“Our customers want to see a car, try a car and have the time to make a good decision. Those bits can’t be shortcutted.”

What Car? has interviewed Eddie Hawthorne, chief executive of Arnold Clark, having initially trained as an auditor and chartered accountant before joining the firm in 1990 and taking on managing director duties in 1998.

Despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the firm recorded strong results, selling more than quarter of a million cars in 2020, and Hawthorne and his team have their eyes set on matching pre-covid sales this year. That resilience has earned Hawthorne an Autocar Outstanding UK Leader Award, announced today, and he has dedicated it to “every one of the incredibly hard-working team at Arnold Clark.”

Highlights:

How has business been since lockdown eased?

“We’ve seen incremental gains over what we were achieving online as lockdowns have eased. It’s really been quite busy, albeit with a little bit of a dip since people have started to go back into work and edge a tiny bit back towards normality.”

Which is stronger, new or used sales?

“Used has been strong throughout the pandemic, or at least since the first lockdown lifted. But this past March was very strong for new cars too, and it’s been okay since.

“The worry with new cars is stock availability as a result of the semiconductor shortage; it’s a challenge now, and it’s becoming more of a problem for us from some manufacturers. Some are okay, some aren’t and it’s something we’re watching because it’s hard to give a blanket answer on how long it will last – but we’re factoring it in for the rest of this year.

“It’s frustrating, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past 18 months it’s flexibility and adaptability and how critical it is to carry on, regardless of what comes your way.”

Casting your mind back, how did shutting up in March 2020 feel?

“Personally, I felt a big wave of failure because the business had never ever had to shut the doors before. But once you get past the fact that it’s not anything that’s within your control, you quickly move on. Then the issue was, “Right. Okay. How do we preserve our business? How do we protect the staff? How do we make sure that we’ve got a viable business to return to, to open up again?” That really was the challenge for all of us, and it kept us busy.”

What did you learn from re-opening that you hope will stay?

“The one thing that stands out for me is how we are now so much more efficient – and customers are conditioned to helping us be that way. Where, previously, a car might have been booked in for a ‘morning’ service with the expectation that it would be dropped off around 10am, customers are now happy to take a slot to the minute. That helps our efficiency no end and gives the customer a better experience because we can be more precise in knowing when the work will be finished.

“Likewise, we can handover more cars in a day; there’s more of a structure to proceedings, and that includes sending a walkaround video with the car before the customer arrives. Now, the need to socially distance drove that, but I suspect it’ll work well in future too, so people can see and understand their car prior to collecting it. Most people just want to sign the paperwork and get in the car – sending a video tour the day before means they can do just that.”

What won’t change?

“It’s a hard one to predict, but I do think that the transition to hybrid and electric is more dependent on being able to test drive, simply because people want to try it before they buy it.”

Are you looking to expand?

“If the right opportunities come up, yes. Arnold Clark is about more profit from more volume, and that comes as the end result of hard work, good customer experience, and really pushing the volume through, so we’ve actually geared our business up for a large increase in volume this year and next year.

“We sold about 330,000 cars in 2019, new and used. We sold just over a quarter of a million cars last year. So obviously that has made a wee bit of a dent in our turnover. We don’t think we will be that short of getting back to 330,000 cars this year and our aim is to get to 400,000 cars within the next two to three years. We’re definitely going to grow – the key is to do it in a way that is right for our business. There will be structured growth, including around click and collect and a few other ideas that we have.”

Looking back, what lessons have you learned?

“I was asked this the other day, and I joked that I would have retired in February 2020! It’s been a tough year, but I think the thing I can be proudest of is the way the team have all pulled together to get through it – actually, to the extent that I have the genuine problem of a lot of them having too much holiday to take!

“The pace we have adapted at has been remarkable. I’m proud of that, and proud of everyone. The challenges might keep coming, but we’ve proved that we are resilient and adaptable.”

View the full interview here