The MD driving the future of car retailing

A massive ski-enthusiast and self-confessed “car fanatic", Nigel McMinn joined Lookers in 2013. Here, he talks to us about his background and role as Managing Director, his view of the business and his vision of the future. Read on for some things you didn't know about Nigel too…

According to Forbes magazine “Any company is only as successful as those it employs". That certainly seems to be true of Lookers and in particular the man who runs the Motor Division. Nigel McMinn is an outgoing, honest and forward thinking leader who has devoted much of his time to charity work.

Previously the Chairman of Prince's Trust NELG (North East Leadership Group), he has been instrumental in raising funds to support disadvantaged young people. Keen to develop the next generation of young entrepreneurs the Group helped over 4,000 candidates alone last year.

Combining his love of cars with his passion for digital, Nigel has “walked the talk" by reviewing the Nissan Leaf and posting his assessment online through YouTube. Could he be a candidate for the new Top Gear line up we wonder?

And this love of cars seems to be in the McMinn family DNA, as Nigel's Dad and 8 year old son Joseph both share his passion. Makes for interesting discussions around the dinner table no doubt.

Aiming to propel car retailing into the 21st century, this straight talking MD is a key component behind Lookers premium formula which includes 31 brands and 8000 cars across the country, leading customer service and cutting edge digital solutions.

He is keen to ensure the groups' showrooms are places customers want to visit and that Lookers staff are people customers can actually talk with. Second in a series of articles, we look at this automotive success story – and the man helping to drive it all.

Nigel's background

Nigel was born in Burnley and brought up in Lancashire, going to King Edwards school in Lytham St Annes near Blackpool. In 1987 he went to Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh to study Economics just as his family moved to Durham.

Nigel McMinn, Managing Director at Lookers

After graduating he also moved to the North East, living in Newcastle, where he met his wife, Elaine who is a dentist. Elaine and Nigel married in 1999 and now have an 8 year old son, Joseph.

You and Andy Bruce (Lookers CEO) work closely together and are often pictured at industry events and awards. Can you explain the difference between your respective roles?

We do spend an enormous amount of time together, in fact we joke that we spend more time with each other than we do with our wives! The fact is that the company is predominantly about motor dealerships. The Motor Division, which makes up 85% of the company's profits, is the bit I'm responsible for, and the Parts Division is very self-sufficient and is very different - it's quite a specialised industry.

So consequently it's quite natural that the CEO will spend 85% of his time or more in car dealerships. The truth is there is an element of us doing the job together as a team and splitting the role between us.

Did Andy hire you?

Yes, this industry is like a village. You go to meetings with the different franchises and people from the different dealer groups get to know each other really well. You take part in meetings, you ask questions and you get to know how each other operates; and as you have noticed there is always time for the social events, where inevitably you compare notes on work.

So Andy just tapped me on the shoulder at one of those meetings and said “we need to have a chat" - and that's how it came about. I've known him for nearly 20 years. He obviously thought we would work well together and, as ever, he was right!

You come from a finance background. How does this understanding of markets and currencies contribute to your role as MD?

It's becoming more common for people from different backgrounds to do this sort of job. It used to be that you only came from a sales route. As the business has become more complex at all levels, we need people who can hold a lot of information in their heads; it's not just about selling cars anymore.

It's about managing a lot of different aspects - we are much more concerned about customer experience, staff engagement, digital sales and marketing for example. So the range of skills is a lot wider. Knowing about profit metrics, the balance sheet and cashflow are still vital in running any business. So I suppose my background helps in that respect, but ultimately it's about managing people and relationships.

You mentioned recently that you are still learning about the City – can you tell us about your impressions?

It's a world which a lot of people think is still filled with mystique. It took me quite a long time just to understand the basics - what does a broker do, and how does that differ from what an analyst does, and how does that differ from someone who is a fund manager, what is the difference between a fund manager and a hedge fund manager etc?

There lots of terms that people in the city use, that in truth I just didn't understand. Now that I have met them all I understand their roles a lot better. They are very clever people who are always on the ball, and there are a lot of written and unwritten “rules" to learn!

Are there any lessons for us all in terms of learning?

Yes, anyone who thinks they know it all is likely to fail I think. There is just a huge amount to learn in business. I've always been of the belief that if you make an effort to understand somebody else's world it makes it easier to communicate with them. It's just good to be curious by nature!
Please tell us about a typical working day for you?

There is no such thing as a normal day for me. It usually involves a lot of travel and a lot of meetings with colleagues, manufacturers, suppliers and even competitors.

Andy Bruce sometimes says that if you put a tracker on us and watch it zip around the country in a week they would say 'no that can't be right. Something has gone wrong with the tracker!'.

How would you describe your style of leadership?

I try to be approachable, relaxed and informal, supportive and positive. I think a lot of people think leadership is about speaking, but it's more about listening.

I like it when people do good things and I'm able to recognise it. If I had to pick a word I would say my leadership style is probably based around values.

You have written recently about profit re-investment – where do you see the next priorities? Is there a roadmap of planned activity for instance?

We have a capital budget for property investment going right the way through to 2017. We are running out of space, particularly in our Jaguar Land Rover dealerships; we need more ramp space, and much more used car space.

The sites we have were never built to deal with the volume so we are seeing, for example, Jaguar breaking away from Land Rover and relocation of some dealerships to much bigger sites to cope. At the end of three years the vast majority of our dealerships will be state-of-the-art with plenty of capacity.

How do you keep on top of the car industry? What publications do you read for instance?

I try my best to read Automotive Management, Auto Retailer, Automotive Network, Car Dealer. The vast majority though is from general newspapers, manufactures news, and general communications.

Masters of the Universe was a theme at the recent GM conference. Tell us about what inspired that and where you were going with it?

We deliberately allowed people to wonder what it was about. We waited until the day itself to explain what it meant. It actually comes from a quote that was made by Sir Stuart Rose the ex-Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer. He said that when he was growing up he was taught 'the customer is king'.

Now in all industries because customers have so much information to them at their fingertips on the internet it's no longer about saying the customer is king, now they are the master of the universe. That means we need to design every aspect of our business to please them.

What makes Lookers different from the competition?

The big difference with Lookers I think is we don't try and centralise everything, we don't have a big all dominant head office that has everything controlled from Manchester. We try and build individual businesses within the umbrella of Lookers.

How do you see technology – and digital in particular - changing the sector?

It already is changing it massively. The first place it affects is of course the website. If you don't have a really brilliant website you won't see the customer in the first place. That's becoming true for sales as well as aftersales. Our web presence has been boosted recently with the introduction of our new site – V10.

Customers want to know that when they have done a lot of research on the internet, and they come into the branch that the people here know a bit about them so they don't have to start from scratch.

Some of the cleverer things that are already seeing in dealerships is using iPads in customer facing roles, instead of computers, virtual reality and augmented reality goggles are in Audi and Land Rover and in a lot of the Volkswagen dealerships we can now beam up the configuration of the car onto a big screen for the customer to watch.

Before we let Nigel go we wanted to ask him some quick fire questions:

1. Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

My dad, he is just great fun and a good guy to be around, he is absolutely my biggest inspiration.

2. What was the first car you ever owned?

It was a Polo CL in maroon. My friends used to call it the vicars wife's car!

3. What car do you drive just now?

I drive a Range Rover Sport.

4. What was the first single you ever bought?

In the playground aged 9 for 45p, and it was Status Quo, 'Rocking All Over the World'

5. If you could drop everything and leave on a whim, where would you go?

I would go and buy whatever I could in the Alps and I would ski myself daft every day until there was no snow left, then I would go and find a glacier and ski down that, and when it was completely hopeless I might just get the bike out and start cycling!

6. Do you have a favourite gadget?

UE Boom portable speaker.

7.Any pet peeves?

I hate bad driving, it really winds me up when people undertake on the inside. The other one is people talking loudly on mobile phones, particularly on trains.

People tend to share far too much - I don't want to know what you're having for dinner tonight!

8. Favourite: Movie/Book/Food

Movie: All of the Godfather movies and James Bond.

Book: Malcolm Gladwell - David & Goliath.

Food: Something spicy - Thai or Indian.

9. Tell us something not many people know about you

I've had four hernias; I once got two done for the price of one!

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