Interview – John O’Hanlon, CEO, Waylands Automotive

Interview - John O’Hanlon

An Interview With The CEO of Waylands Automotive

JOHN O’HANLON ESTABLISHED his credentials in car retailing as he worked his way up the management structure at Ridgeway, taking the firm to new heights as CEO until it was sold to Marshall Motor Group for £106.9 million in 2016.

Just 16 months later, he returned to retailing, launching Waylands Automotive with the acquisition of a Volvo franchise in Reading. That business now has new premises and Waylands has expanded with further acquisitions, all selling Volvos, as well as running thriving used car and aftersales businesses.

Here, O’Hanlon talks us through his career, challenges he has faced and his plans to build Waylands into a £100m-per-year turnover business.

How straightforward was your route into the industry?

“I started in chartered accountancy, qualified and then had to decide whether to go into the industry or stay in practice. I did the latter but specialised in retail, building a little portfolio of motor trader clients and becoming the first dedicated motor retail manager for Grant Thornton.

“I started gaining a lot of insight into the future plans of some brands, including the Volkswagen Group, which really excited me. I was meeting some fantastic people and could see the potential they had, so in 1998 I joined Ridgeway.”

You moved roles quite a bit there, didn’t you?

“I was financial director but played in the operations side of the business. I was general manager of the Volkswagen business; that was quite a shock, because rather than being in charge of finances, I was actually having to do deals, work out my challenges and be fully commercially responsible for the success of that business. Then, in 2007, my managing director became chairman and I was moved up – just in time for the financial crash!”

That didn’t stop you, though…

“It was an interesting time, that’s for sure. We doubled in size and took turnover from around £40m to £290m. We also brought in our first non-Volkswagen Group franchise, Mercedes, and that was a great learning curve. You’ve heard the phrase that cash is king? It really was, and we had to learn how to move our stock quickly.

“I loved it, and we went from strength to strength. We had a great combination of retail, corporate and aftersales work and steadily grew the business in a sustainable way. There was a little bit of acquisition but lots of organic growth. Our profitability was great, our compound annual growth was great and it was all going well.”

And that attracted the interest of Marshall Motor Group?

“Yes, you might say it was going too well, because it attracted a lot of interest from potential buyers. The move by Marshall was perhaps the biggest deal in the industry for a decade – and very shrewd it was too. It’s done brilliantly, and I enjoyed a bit of resting time in the meantime.”

What tempted you back?

“I had to have a long, hard look at what I wanted to do. But eventually my wife decided that one of us was going back to work full time, so I scurried out the door and set up Waylands!

“In fairness, I’d been looking around and maintaining contact with the industry. There was a consistent thread from a brand that really intrigued me. Volvo had great products and underpinned them with a brand ethos that was different: still premium but exploiting electrification, looking at the environment in totality and having a constant narrative about performance and safety.

“I admired the way German brands proliferated so much, but I didn’t see much benefit from getting involved. I could see there was room for another premium brand to come to the fore, so I went with Volvo – and the growth has been incredible.”

‘Volvo has great cars underpinned by a brand ethos that’s different’

But aren’t sales tougher than they’ve been for a decade? 

“That’s why people say: ‘John, you’re crazy. What are you doing coming back into the industry?’. I say: ‘Yes, they are going down on average, but I’m not the average dealer’. I think I’m better than the average dealer, and I’m linked to a great brand and working with a fantastic management team.”

Are more buyers prioritising discount over service quality?

“It’s more about value. We know people will pay more or travel farther if they get a great experience. If we end up just selling on price, we might as well just be selling fridges. A car purchase is so much more complex; it’s a life-changing decision. I often worry about people who tie into a PCH just to save £3 per month when they could have a PCP, which is much more flexible. We need to make sure we explain these things.

“What’s more, if you make a good product, people will not only pay more for it, they’ll also wait longer for it. The XC40 is a great example. With great cars, the discussions about lowest price soon turn to best value.”

Waylands now has four sites. What are the long-term plans?

“I’d like to be bigger. We have an ambition to be a £100m-turnover business within three years. What we have today should gently take us towards £80m, so we need more. I’ve said clearly that Volvo is the beating heart of the business, so that’s where we’re focused. But in the short term, the focus is on making the businesses we have as beautiful as possible, not only in terms of the physical bricks but also with regards to the management teams. That’s where my energy is now. If I have 10 sites within three to five years, I’ll be happy.”

Your size makes you more agile than rivals, but how do you avoid growing too fast?

“I was always conscious at Ridgeway that we could lose out as we got bigger. That starts from the fact that at our size now, I walk into a dealership or workshop and know everyone there and chat with them. You can’t do that when running 150 dealerships… but I’ve got a fair way to go until that’s a problem.

“What I don’t believe should ever be a problem is that scale somehow dilutes the customer experience. With the right management, you can create and sustain a culture that’s focused on customers, staff and the brand. Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you can’t be seen, communicate or be as transparent and consistent as you need for success. I see our culture as an advantage, and I’m quite obsessive about it.”

So, what are the values that set Waylands apart?

“It’s about being the best, and there are clear metrics that demonstrate that, from the points of view of both the customer and manufacturer. You can obsess too much about metrics, but my view is if you’re in the top quarter for all of them, you’re in the right place.

“Beyond those metrics, and without sounding too homely, it’s about an intangible warmth you can feel. If your facilities aren’t up to scratch or someone isn’t delivering, you’ll know. If staff or customers don’t trust you or get a hint that you don’t believe in what you say or act consistently to it, their distrust will become clear. If our staff do all they can to not engage with me, I know something’s wrong.

“So I look to get those things right, always – starting with appointing some big hitters with experience of delivering in the most important roles.”

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