Interview – Sue Robinson, Director, National Franchised Dealers Association

Photo of Sue Robinson, Director of the National Franchised Dealers Association

How the NFDA links dealers, car makers and government

SUE ROBINSON IS the director of the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA), which represents franchised car and commercial vehicle retailers in the UK, lobbying on their behalf and offering support services.

Her path to the top has been varied, ranging from achieving a degree in sociology and post-graduate in criminology to working as a journalist and then a press officer, initially in the building services industry and later in automotive. She took on the director’s job at the NFDA in 2006 and has since grown the membership and influence of the organisation.

Today, her role is still varied, with the NFDA dealing with everything from legal issues for its members to building relationships at a manufacturer and governmental level.

How has the industry changed since you started at the NFDA?

“Back then, my life revolved around block exemption. I went from Brussels to Westminster and back again. I worked closely with the European dealer body. It was all-consuming in many ways, and we lobbied very hard to keep the previous regulation.

“But the commission stood its ground and we had to move on. It was a hard lesson, and in many ways disappointing, but with hindsight, the awareness we built of how to operate in government, and the outside appreciation of how much work we had done, showed us what we could achieve.

“My point to government and the European Union was this: the retailers are the people who face the consumer, and that link deserves as much respect as the car manufacturers get. From the moment a car leaves the factory gate, it’s the retailers who are in the front line.”

Has that changed now? Do retailers get the respect they deserve from the government?

“No. I was at party conferences this year and – without mentioning from which party – I was speaking to one MP who I have met and briefed before, and who is from a car-making area. I finished and he said: “That’s really interesting; I didn’t realise how big car retailing was.” I had to take a deep breath and politely say, “Forgive me, but you and I sat down about three years ago and I went all through this…” Let’s say I made my point.

“The reason is that car manufacturers are considered global, and they make easier headlines. But look at the big retailing groups: they are global too, and while we can’t make global headlines in the way Ford or General Motors can, we do employ 600,000 people on the retailing side in the UK, which compares well to manufacturing. Say that to MPs and their jaws drop. We still have a lot of educating to do, and of course, there is a high turnover in their job.

“The comparison to aim at is with the retailers in America. They are in Capitol Hill every day, because their contribution to society is understood.”

Presumably, you have to balance that message between the importance of retailers and the manufacturers too?

“Absolutely; it must be a balanced partnership, and usually it is. But the point I keep coming back to is that retailers have to make huge investments in order to sell cars. Inevitably, the two sides push each other – that’s business – and manufacturers sometimes need to be reminded to respect that investment.

“As a result, I spend a lot of time meeting chief executives at OEMs [original equipment manufacturers].

‘Retailers are very resilient. I’ve never known an industry that thinks on its feet so fast’

“Our lead-in is with the NFDA Dealer Attitude Survey, which is a barometer of how we think they are doing. It’s independent and anonymous, and that gives it a position of insight. It can make for pretty brutal reading sometimes, and I have huge respect, because the executives tend to take the punches and keep the door open to work with us on improving. There must be a small part of them wishing we’d just go away, but we work together with respect.”

Surely that’s quite a hard tightrope to walk?

“Yes and no. The important thing is that it’s respected on both sides; the retailers fill it in while the OEMs are looking for solutions from it and measuring progress with it. As long as you remember why we’re doing it, rather than focusing on any negatives in the outcomes, it’s incredibly powerful for both sides.”

Are all retailers members of the NFDA?

“No, not all, but 85% of UK franchised retailers are. What pulls people in is our ability to give the industry a voice. Even the smallest operators are big businesses, and they need representation, which we’re better off doing together rather than separately.

“Manufacturers have a voice, so retailers need a voice. My pledge has always been that if I can deliver on that promise, if I can give them a voice at the top table, I deserve their support, because we’re an effective organisation.

“We help, advise and push on all sorts of topics, from Brexit to Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) investigations to electric cars and apprenticeship initiatives. We provide all sorts of services and initiatives, but they all boil back to how we can be most effective in supporting the retailers to have a voice.”

Is the FCA investigation into finance the biggest issue on your radar now?

“In some ways it is, because it directly involves our members. On Brexit, we can assist in preparations, but in many regards we’re one step removed from it. With the FCA, we have had input, and while we await the findings, I have to say it appears to have been very well managed.

“My belief is that the vast majority of the industry has nothing to fear. A few reporters have worked hard to spin some headlines, but they’ve not found anything without playing with the facts. That suggests the scale of the problem is small.”

What are the other key issues for the retail industry?

“Diesel was a shock, although it is being managed, because there’s a story to tell car buyers, educating them about the pros and cons. There’s work to be done around electric cars, which is why we launched the Electric Vehicle Approved scheme to set standards for retailers and aftersales centres that people could then look to for confidence. Recruitment is another huge issue; this is a wonderful industry that offers great opportunities, and Drive My Career promotes those.”

Is WLTP still an issue?

“That was an interesting one, as we highlighted the issues to our members early and then helped with the planning as the scale of the issue became more apparent. It was like a fast train coming that everyone could see, but perhaps not everyone had appreciated just how it wasn’t slowing down.

“From a retail side, I think it was handled well. The shortage of stock is a massive issue, but the retailers are being quite cool about it. Retailers are – and always have been – very resilient. I remember the financial crisis from 2007. It was a greater disaster than any we’ve faced this year, but the retailers have typically seen it all before, and they know how to respond. Back then, the expert analysts all predicted the apocalypse for our industry; in fact, very few went to the wall, because they responded swiftly.

“That’s the standout for me in this industry: big or small, you tend to have retailers with one person at the top. They can be huge companies that pivot around one or two individuals, which gives them that ability to move a bit quicker, to be agile. I’ve never known an industry that thinks on its feet so fast, where the bosses always have a Plan B or Plan C up their sleeve.

“They are sensational minds running hugely successful operations. If you immerse yourself in this industry, The NFDA aims to give dealers a voice at the manufacturers’ tables you can only admire them.”

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