Interview – Tom Hartley, Luxury, performance and classic car dealer

The ups and downs of a man who loves making deals

Supercar dealer Tom Hartley operates at such a rarified end of the car market that you wouldn’t normally find him gracing these pages. But such is his reputation – some might even say notoriety – for wheeling and dealing with high-end new and used cars today, and for importing cars from Europe for sale in the UK in his early days, that his tale makes a compelling diversion from the norm in the difficult days of coronavirus lockdown.

The interview coincides with the launch of his new book, ‘The Dealmaker’, which tells his life story and is available to order now.

Your showroom is famously on the estate where you live. Are you still able to sell cars during the lockdown?

“For me, nothing has really changed. Yes, there’s been a downturn in the number of enquiries; that’s what a global pandemic does to business. But is it the biggest downturn ever? I’m an optimist; every down has an up. I’m still selling cars.

“Sure, there will be some losses, but there will also be opportunities. The truth is the economy was out of hand anyway at the top end, in terms of pricing of luxuries, property and so on, so we were due a wake-up call. Yes, I have a lot of stock to worry about, but it’s down to me to keep selling, and then buy at the right prices going forwards and fill in the gaps. I’m fortunate, in that I have a good reputation and solid foundations.”

You’ve dealt with a few setbacks over the years, from having your business wiped out by legal changes on car imports to previous recessions, haven’t you?

“Yes, I think it’s four recessions in total prior to now. I approach this from a position of being happy with my position, in terms of cash reserves and general wellbeing.

“So far, prices haven’t fallen, but if they do then, like all salesmen, I know I’ll have to turn my stock and make back what I lose on future deals. That’s business.

“I’m not panicking; there’s no sign yet of any cars that were worth £1 million in March only being worth £500,000 now. And maybe – just maybe – with the factory closures delaying deliveries, I might pick up some sales from people who don’t want to wait for their next car, in which case values for nearly new vehicles could benefit.”

‘I hate taking holidays – but when I do, I end up selling cars to half the other guests in the hotel’

You agree the market will drop, though. How bad will it get?

“There won’t be anything catastrophic – at least, not for us. There’s little in the car market that comes on for more than £500,000 that we haven’t had a look at, and my view is that prices might swing 20% across the next six months at that end.

“For us, we just have to take the view that it is what it is. An entrepreneur gets on with it or gives up – and I don’t give up. We can be flexible on pricing to match the market level, and we’ve enjoyed enough great times to ride it out.”

Lots of people buy and sell supercars. Why are you the best known?

“I pay the best prices, I don’t get greedy on profits, I only buy and sell quality cars, and I stand by what I sell – so, unlike many, I’ve built a reputation that buyers and sellers trust.

“That’s why all the cars that come up for sale have usually been offered my way. I like to say that if you’re in the market for any car over £100,000 we have it in stock, the only reason you won’t buy it from us is if you don’t like the colour.

“In addition to all that, I make quick decisions. I like talking – love it. I’ll admit I’m not a reader – I’m dyslexic – so I usually get my assistants to read me emails or letters. But only the first three or four paragraphs; after that, my mind has moved on.

“So that means all my decisions are made quickly. If something gets my attention, I act on it. If it doesn’t, I move on to the next thing.”

What kind of car gets your attention?

“One I can make money on. Anything from around £100,000 to £10 million is in my ballpark – although I’ve got a BMW i8 in at the moment for less than that, and I’m discussing an interesting deal on a Ferrari 250 GTO SWB off the other end of the spectrum.

“The only thing that puts me off a car is if someone else is telling me how good it is, but I can’t see it. I’m like that with everything, though. If I try a jacket on in a shop and the salesman tells me it suits me, I won’t buy it. I like to be the judge of what is and isn’t right for me.”

You like cars. Don’t you feel it’s wrong for someone high up on a waiting list to sell a new car at more than list price just to make money?

“No. I created the market for paying more than list price for desirable cars, and any manufacturer that tells you they don’t like it is lying. Knowing that a car is going to be an investment creates huge demand for it, and I can tell you now that many manufacturers ring me up and ask my opinion before they create these cars, just to get a feel for it.

“The problem is that too many manufacturers have got greedy. They have launched too many limited-edition specials and there just aren’t enough buyers out there willing to buy these cars just as cars. They are investments.”

How do you find enough millionaires to sell to?

“I have a good black book, I’m very visible on social media and the Tom Hartley brand is very well known now. People know to watch what we have in stock, or to come to me if they have something in mind.

“A lot of buyers are collectors or enthusiasts. They will buy and sell through me, and keep coming back because they know I can be trusted. There are cars I’ve bought and sold four times or more, so often I deal with the same people time after time. In fact, I’ve sold cars to three generations of one family. You don’t spend 47 years in this business successfully without treating people right.”

Do you drive all of the cars you buy?

“Not personally. My daily driver is a diesel Volkswagen Golf. The company car is a Land Rover Discovery with a car transporter on it. I don’t actually own a car; they are the ones I drive for business.

“Another one of my favourite sayings is that there are no photos on a bank statement. I can’t get attached to a car, no matter its value or heritage. I’m in love with making deals, not cars. The only thing I love more is my wife, my children and my wider family.”

Do you ever reflect on your journey, making a fortune, losing it and building it again?

“Normally, I just look forwards and think about the next deal – to the extent that I hate taking holidays, because they interrupt my work. And when I do go on holiday, I end up selling cars to half the other guests in the hotel.

“But at times like this, of course I look back a bit. I’ve had my problems over the years. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve had to pick myself up again. The book chronicles all of it, and I hope that what readers will take away from it is that they are real, honest stories.

“I am who I am – and if people don’t like me then too bad. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I know quite a few people like to hear what I say. And if you don’t, then there’s no need to deal with me.”

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