Scottish Entrepreneur: Peter Vardy on employing 800 people, giving money away and hanging out in the pit lanes

Peter Vardy

Peter Vardy has just become a dad. The sleepless nights are a challenge for the chief executive of Peter Vardy Ltd, owner of seven car franchises across Scotland, but in some ways nothing’s really changed.

“If you’re running a family business you always have that sense of responsibility to the people you employ, so it’s not changed things as dramatically as I thought it might do.” he tells Scottish Entrepreneur.

Peter Vardy is in the company headquarters in Queenslie, Glasgow and has just spent an hour mentoring a young man looking to make his way in business. He is refreshingly self-effacing about the experience.

“It’s weird when someone asks your advice, it’s like ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about! Why are you asking me?’ It’s quite intimidating, I hope I’m saying the right thing! But I think if you can help other folks get on a bit and try and share stories to see if they’re of value to people, then you should,” he said.

He has more motor trade stories than your average 37 year old, having started operating petrol pumps at the age of 14. At 15 he moved into car sales and then spent the next 11 years working in every department, learning all he could from his father, Sir Peter Vardy, while working in the business his grandfather, Reg Vardy, established.

“I was very young and had a younger person’s approach,” he explained. “I thought if I was going to start a business, I might as well build it the way I’d like to build it. We had a project in the Reg Vardy days where we asked all the colleagues: If it were your business, would you run it like this? Hardly anyone said yes!

The motor trade hasn’t changed for years, so I took that understanding and knowledge and looked at the job roles and tried to rewrite how the business works.”

Rewriting a business in which both his father and grandfather had excelled is a tall order. Peter is very frank on the subject: he would never try to fill his father’s shoes – “my feet are too small” – but he profits hugely from his father’s influence and advice.

“I speak to my dad two or three times a day, we get on really well,” he said. “What he’s managed to do, in hindsight, was leave me to get on with it and make my own mistakes, when I’m sure he was thinking, ‘I wouldn’t do it that way.’ In my mind he’s the best at what we do. As a mentor he’s been phenomenal, I couldn’t have done what I have without his help.”

What he’s done is grow the company to ten dealerships across Scotland with another supermarket-style operation like the Glasgow CarStore due to open shortly in Dundee.

It wasn’t just his father’s influence which helped him shape the new business, though. A number of other factors played their part.

One was a weekend with the Jaguar F1 team, which made a huge impression on Peter and helped him make some decisions on the leadership style. He said he had “blagged” the experience as a marketing assistant and was surprised to be given the same green boiler suit as the rest of the team. He even ate with the team at lunchtime.

“Pedro de la Rossa and Murray Walker and the team principal all came and sat with me and talked to me,” he said. “I was the least important person in the team but I was made to feel the same as everybody else. I thought, ‘what a great example of leadership, where have all the hierarchies gone, and all the company politics have gone’. So we tried to create a team culture from the beginning and all wear the same thing.”

His faith as a Christian influenced the type of culture he wanted to shape at the company. All dealerships, except Jaguar and Land Rover, are closed on a Sunday to allow the staff to have family time and a tenth of the company’s profits is donated to charity.

He is reticent on the subject; it’s not something he likes to use for company promotion.

“There are things that go on across Scotland and the world that we just keep to ourselves,” he explained. “It’s been of even more value than I imagined because when you do things for the right reasons and for other people your colleagues can see that and think ‘actually, hang about, this is different, they’re not just doing it to sell more cars’. We have a phrase in the foundation that ‘every life is worthy’ and you need to try to treat people with respect.”

Having spoken to several members of Vardy’s staff off the record, I can confirm there are some generous projects going on, often anonymously – even the recipients don’t know who has donated the toys and equipment.

“I’ll tell you one example but I won’t tell you any more,” he relented, when pressed. “When a colleague starts in the business, it’s only a token gesture, but we give them £100. We ask who they’d like to donate it to and we send it off that day. That happens on the second day and then the third day they go and work with a charity. If we can start them with that mentality and put our money where our mouth is, it keeps going throughout their time at the company.”

With a turnover in excess of £200m, Peter Vardy says: “We’re not that far past the start-up stage.”

A company culture can be a nebulous thing, but for Peter it is simple and it’s based on respect. He admitted it’s not an easy ride, referring to the culture as “marmite – you either love it or you hate it”, but he is proud so many staff have progressed through the company into the big jobs.

“When you have a culture it doesn’t always go to plan because you can’t see everything all the time, but you have to have a passion to keep it going however you can and through your managers,” he said. Whatever we’re doing has to be within the values we stand for and I’m sorry, if you step out of line we’re quite ruthless. Anything else you make a mistake with, we’re quite relaxed, we’ll help you out, but with culture and values – you’re out.”

Recruitment is a big issue for most companies and with over 800 staff Peter Vardy Ltd. is no different. The three day induction is designed to ensure new staff are right from both their own and the company’s point of view – occasionally new recruits have been shown the door with a month’s wage in their pocket to help them while they find a new job.

I asked if the responsibility was hard to handle and he took a long time to answer.

“I’ve got used to it, I suppose, if I’m honest,” he eventually answered. “I love what I do. I get a lot of enjoyment out of being a salesman and working with a great team of people. I think the big thing is I’ve learned to keep playing to my strengths. I need to employ folks who are good at what I’m not good at.

If I can stay in my zone and they can stay in their zone, we can work together. It’s actually less pressure. It’s when you’re doing things you’re not good at over and over again and expecting a good result and you don’t get it, that adds significant pressure. I think by having a team of people with diverse skills and focusing on letting people do what they’re good at it, it’s kept the thing buoyant. Don’t get me wrong, there have been times where its not gone quite according to plan, but I’m comfortable with who I am at work and I believe in what I’m doing.”

As fate would have it, Peter met his now wife, Anna, just when he was starting the business, so she has seen it all. A keen hockey player and a professional make-up artist, Anna managed to fit her own commitments around her then boyfriend’s “chaos”, in his own words, in the early days and became an invaluable support for the young entrepreneur.

“I’m very fortunate that she’s very understanding and very wise,” he said. “She’s very switched on and it would have been very difficult to do what I did if Anna were any different in terms of support.”

They don’t often get time away from the business, but when they do Peter tries to switch off entirely.

“I haven’t actually stopped very much, there’s always something to be getting on with,” he admitted. “We’ve always been building something or growing the company or starting something. We’ve had good fun doing what we’re doing. It’s been difficult, there are some very good operators in Scotland so to try and compete with them starting from scratch has not been easy but I’ll reflect on it all at some point in the future. I’ve got goals until 2020 – so call me in four years time!”

Peter Vardy on: Expanding into a new city

Peter Vardy Porche in Aberdeen

Aberdeen was a natural place to want to go, dad was up there for 25 years so we have some history in the town and it was a great opportunity. I’d like to keep the company in Scotland if I can, because I like to drive round all the dealerships regularly.

When you have such a pull from the oil industry in terms of pay it is very difficult to compete with that. When you’re the new boys in town it’s quite difficult to assemble a team from starters when there are experienced traders in the town. It was quite tricky. The businesses are doing very well, it’s the biggest Land Rover dealership in Britain, it’s one of the biggest Porsche facilities in Britain and the Vauxhall business does more new car sales than anyone else in Britain so they are big big businesses.

Peter Vardy on: Online buying habits

We’re in a great position because we quite like adapting the business quarterly or monthly whereas other people would be terrified of it. 50% of people who buy a car from us will have enquired on the internet first. That is a significant number of people and its scary how many dealerships we’ve built and how much money we’ve spent on them.

Half of our customers are speaking to the product experts in our call centre first before they get put over to a branch – it shows you the shape of motor retailing is radically changing. How you invest, and what your returns look like, can be different over five years, so being small and nimble enough to adapt is a real advantage.

Peter Vardy on: The customer experience

We’ve rewritten a lot of the rules to make it better for the guests – and clearly to make it more profitable. We try to make sure our colleagues have the best facilities so that they are proud of coming to work – and we have very high quality standards. The guests see that and it creates an experience for everyone who visits the premises.

In our CarStore in Glasgow the front end is completely different and the guest gets a completely different experience when they come in. That’s all planned and process-driven and everyone’s job roles revolve around that – we have teams in first thing in the morning and teams in last thing at night to prep the cars and display so that if you drive past at 7 in the morning we already look open when everyone else looks closed. Simple things like that make it better for the guest.

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