Interview – Tony Lewis, Managing Director, West Way

Interview - Tony Lewis

An Interview With The Managing Director of West Way

Today, Tony Lewis runs the West Way retail group, the UK’s largest chain of Nissan dealerships, but his experiences up to that point are many and varied, taking in more conventional roles with manufacturers and retailers through to less conventional ones, such as being a captain in the British Army and working night and day to keep the LDV Group running following a management buyout.

Since his appointment to the top job at West Way in 2016, the firm’s turnover has increased to £500 million per year, off the back of 20,000 new car and 10,000 used car sales. It now employs more than 600 staff as well as booking more servicing hours and selling more parts than ever before. Its outlets also vie for top spots in Nissan’s internal quality audits.

How did you get into the automotive industry?

“When I left university, I joined the army. I played with trucks, cars, vans, hovercraft, landing craft, aeroplanes – the usual stuff. I was a regular officer.

“From there, I joined Ford. It was 1987, and we were trained brilliantly across all sorts of jobs. Then I moved to LDV, where I was a director at 32. I became part of the management buyout team and ended up staying for 14 years. It was pretty tough; there were plenty of days when we wondered if we would turn the lights off and never come back. That’s where my involvement in retailing really started.

“After that, I joined Nissan, where I’m 11 years in. I joined as the commercial vehicle director and was following the traditional Nissan path with a variety of roles in exciting places. Then, in 2011, my son, a paratrooper, was killed in Afghanistan. I’m happy to talk about it and eager to promote forces’ charities as a result, but that obviously changed a lot of things, including my career.

“Nissan was exemplary and helped at every step, placing me as general manager for Infiniti in northern Europe, appointing new dealers. It was fascinating, because we were starting from next to nothing and we had the opportunity to work with great partners in great locations. Then I went back to Nissan Europe, looking after independent markets including Kazakhstan, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland and Iceland. I was heavily involved with their retail structures, and it was fascinating.”

Why did you change tack?

“Well, the travelling took its toll and I got a call from Jardine Motors to run its Volkswagen division. There, I loved seeing the business from yet another angle. At the time, the division was loss-making, and that was turned round very rapidly. But very quickly I got the call to be sales director back at Nissan. It was the job I always wanted, and it was clear that a further opportunity might open up at West Way. In I went, and we had a record year – not down to me, to be clear. There were so many things we pulled together to make it happen that it was quite inspiring.”

Can you give some examples?

“The beauty of coming in after a break from the company was that I could be a bit blunt and point out what I’d seen working better elsewhere. Simple stuff like product communications or early sight of offers and enhancements meant we could be flexible. In the past, we’d distribute a panicked target at the end of the month; by setting realistic, consistent targets at the start of a quarter, it’s amazing what you can do.

“It sounds so simple, but it’s not the norm. Once we got that right, the momentum just built and built, quarter by quarter. We kept our communications to retailers direct, regular and very transparent and had an open and honest relationship with them, starting with visiting groups of retail heads for a couple of hours regularly. It was far more effective to buy lunch than organise overblown day-long gatherings.”

‘By setting realistic, consistent targets, it’s amazing what you can do’

Would you say your military career has a strong influence?

“Yes, in short. I think Sandhurst was the greatest grounding for me and, in terms of management training, perhaps the best school in the world.

“I actually think the military world isn’t dissimilar to the automotive one in many ways. Look at the chain of command and the need for everyone to do their job perfectly – the fact that everybody from the valeter to the salesman to the management has to communicate and work perfectly or your customer satisfaction score and your chances of repeat business will fail. If one step in that chain goes wrong, we’ll lose money. That’s why I know everyone here and why we’ve got the best valeting team in the business.

“We also consciously recruit from the armed forces, because they recognise the benefits I’m trying to explain immediately and demonstrate those direct behaviours that I relish.”

When you got the top job at West Way, were you quite unusual in having retail and manufacturer experience?

“There are others, but not many. The key, to my mind, is having exposure to the retail side. You can’t just run a manufacturer and step across; you need to understand retail.

“Today, it’s hard but going well. We index ourselves against other Nissan dealers and we know where we’re at. Used cars are doing well, even against a backdrop of us doubling used sales in the past six years, while aftersales work has grown by 32% in four years, which gives us strength as new car sales struggle a bit. But even that gives us opportunities to sharpen up, working on our retention strategies with loyal customers and showing them the new products coming up.”

Do digital shifts change your requirements too?

“In some ways. If we wanted to sell online, we could do it now. The key for me is to do it in a compliant way that allows the customer to drop away from online and come and see us at any part of the process. If you could dip in and out of online to take the bits you want to do when you want to do them, I see how that could work.”

Do those changes alter working hours as well?

“It can do. The one thing we’ve learnt – because we’ve started flexible hours in the aftersale side of the business, right up to 24-hour shifts – is that you can’t apply one rule to each site. No way. Everybody is very different. My goal is to use what we have as much as possible, but that has to be realistic.”

How do staff feel about that?

“They see the upsides – and not because they’re forced to. Some hours may look unusual, but we rarely struggle to find someone who quite likes them, be it working late, finishing early or whatever else. Our retention levels are excellent and driven, I think, by our focus on high-quality training. Yes, some leave, but when they do, I typically shake their hand and wish them well; I know they’ll be among the best in their next jobs, and it’s a nice surprise how many come back to us once they’ve seen the world.”

What would you say the future holds for West Way?

“Change, and although we spend a lot of time planning for it, there’s no certainty on which way it will go. It doesn’t worry me, because I know what we and Nissan are doing to be ready, but there’s no question that some of the challenges are unprecedented. From my perspective, though, I just look to the opportunities that might be presented and remind my team of the importance of doing everything to the highest possible standard for the customers we have.”

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