All change for Honda outlets as Marshall takes over

When news broke that Jardine Group was exiting, the Honda brand employees at the centres in the Berkshire towns of Reading and Newbury feared for their future.

But while two of the four outlets were closed, in September the Reading and Newbury centres were sold and staff now find themselves part of Marshall Group, ranked seventh in the Motor Trader top 200, just ahead of Jardine.

The general manager of the Newbury and Reading businesses is Mark Crook, who has worked for 20 years in the motor industry. He was formerly a regional manager for Jardine’s Honda centres. Like his colleagues he has been acclimatising to new ways of doing things and he likes what he sees.

How have you settled in with Marshall?

Marshall has six other Honda businesses in its portfolio and in the short time we’ve been in the group they have been a massive help to myself and my colleagues, helping us adapt to and take on board Marshall systems. And not only the Honda outlets, other Marshall franchises in this area have also massively helped us. The group has really effective internal systems that make mine and my managers’ jobs incredibly easy. A system called Phoenix provides us with all the information we need to run our business on a single platform.

The impact has been huge and positive. The group is very strong on in-house training. All my sales managers will attend what’s called the orientation course that provides fascinating detail into the Marshall way. I’ve been fortunate enough already to attend a manager’s course, which gave me a great insight into the business.

And what is the Marshall way?

The values of Marshall are right up with the best. We do things right, with integrity. Most companies now treat their customers fairly, but Marshall goes that extra step. It’s clear that customer needs are
at the very forefront of everything.

What’s the communication chain like?

I’m in Newbury twice a week and Reading three times a week. I consider it very important to talk to everybody, managing by walking about and engaging with colleagues at all levels. There are also formatted communications from Marshall, newsletters and regular emails.

I organise quarterly team briefs, which are really important as they provide colleagues with 45 minutes away from their work and give them the opportunity to find out more about the business, our performance, customer and staff feedback. This is massively important. We also take on the social side, from organised events such as Christmas parties to simply having a curry night on a Friday.

Our working groups are very important. These are diverse gatherings of employees from each department who get together each month with neither no line manager involvement. We just buy the pizza.

These groups discuss where the business should be, improvements they’d like to see and all that gets fed back to me. Employees have lots of voices but if management don’t want to hear them, or don’t make a decision when they do, that becomes a frustration. Colleagues come to me with a wish-list, sometimes I have to reply with a straight no, sometimes I agree to look at the point raised, and sometimes it’s a yes.

How are you finding recruitment?

We are fortunate to have very good staff retention and we work hard at keeping our colleagues motivated and engaged.

We are recruiting for an additional sales executive and it can be very difficult, but recruitment is about seizing an opportunity. If someone approaches us, by whatever means, it’s important to use the recruitment process properly by calling them back, interviewing them and being transparent.

We do look outside the industry. We’ve just recruited a sales executive, non motor, and another recent recruit was previously a chef. What they’ve done in the past doesn’t matter, their personality will determine whether they will be a successful sales executive or service advisor. We sell cars, hours and parts but we are actually selling an experience. That’s where Marshall, and of course ourselves, try to focus our efforts.

What’s your biggest challenge today?

I believe the industry is at a tipping point, and it is difficult for manufacturers to stand out. We are not sure where it’s going to go. The equipment you now get on a car is pretty much at the top level and there is not much more that will distinguish one manufacturer from another in terms of specification. What will distinguish them is the move to electric, hybrids and such. That is the next big step and with Honda we are in a good position.

How do you target new customers?

We are fortunate that Honda customers tend to be quite loyal, as are most customers of Japanese brands. Today our marketing involves pay-by-click, Facebook and other social media, but also direct mail.

Marshall has a new marketing manager and we have been focusing on our digital routes to market, with a more targeted approach in postcodes with
the greatest opportunity.

We don’t agree with a scattergun, blanket approach, but in targeting areas where you want to increase the penetration of particular cars. It’s a fine art but if you get it right the cost involved is minimal.

In challenging times for new car sales how important does used become?

Used is where you make your money, but we need to satisfy the brand and the new car business must sustain the used car business. With used we have found we can’t just sell Hondas. Non-franchised used is a big focus for us, but is a challenge in itself – for example we try not to stock cars from a franchise next door to us.

If you can get in a good part-exchange or non-franchise used car and then sell it you can still provide that customer with the Marshall experience. A customer who buys a used car from us and enjoys the experience is more likely to end up buying a new car from us.

Aftersales is even more important to profit – do you target older cars?

Honda has a suite of marketing tools, again employing social media and direct mail, and we have a host of service plans and warranties that help to retain the customer. If a customer buying a car does not also buy a service plan we will re-market them, and those who come in for a service without a service plan are also targeted.

We do make an effort to bring in owners with post three-year and post five-year cars. We have a marketing strategy for them and Honda is very focused on marketing to those coming out of
five-year plans.

It’s been all change in 2019. What’s in store for next year?

So far it’s been really good – the arrival of Marshall has made a real positive impact not just on the businesses but also on employees. I think our relationship with Honda has strengthened. We are very proud that Marshall Motor Group is the highest ranking automotive company in the Great Place to Work UK’s Best Workplaces Programme 2019, finishing in 11th place.

I’m really looking forward to next year – Honda has some really exciting models coming such as the e BEV and the Jazz Hybrid, while the CR-V hybrid is now launched and in good supply.

In a difficult market it’s great to have so much new product to market. The e BEV has certainly got many talking, notably among our rival brands in the group, and I think Honda is going to have a strong year in 2020.