It's little more than six paces from the reception desk to the (literally) ever open door of Vic Young's compact office, which indicates as well as anything the kind of boss he is. "I like to know everything that's going on at the front and back of the business," he says. "If a customer's unhappy or happy I'll hear it for myself. Whether our latest caller is a new customer or one whose loyalty we've valued over many years, I'll know they are there. And they - or anyone in the firm - can come straight in here with a query or problem." "He's so approachable," a staff member affirms of Vic (he's Vic to everyone) during a tour of the company's diverse operations on Newcastle Road, Tyne Dock. Some other bosses of motor dealerships prefer to appear masters of all they survey from above the customer area.
This may partly explain why, out of 2,500 businesses, Vic Young (South Shields) ltd was the North East's star performer in Motor Trader magazine's Industry Awards this year, getting onto shortlists of three for two of the national honours - dealer principal of the year and used car retailer of the year. No business anywhere had reached the last three in two categories before. Typically, it was an acquaintance, not the modest managing director, who put the firm's name up for consideration. The sight of financial documents spread across his desk like a paper-patchwork tablecloth is misleading.
While clearly aware of where every pound in a £16.5m turnover is going, and MBA qualified on that side of things, the name Vic Young on his calling card carries after it a string of other pointers to his technical talents and networking inclinations. Never lost for words, even long ones, he's written papers for both the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Marine Engineers. His approachability may also explain why, nearly three decades later, Japanese executives and their families who once relied on him for a happy entry to life abroad still keep in touch. They were the expatriates flown into Britain ahead of Nissan factory's opening at Sunderland in the 1980s. Once the manufacturer had chosen the North East over Ireland or Wales for a UK operation, a small coterie of business people in the region, including Vic and John Sanderson, managing director of STR Enterprises in Newcastle, were asked to work with university experts on settling in 85 of the Japanese families.
Sanderson had opened the George Washington Hotel (now a Mercure brand establishment) near Nissan's site. Vic had been a Nissan dealer since 1978, four years after launching his eponymous business, and had been found utterly reliable. "The Japanese families when they started househunting were bemused by the profusion of approaches from estate agents and solicitors, and also about how they might educate their children," Vic recalls. "We did all that with them and got a great relationship going. I also set up with them, through Durham University, Saturday classes at Washington Old Hall, where their children could receive Japanese education. "I also set up for the executives' wives classes in English as a second language through the university. One of my girls took the ladies shopping once a week to Hexham, Durham and all the local markets." Vic brought home to Japanese members of Nissan's management, in addition, the long tradition of links between the North East and Japan.
He prepared photographic prints and a script about all the ships and heavy guns built on the Tyne in the late 19th Century which had enabled Japan in 1905 to defeat the Russians in war. The pictures, fascinating to the newcomers, showed the then Emperor of Japan and Admiral Togo Heihachiro - "the Nelson of the East" - visiting Cragside, the Rothbury home of lord Armstrong, whose shipyard and works had provided the military might. Other pictures showed the last Japanese ship built on the Tyne, and Japanese sailors enjoying a football match at Newcastle United's St James's park. These ships, during their trials, had rested up at Jarrow Slake, which now serves as the export point for Nissan's Sunderland built cars. Vic also entertained the newcomers at Westoe Rugby Club, where he's been a supporter and backer for 30 years. These invitations included wives, which delighted them but puzzled the husbands. Some of the wives told Vic: "Before we married, our husbands took us everywhere. Now we're married they don't take us anywhere." Many husbands in Japan leave for work around 6.30am and may not get back until eight at night. "So the ladies had a great time here," Vic remembers. For many, radical readjustment was necessary on their eventual return to Japan.
Vic, feted in Japan several times since, keeps in touch with a number of families - and continues to sort out an occasional problem. On South Tyneside, besides selling and servicing Nissan and other vehicles, and managing fleets, Vic through his Northern Truck Bodies is Nissan's preferred supplier of bodywork, doing 99% of its conversions for customers around the UK. His is one of only eight firms in Western Europe with full Renault-Tec conversion approval. Tippers, box vans and people carriers - all can be transformed to meet customers' special needs.
During BQ's visit, a former mobile library van was being converted into a mobile cocktail bar for hire at garden parties and other outdoor events. Another vehicle nearby had been converted to serve hot meals. Also under conversion was one of many box vans that get chillers installed for delivery of frozen food. Vic and his workforce have also improved daily life for countless families with a disabled member, in this country. His firm equips taxis and other vehicles for Motability, giving not only easy wheelchair access, but also the ability to drive if needed through infra-red indicators, controlled simply by a move of the driver's hands. Handbrakes applied by pressing a button can be installed, as can throttle controls. Vic loves this specialisation because he loves technology. Also, he adds: "I started as a snotty nosed mechanic." As launchtime neared recently for initial production of Nissan's new Leaf electric car at Sunderland, Vic, working with Gateshead College, became a UK pioneer, training mechanics in safety isolation of electric vehicles.
With police, ambulance and fire and rescue services taking to the Leaf, safeguards are essential to prevent, for example, an accidental electrocution by 660 volts at a fire scene. Such foresight has enabled the college's auto skills centre to introduce courses teaching mechanics and service engineers how to safely maintain and repair electric vehicles generally. Thus is borne out Vic's reputation among his business peers for a propensity to research trends, spot growth markets and react quickly. Throughout the working day he'll bob about various work stations, only just resisting temptation to get hands-on. "We agree a course of action then all go off and do it,” he says. “It might not always be done the way I wanted. But as long as it's done I'm happy. I'd like to think I'm not an autocrat." The style appeals. Staff talk to him confidently.
Some of the 54 employees have spent more than half their lives working for him - many taking opportunities to train for further responsibilities along the way. He says: "On company planning we decide what's feasible and whether it can be afforded. Do we have to take a different direction and if so what? What do they have to do and what have I got to do? Is there anything I or the company am doing that prevents the progress? Department heads set the objectives this way. Sometimes you have to scale them back. Or they might need further training or experience to help get there. I think they get lots of job satisfaction, though. I don't think anyone comes here of a morning to do a bad job. I'm now selling to grandchildren of earlier buyers. I get great satisfaction that families, after nearly 40 years, still come back," Vic remarks.
He's customer hunting now for the Leaf. "It's a good car and Nissan's pinning big hopes on it," he says. "Infrastructure will be the acid test of its development - availability of charging points, and how quickly driveability of the battery can be increased. One wouldn't want to drive from here to London now, for example, stopping the car as often as you would for recharges. "They've extended the length before refuelling to about 150 or 160 miles. I think the next field of development will be the hydrogen fuel cell. I sometimes go to meetings where there are people in the same position as myself. You talk about this and it goes over their heads." The most satisfying aspect of reaching a distinctive height in the national awards? "It gives me pleasure in that it's what my staff are achieving for us. You're only as good as your staff let you be." That must be pretty good, because not once in a 50 minute interview were the words "recession" or "downturn" mentioned.
Wow, a set of keys too
Apprenticed once himself, Vic runs a three-year programme for young aspirants in his organisation. Born and raised in South Shields, and resident in the same family house there for 46 years now, Vic was also educated by the saints there - St Gregory’s and St Bede’s Schools, and St Wilfrids College. At 15 he was taken on as an apprentice mechanic by Streamline Garages, a once illustrious car firm which sank without trace after DC Cook bought it out.
Vic was there till he was 21 then later worked at Mill Garages for several years, managing group training and services. At 28 he set up for himself, initially repairing used cars to sell on. Then his company got into new cars, servicing, and fleet management. It presently has more than 1,500 vehicles out on contract to hirers ranging from sole traders to large plcs.
All the while Vic has self-developed too. Early City and Guilds exam success in mechanics was steadily followed by further qualifications allowing him to lecture part time at West Park and Gateshead College. Success in a post-graduate course of management studies gave him his all round grounding. But he insists his wife Alicia, who enjoyed a career in speech therapy after graduating with first class honours, is the brains of their marriage.
His support of charity and the third sector over more than two decades has been considerable, as managements of St Clare’s Hospice in Jarrow, Grace House children’s hospice in Sunderland and local care homes would affirm. Vehicles have been donated for raffles, and other help given ad hoc. Transport is also provided for patients’ use.
Vic is 67 now and says he has been told: “You’ve done well - why not retire?” He replies: “How can I? There are 54 families I have to think about.” They’re the families of his 54 employees. Besides, he already finds time to go cycling and to teach his grand-daughters to ski.
When Vic finally vacates the chair there seems little likelihood Vic Young (South Shields) Ltd will be annihilated as the company that weaned him was. While daughter Kathryn, 42, has followed her mother into speech therapy, son Alan, 44, is already in the business. “We’ll remain a family business,” Vic says. “And we’ve a good team round us.”
So good that loyal workers retiring have occasionally been staggered to find themselves given, with final farewells, the keys to a new car.