You might think a pasty and a Peugeot have nothing in common. But then, retracing four decades with Philip Hardie, you start to feel that taking charge of a family business for him was a bit like it was for Ian Gregg at Greggs too.
Ian after university never intended to take over his parents’ Gosforth bakery, now the UK’s biggest specialist retail bakery chain. Law was his goal. His father’s sudden death, however, catapulted him to the head of the business.
Philip did intend joining his father after studying mechanical engineering at Imperial College in London - and did start work at the Richard Hardie garage at 21. But he too never expected he’d be shouldered with responsibility for the company three years later.
His father, a butcher in Chester le Street, decided to start a taxi and coach sideline in the early 1950s. By the early ‘60s this had become a total business. When the coaches proved a better prospect he abandoned taxis. He bought a cinema building at Newfield village, two miles from Chester le Street, converting it to a bus depot and car showroom.
Works contracts powered the bus business. Wimpey was a big client, bussing workers from many parts of the region to and from Teesside construction sites. “He had one or two dabbles at selling cars too, but not very successfully,” Philip recalls.
So while he was still in London, Richard suggested that if he joined the business in due course car selling could be intensified, and he’d concentrate on coaches. Now Philip has always loved cars, developed a passion for Porsches and, towards the late 1970s, bought one.
He’s had 12 in all – “but not all at the same time,” he laughs, “and not even two at any one time!” His father went from sole trader to limited company on 1 July 1972, hence the 40 year anniversary marked now. In June 1973 Philip joined his father and sold cars. Then setback: In 1976 Richard had a serious heart attack. He lived eight years longer but with much less involvement in the firm. Philip met the challenge.
“I was 24, fiercely ambitious then, so I was quite comfortable having to take over. “I don’t think I had a master plan. After my father’s attack we sold the buses – not as a business. We simply sold the assets. We’d been selling Datsuns for about a year very successfully, and most of my time was spent managing that through our one dealership.”
Over the years Philip’s philosophy has been: “Stick to your own principles and don’t let anyone influence you.” He admits having made mistakes, but what business owner hasn’t in a 36 year reign? And success prevails. Stocking Datsuns early on was clever.
“New cars weren’t readily available then,” he explains. “For a Ford, an Austin or a Morris people had to put their name down and await delivery. And every extra on many cars cost more. But imports were growing, and Datsun was a more successful brand because its cars were readily available and offered customers extras as part of the package.”
Did becoming a boss at 24 require a steep learning curve? “I think business generally was very amateurish then compared with now. So it was much easier than it would have been presently.
"If I did need advice my father was still around.” Now the Richard Hardie company, besides servicing, repairing and stocking parts, has been an official Peugeot dealer for 25 years, and an official dealer in Fiat for three and a half.
Between York and Edinburgh, it’s sole dealer also for the Abarth car, a glamorous member of the Fiat clan. Abarth emerged amid the Italian motor industry’s post-war recovery in 1949. Built by the Austrian-Italian designer Carlo Abarth in Turin, it was originally a racing car.
In the 1960s Abarths excelled in hillclimbing and sports car racing, mainly in classes from 850cc up to 2,000cc, competing with the Porsche 904 and Ferrari Dino. Fiat bought the business in 1971 and by the 1990s and early 2000s Abarth was almost forgotten. But in 2007 Fiat Automobiles relaunched the brand. Its striking logo, a scorpion on a red and yellow background, is on our roads and, says Philip: “The 500 model is very popular here. “It appeals particularly to enthusiasts.”
Its popularity is understandable. Besides relishing town work, it has a sporty interior and, despite its compactness, packs a 1.4-litre, 16-valve engine. Emissions register 155g/km, and fuel consumption is attractive. It helps make Richard Hardie a North East Top 200 company, employing around 100 people at four centres - Sunderland, Ashington, North Tyneside and Durham (relocated from Chester le Street last year).
The company’s latest annual turnover, £37.1m (+£0.3m) and profit £3,161 (-£30,000 approximately), indicate the sector’s volatility still. But there’s improvement over all, the more creditable also since Peugeots and Fiats tend to rely heavily on private rather than company buys.
Hardie’s advertising themes over the years indicate how it has built market appeal: cut prices, immediate delivery, competitive hire rates, driveaway deals, free insurance, low cost finance, cash rebate and a promise of fairness... All have contributed at various times.
Two major factors have raised the bar now as dealers fight to retain momentum. Scrappage (the temporary Government scheme that discounted £2,000 off new cars to motorists scrapping old ones), was “absolutely tremendous for us,” says Philip.
Once ended, however, it left dealers with a set of sales figures challenging to match in the return to normal. Now the steady rise in sales VAT is nothing short of adversity.
Philip recounts: “For the first full year of the recession, or downturn, we had 15% VAT in 2009 and that, with scrappage, worked well for us. Then VAT rose at the end of 2009 to 17.5% and in 2010 to 20%. I suppose it’s having the same impact on all goods and services, being across the board, but it still must be faced up to.” Yet Philip is confident Fiat and Peugeot will sustain his firm’s success. “The strong retail market evident in the North East represents very good propositions in what you get for your money,” he says.
“They’re the kind of cars people buy for themselves.” All dealers and manufacturers, though, must speculate about the future market, given the impending entry and long-term development of electric cars vis a vis hybrids, cars that combine two or more power sources, usually petrol and electricity, and pollute less than vehicles wholly petrol driven.
Philip says: “I’m not convinced electric vehicles will have a very big impact in the near future. Hybrids will form a big part of the future, and in environmental issues as well. “So many issues surround out and out electric cars. It will be a long time, if ever, before they make a major impact. It’s not only the range of distance without recharging that detracts, but durability of the batteries too – how many years they’ll last. And they’re a major part of the vehicle’s cost.”
Peugeot does produce an electrical vehicle now being sold by selected dealers. But as Philip points out: “They also do hybrids – the world’s first mass-produced diesel electric hybrid, the 3008, in fact.
“They also brought out the 508 RXH, which is a very highly specified 508SW, and soon there’ll be a 508 hybrid. Again diesel, and below 100gm emissions.
“These are expected to impact greatly on the business user market. I expect we’ll stock that and do well. We’ll have it certainly in the next quarter, then develop from there.”