UNUSUALLY AMONG TOP automotive retail bosses, Vertu Motors CEO Robert Forrester has never personally sold a car. Instead of paying his dues on forecourts, his path to the top began with a career in chartered accountancy with Arthur Andersen, which earned him a role as finance director of a private property company. Car retailing only came on his agenda after a huge – indeed, near-death – twist of fate.

“I was living in Manchester and went on a blind date with a doctor from Newcastle,” he recalls. “We got on and went out for about six months. One day I was at home and became really unwell. She rang in the morning to ask after me. We had a chat; she said it sounded like flu and suggested I rest.

“Off I went to bed. She was kind enough to call that evening. As she asked a few questions, I took my socks off and noticed my feet were going black. Suddenly the conversation got a bit more urgent. Over the phone, she diagnosed me with meningococcal septicemia and told me to get to intensive care as quickly as I could.

“She was right; if I’d gone to bed that night I’d never have woken up. I was hours from death. So while I was recovering, I made a few decisions. I wanted to work in a big public company again, I wanted to be based in the North-East and I wanted to marry the doctor. I picked up a copy of the Financial Times and saw there was a job for a finance director at Reg Vardy, based in Sunderland. That was 2001; the rest is history.”

Forrester was appointed managing director of Reg Vardy in 2005 and led the company until its sale to Pendragon in 2006. Later that year he led the founding team of Vertu and has overseen a period of sustained success as the firm has grown in the past decade.

Among colleagues, he’s well known for having a grasp of the whole business, his work ethic and being straighttalking. He keeps his lines of management short, works well with his trusted lieutenants and praises success and helps resolve issues with equal gusto.

Forrester’s outlook on the new and used car markets is delivered with the clarity of someone with a hectic schedule. He’s happy to talk about issues – Brexit, diesel, PCPs, consumer confidence, electrification and online sales – but believes there’s a bigger factor at play than any of those.

““The determiner has really been the swing in exchange rates, which makes it more or less profitable to sell cars in the UK according to which way it goes,” he says. “The recent downturn has meant there has been less supply. It has nothing to do with customers not buying cars; it’s that the cars aren’t there at a tempting price, because they can be sold more profitably elsewhere. To date, all the talk about Brexit and consumer confidence has been a smokescreen.

“The demonisation of diesel has been unhelpful. There was a level of timidity in the industry’s response initially. Nobody wanted to put their heads above the parapet. As an industry, we lost the first battle and have been fighting a rearguard action ever since. But be careful how you read the numbers: diesels are doing very well on the used car market. A lot of new car buyers are trading them in, so there’s good supply and a lot of people are still buying diesels.

PCPs? Well, Ford was doing them 20 years ago. They aren’t a revolution in the way some will have you believe. “As for electrification, there are outliers, but it won’t be mass-market until at least 2025. Sales will grow, and yes, retailers need to do a better job of selling EVs and answering consumers’ questions, but we have some ideas on that.

Online sales will come, as will direct manufacturer sales. We already have some ideas on both, but it’s certain that manufacturers will still need physical property in key locations – and I suspect we retailers will deliver that.”

Read the full interview & download the latest What Car? insight online: https://cached.offlinehbpl.hbpl.co.uk/misc/RCW/MotoringFactFileResearch/Insight%20May%202018.pdf