run the business if it went well.

“It’s funny, because people kept asking me how long I was tied in to stay on for; I wasn’t tied in at all, but I loved what I was doing and wanted to stay on. My main concern was Group 1 saying, ‘We don’t like you actually, Darren. You’re not all you’re cracked up to be, so if you don’t mind, could you step off?’ So far, so good.

No temptations to take up golf and live in the sun?

“None. I sold one day and was back as an employee the next. I love the job. I love the people. I get such a great sense of satisfaction and pride out of someone being successful. Seeing individuals in the business grow and flourish over the years and become leaders of their own businesses gives me a significant glow. It’s three years now since Group 1 bought in, and there isn’t a day I don’t enjoy the challenges.”

Talking of challenges, you’ve accepted a goal of ‘cycling’ 166 miles along the Thames on a self-propelled waterbike, along with Jon Wakefield (outgoing Volvo Cars UK managing director) and Tim Tozer (Allianz UK CEO). How’s the training going?

“Well, we’re doing it in support of BEN, the motor industry charity, and it was a pleasure to be asked and – hopefully – to raise lots of money for the charity. I’m training on a Wattbike, which is torture but also a good guide, because it gives me all the stats on which leg is doing what and so on. Because I’m pedalling a belt to power a propeller, there’s a sweet spot of return versus effort. Finding that sweet spot is key, because if you push too hard, you create a lot more froth but not a lot more forward power.

“I’m looking forward to it. The support has been fantastic and the donations are coming in. I didn’t know the other two well, but I’m enjoying it.”

For more information on the 2019 Epic Thames Waterbike Ride, go to justgiving.com/fundraising/benilc2019