Keep it in the family

Keep it in the family

John Tordoff - head of Yorkshire’s biggest car dealership - has ideas of his own to take the company forward, as Peter Baber reports.

Let’s face it, last year was a difficult one. Difficult for all businesses in general. Difficult for retailers in particular, and most particularly difficult for big ticket retailers like car dealerships selling Bentleys and Maseratis in amongst the Peugeots and Vauxhalls. Difficult, in other words, for JCT600.

As its chief executive recounts: “In the darkest days of last year, we were having to write down our used car stock by £1m a month. It was outside forces that were making us have to do that, and if you didn’t do that you weren’t in the market. Being out of control was the biggest fear.” Fortunately, this particular chief executive is called John Tordoff. He happens to be son of Jack Tordoff, the man who, over a stretch of 44 years ending in 2002, built up what had been his father’s company to become, according to Motor Trader, the 12th biggest car dealership in the country and certainly the largest one that is still privately owned.

Jack it was who gave the company its name – JCT600 was his personalised Mercedes Benz number plate – and it was he who really lifted the company into the public imagination by winning the International Circuit of Ireland in 1973. What he doesn’t know about cars probably isn’t worth knowing.

So while Jack, now aged 74, has now taken on the role of chairman, his son John admits he was a useful presence to have around during the last year or so.

“It was nice having a wise old head around the place who had been there before,” he says. “If my father is around, he comes in every day. He arrives mid-morning, and is gone by lunchtime.

He reads the paper, has a chat to a few people. If you want his advice he will give you it.” Tordoff junior – if you can call a man aged 46 “junior” - is keen to make clear that there was never any danger last year that the company itself was going to go under.

“But being a family business, you pride yourself on the amount of control you have in the business,” he says, “and there was a fear developing at the end of last year that there were a lot of outside influences that were taking the control away.” So with John very much at the helm, with Jack providing advice from the back, they set about reorganising the group to cut costs.

“We made around 50 people redundant,” says John. “We initiated a huge cost-saving culture across the business, getting outside companies involved in helping us do that.

Every month during 2009, our cost base went down by more than £400,000.” As a result, he says, 2009 was brisk and the company steamed ahead, even managing to pull together an acquisition of two Audi dealerships in York and Hull in August, adding another brand to JCT600’s portfolio.

“We had absolutely no worries that we wouldn’t survive the recession,” says John. “We are an incredibly well-funded company.” And 2010 isn’t looking too bad, either. Even the end of the lower VAT rate doesn’t particularly bother him.

“If you put 2.5 per cent on the cost of car,” he says, “that 2.5 per cent will be made up somewhere else. Lowering the VAT rate didn’t create a huge impetus in people spending more money. If you want something, you’ll find the money.” It is of course, wonderful to have father and son agreeing on the course the company should take so readily.

But John Tordoff is frank in saying that, “the problem comes when he gives you his advice and you haven’t asked for it”. History is littered with examples of children who have taken over businesses their parents have built up, and then run them down after spectacularly falling out.

Clogs to clogs in three generations, the old adage goes. But this clearly hasn’t happened with JCT600, which is all the more surprising because John Tordoff insists that, unlike his father, he has no interest in cars.

Despite having a mobile phone ringtone which is the sound of Formula One cars racing, he says he is no petrol head. But we are sitting among desirable models in the company’s Porsche dealership in Leeds. And he does drive a Porsche Cayenne as a family car.

So what does he think when the latest model rolls in? “I look at it and think, ‘that’s fantastic’,” he says. “Would I drive it? Yes. Do I feel the urge to fill my garage at home with five of them? No.

I’m not one of these people who go around a motor show for hours on end drooling over cars. Cars are commodities.” In fact, he says, when he was growing up he had “no interest” in the garage business, and certainly never helped out on weekends. He did have an interest in business per se, however.

That was what tempted him to go into accountancy. When the call came for him in the late 1980s to join the family business, it seemed “the right thing to do”, but only because the company was then preparing for a flotation that in the end never came about, and newly appointed finance director Brian Crowther (who left the business last year) needed some help.

“We were a big dealership even then,” he says, “but it had become apparent pretty quickly that we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to be a big PLC.

So Brian was recruited to create management accounts that meant something rather than having them on the back of a fag packet. Like of lot of businesses in those days, you ran your business based on how large your bank overdraft was. So Brian and I created the infrastructure.” In the end the flotation idea was scrapped.

“Everybody woke up and thought: ‘Why are we doing this anyway?’” says John. He decided to stay on, however – not a surprising decision, you might think. But he was well aware that if he was going to make anything of the company, he would have to earn his stripes.

Not least because he was not the only younger Tordoff waiting in the wings. His older brother Ian also works for the company, as director of its trade operations.

“I did have to prove myself,” he says. “I earned the respect of everybody. I didn’t assume they would respect me because of what my surname was. I worked at gaining people’s respect by proving to people that I could do the job. I worked in the business as an accountant for a few years. I like to think I did that well.

Then we had a bit of a management shuffle, and I got my first general manager’s job.” In 2001, with Jack now past conventional retirement age, the business, says John, had reached a bit of a crossroads. “There were a few question marks about where we were going, and I was asked if I wanted to move to head office,” he says.

“I said I would do so, on condition that I could get on with running the business on my own.” On his own, yes, but with some characteristics of the old management style brought forward.

“The values of the business have remained the same,” he says. Apparently, these are “wanting to do the right things, rather than just doing things right”.

“It’s the way you treat people – staff, customers, relationships with manufacturers,” he says.

“We are a people business, and people make it either a fantastic success or a huge failure.” Nevertheless, there must be certain new ideas he has brought to the business as it moves forward? “I have brought more of a strategy to the group,” he says.

“We know where we are going and what we have to do to get there, whereas in the past we just ambled along – successfully, but we ambled.” One part of that strategy was the acquisition of the Audi dealerships this year. Audi is a marque Tordoff has had his eye on for some time.

“In recent years, Audi has done a good job to have the brand catch people’s imagination,” he says, “Historically, it has not been an aspirational car, but with models like the TT, the A3 and the A4, it’s now a car that a lot of people, particularly young people, would aspire to drive.” However, JCT600 wasn’t just going to go for any dealership: whichever one they eventually took over would have to fit within the company’s policy of above all remaining a north of England dealership.

“Even now, we are very regionally based,” says Tordoff. “Our northernmost dealership is in Newcastle, and our southernmost is in Chesterfield.

We are predominantly in West Yorkshire, and we didn’t want to move beyond that boundary. It gives us good control of the business. All our dealerships are within two hours of head office. I would rather be a good, well respected regional company than an average, poor national company.” Another change in strategy might include JCT600’s decision to be the main sponsor for two Leeds-based professionals – Alex Macdonald and Luke Grose – in their attempt to beat the world record for rowing across the Atlantic.

JCT600 has in the past sponsored Bradford’s football and rugby clubs – sometimes simultaneously. Tordoff believes it is important for a successful company to give something back to the community. But this was a new departure.

“Alex and Luke approached us in the darkest days of the recession, when the thought of sponsoring anything was a bit foolish,” he says. “We get hundreds of requests like that, and most go straight in the bin.

But there was something strangely captivating about this. What impressed me most was the fact that they said they were not just doing it to cross the Atlantic, but to break the world record.

They were our kind of people.” The crossing the two are doing - which may be completed by the time you read this - is the same one completed by James Cracknell and Ben Fogle for their TV series and is actually part of a race.

(It is perhaps a sign of our celebrity culture that you might have thought Cracknell and Fogle were on their own, but they weren’t. In fact, they didn’t even win their race).

The two Leeds boys were originally looking for standard sponsorship, but Tordoff decided to offer them more, gave them a PR budget to work with Harrogate-based Appeal PR, and out of that was born Team JCT600. Tordoff says it has been worth it.

“It has been worth ten times the amount of money we have invested in this,” he says, “just in terms of what it has done internally with our rowing challenges. More than 250 members of staff have got involved with rowing machines and staff events. Between them, they have raised over £10,000 for Macmillan. It has generated a really good camaraderie among the staff. You can’t put a price on that these days.”

And what about camaraderie among the family? He may have taken over successfully from his father Jack, but what ambitions does John have for his children? How is he going to avoid this idea of ‘clogs to clogs’? Tordoff is very clear on that.

“We are defying clogs to clogs because there is no pressure to join the business,” he says. “I only got to my position by proving I can do the job, and the same will go for the next generation. I would hate my children or Ian’s children to think that they have to do it, because that’s when you make a mess of things.” There may just be a succession in waiting, however.

“One of Ian’s three children has already joined the business,” he says. “My eldest son is studying mechanical engineering, but the one thing that has taught him is that he doesn’t want to be a mechanical engineer. He is thinking of going into accountancy, and doing his studying while he works for us. We are trying to launch a graduate programme, and he might end up being the guinea pig for that.” The attractions of perhaps one day running Yorkshire’s biggest car dealership are clearly hard to beat.