How did the automotive sector change in the 30 years you were in charge of Reg Vardy?
In the early days, there was a lot of owner-manager motor dealerships that were coming under increasing pressure from manufacturers to invest in their premises. A lot decided to sell instead, which is how Reg Vardy managed to grow so rapidly, from one to 100 dealerships. Other companies, such as Pendragon and Lookers, were doing the same, so there was consolidation that happened over that period. Now you have major motor groups owning most of the city centre volume and specialist manufacturers.
Is that a good thing?
It’s good for developing bigger companies but you do lose the individuality of dealerships. However, it’s the same in most sectors. Growth in the food and the clothing industries is also being delivered by the major companies, too.
Tell me about your business ethos. What impact did it have on the people who worked for Reg Vardy?
For me, business isn’t about making as much money as possible; it’s more than that. I wanted to create a company that gave something back and would be the best it could be. We focused on staff satisfaction first because if we had that, it meant we could deliver customer satisfaction. You can’t have customer satisfaction if your staff aren’t happy. By concentrating on these two things, then the profit and financial rewards will come.
I also believe that you should have a social conscience and it’s amazing what you can achieve if you make yourself available. The foundation has done some amazing things, such as building five schools. But I couldn’t have done the community work had Reg Vardy not been successful.
Your son, Peter, has followed you into the automotive industry – and shares your ethos of giving something back…
The motor business is in our DNA and my son’s first thoughts when we sold Reg Vardy were to build his own company. He is delivering outstanding results and his motor group is regularly in the top 100 companies to work for. He is also involved in community projects and donates ten per cent of his profits to charity.
How did your latest charitable project, Safe Families for Children, come about, and what do you hope to achieve through it?
After I sold Reg Vardy, I went to a young offenders’ institution and found that 60 per cent of inmates had been in care. I asked where they would go when they were released and was told they would probably come back, because they had no family, no home, no community and no job. One solution for this would be to build more prisons or more children’s homes, but I looked at it from a business perspective – that it’s better to deal with the cause.
So, I looked into how I could help strengthen families and help mothers so that their children didn’t end up in care. I visited a child psychologist in Chicago who has set up Safe Families for Children and helped more than 25,000 families, while keeping 93 per cent of the parents and children together.
The model is based on having an army of volunteers that will help mothers in three different ways: they will take children into their own home for short periods, they will act as mentors to mothers who have no one else to turn to, and they will give resources to people who have nothing – such as prams, clothes, toys, etc.
I decided to bring the concept back to the UK. We’ve raised 1000 volunteers in the North East and we’re expanding nationally. We’re currently working with 23 local authorities and the aim is to be working in every local authority in the UK within ten years and to reduce the amount of people who go into care by 25 to 35 per cent.