Interview – Pauline Turner, managing director, Chorley Group

Interview - Pauline Turner

An interview with the Managing Director of the Chorley Group

Pauline Turner is managing director of the Chorley Group, running the day-to-day operations of its Hyundai, Kia, MG and Nissan outlets, which employ around 250 people and generate an annual turnover in excess of £150 million. It’s quite a journey from 1988, when she started valeting cars for her brother, Andrew, who is now the company’s chairman.

Both Turner and the Group are famous for their straight talking, customer-focused approach, plus an agile mindset that resulted in the adoption of innovative and digitally led strategies ahead of rivals. This has led to Turner taking on several top-level positions within dealer councils and on manufacturer advisory boards.

The industry is full of people who worked up to the top, but few have been as hands on as you. Does that help?

“Andrew asked me to help out one day, so I cleaned his used cars, then I drove them around, sold them, advertised them, marketed them, bought in stock – the lot. I enjoyed every role and learned from them all.

“My parents were greengrocers, so I come from a shop background. To survive against supermarkets, they had to adapt, which is also relevant. This industry has always been about people and changing to their needs. I love that.

“Having a wealth of experience in each area enables me to better understand the opportunities and weaknesses that challenge our team.”

‘We’re big enough to cope but small enough to care’

What values set you apart?

“We say we’re big enough to cope but small enough to care – and we mean that. I want our customers looked after in the way that someone would look after their mother; strive for that and they’ll be on your side, even if something goes wrong.

“I also put a huge amount of store in integrity. It’s not hard to take a large margin out of a sale, but I’d far rather build this business on fair practice. We’ve had generations of the same family buy from us now, and nothing makes me prouder. We’ve earned that trust.

“Likewise, in the last financial crash, we didn’t make a single redundancy. It wasn’t easy, and there were sacrifices made by the team and the directors. Our team trust we’ll do everything we can for them, and in turn, we get incredible commitment.

“As a result, we’re not the most profitable in the industry, but I believe our foundations are among the strongest.”

As the company grows, are there risks associated with you being less hands-on?

“Not really. We do want to grow, but we remain agile, because there are only five directors. We can make decisions quickly, and the hierarchy is simple. Beyond that, if you have the right controls and management team, anything is possible.

“We haven’t expanded much in the past five years, because we’ve been building skillsets across the Group and, where possible, recruiting internally. We’re now in a strong position with our management team to take opportunities that arise.”

Talent retention must be hard when the big groups are often on the same trading estates?

“Not really. Our staff retention is better than the average, and those who leave do so because they see opportunities or think the grass is greener. They tend to leave, gain experience and then return at a higher level.

“We also try to identify the very best and give them opportunities. There’s a ‘future leaders’ course, for instance. We make it hard and some don’t complete it, but if you make it through, we try to ensure there are opportunities down the road. We’re very proud of our Best UK Dealerships to Work For Awards for 2018 and 2019.”

Do you ever recruit from outside the trade?

“We haven’t taken that leap of faith yet. We do consider it, but it’s a unique industry, so you’d need to find someone who’s a great fit if you wanted them to implement change while still following established practices. “I can see how a digital world will change us, but the skillset of a salesman is fundamentally the same. That knowledge of the product and sales instinct will still be required; selling online won’t change that.”

‘We’re very proud of our 2018 and 2019 Best UK Dealerships to Work For Awards’

You’ve had an electric vehicle specialist for five years?

“We have, and he’s unique in that he’s not a salesman. He’s here to supply knowledge to customers to help them make the right choices based on unvarnished merits. That has opened opportunities as more brands have launched electric cars. He’s a well-known blogger and is respected for his insight by the wider community. “It’s a new and unusual role, but it feeds into our core goal of helping customers buy the car for their needs, whether that’s selling them an electric car or advising them it isn’t suitable.”

Of your five directors, three are women. Does that balance run through the company?

“No, and it’s really difficult to change the balance. Only about five of our sales executives are women, but it’s not for a want of trying or talent appreciation. It’s just not an environment that’s front of mind for women, I think. Similarly, there are only three female technicians in the aftersales team, despite our recruitment being open to all.

“What’s interesting is that our online response team is completely different. It may be a general enquiry or a sale through our website, but the channel opens from 9am-11pm and is handled by a rota of four women working from home. Some have children, some have grandchildren, but the work fits around them. We’ve adapted in that regard, and it suits our employees and our customers.”

Is your traditional workforce similarly flexible?

“In our experience, they are. Here’s an example: two years ago, we had a capacity issue at one of our workshops, which had six ramps but enough work for eight people. I suggested we switch to 10-hour days within a four-day week on a rolling basis. This enabled us to have our ramps active for longer and increase capacity by employing two extra technicians.

“They weren’t sure at first, but they agreed to a two-month trial. Guess what? They loved it. They travel in earlier and leave later, avoiding rush hours. They get an extra day at home. Customers love it, because they don’t have to wait as long, and we love it, because the ramps are doing more business.”

Does customer experience in the industry need improving?

“It does, but the people aren’t usually the problem; it’s often the systems we’re working with. For example, booking a service should be simple, but the trail of paperwork and departments is bewildering for us, let alone customers.

“So, at our Preston site, we’re trialling a paperless, digital process, end to end. When a booking is made, it automatically feeds through to every aftersales department, including reception, service, workshop control, warranty control, parts, valet… Everyone is in the loop, and the work is stored online, so it can be looked up easily or emailed out.

“This gives a measurable, managed process that’s quick, transparent and simple. It reduces communication issues, as well as lost or duplicate job cards. Everyone wins.”

New players are launching for new and used car digital sales platforms. Can you respond?

“Do we have to respond? We’ve been selling used cars online for years now successfully. We aren’t quite there yet with new cars, but that will come if customers want it. Likewise, for years, we’ve offered to deliver cars to the customer’s door.

“I don’t see any newcomer offering anything that we don’t, plus we have the experience to deliver it and the infrastructure to do so with a personal touch. The reassurance of a human talking on the phone or in a showroom is very powerful.”

You seem to be very at ease with change?

“As a company, we are very comfortable with it. During my past 30 years in the trade, there have been many changes, but we’re still doing what we did, just better. Our job is to sell cars, but we’ll do that only if we give customers what they want.

“So, we deliver a fantastic aftersales experience along with online sales, financing and part-exchange valuation, plus a service and MOT test booking platform. This links into our data management system so that all bookings are accepted and processed immediately.

“There are changes, but the methods we’ve evolved work. I have no doubt they can adapt to stay relevant as customers move to new technologies.”

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