Press Report : Moving on after the death of MG Rover…

Words: Richard Yarrow and Tim Rose, AM-online, 8 July 2011 Photograph: Mark Gibson/Slant 4 Marketing

Six years on from the disaster of the collapse of the MG Rover Group its Directors, the Phoenix Four group have voluntarily agreed not to serve as company directors for up to six years.

The disqualifications were announced by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) after an extensive and complex enquiry but, while the news from BIS is likely to be the final chapter in the saga of the doomed Birmingham carmaker, what of the people involved?

Well, as for the Phoenix Four – John Towers, Nick Stephenson, Peter Beale and John Edwards – their spokesman said they had done nothing wrong. He said they had voluntarily agreed to the ban.

‘As they have no intention of holding company office in the UK, they have agreed to a voluntary compromise, while emphatically not accepting any allegations or suggestions of wrong-doing,’ the spokesman said.

‘They point out that they have done nothing which justifies disqualification. All of the many inquiries into the collapse of MG Rover have achieved little other than a series of massive bills.’

Birmingham MP Richard Burden said: ‘One thing they could do… would be to make good on the promise they made to put money into the trust fund set up for former employees. They could put some of their personal fortunes into the trust.’

However, what of those who found themselves embroiled in the crisis? What did they learn personally and for their businesses?

Here, some of those in the front line tell their story.

There was too little money at the beginning

Name: Richard Roberts

MG Rover dealerships in Ottershaw and Weybridge, Surrey, and a member of the MG Rover Dealer Board

What went wrong with the MG Rover strategy?

The problem stemmed back to the beginning of Phoenix Venture Holdings in 2000 and was down to the amount of money the four men had at their disposal.

It was far from adequate to see the project they took on to conclusion.

We had meetings with each of them at different times and it didn’t seem they were all pulling in the same direction. Some of the projects they took on, for example, the entry to Le Mans, were too ambitious.

They invited all the Dealers to the race, where they had a hospitality facility that dwarfed the Bentley one next door by some margin!

What I remember most from the actual day the news broke was that I was in Australia and my first reaction was: how soon can I get a flight back!

At the time, what financial, operational and emotional impact did it have on you, your business and staff?

The issue was we had 65 people uncertain over their future employment. The key task I had to was come in every morning smiling, however I felt, to try to reassure them things would be fine.

We had suffered for a number of years during the decline of MG Rover, then at the collapse we held 110 new and 120 used cars in stock and lost an awful lot of money selling our way out of them.

What impact did it have on customers?

It hurt that on the MG Rover Franchise Board we had argued on behalf of our customers over the entire period of Phoenix’s ownership that they should put in place an externally funded warranty to ensure that if ever MG Rover went into liquidation, our customers would be protected.

During all the conversations, we were told that this wasn’t affordable. Interestingly, Phoenixcould afford to put £13 million into its pension scheme to protect itself. We have some customers who have wanted to stay in their MG or Rover car, and have done our best to continue to support them. To this day we still service and sell them.

Has it made you stronger as an individual and as a business?

Looking back it was a very painful experience, but I believe it was probably one of the best things that could have happened to our business.

The reason we had stayed with MG Rover may well have come down to a ‘too strong’ sense of loyalty to a brand we had represented for over 40 years.

Now it means we have two very strong Honda dealerships in a great territory for a brand which is very strong, producing cars that are getting more exciting by the day while being phenomenally reliable.

Do you think another brand could ever go bust in such as massive way again?

History can repeat itself as the market is still in position of over-supply. I am amazed Saab is still hanging on in there. It’s just a case of when and who.

Dealer believes Phoenix Four have had ‘unfair battering’

Name: Richard Cort

MG Rover dealerships in Oldham, Rossendale, Bury and North Manchester, and Chairman of the MG Rover Dealer Board in 2005.

What do you remember most of the collapse of MG Rover?

I remember how badly the Government treated MG Rover. Tony Blair and Patricia Hewitt have blood on their hands.

They purported to care when they were only interested in the upcoming General Election. They led the country to believe they were advancing money to PricewaterhouseCooper to keep MG Rover going. They advanced £6.5 million and got £5m of it back.

What went wrong with the strategy?

People talk about the Phoenix Four but there was a fifth man, Kevin Howe, who was appointed Chief Executive because he had been production chief at Rover.

He didn’t understand sales and used to get very irate with his sales people and the dealers when they weren’t shifting enough cars.

He was a nice chap, but he had too much power and was left too much to his own devices. Communication between MG Rover and the Dealers wasn’t as good as it could have been.

There was lots of talk of ‘jam tomorrow’ and tomorrow never came.

The network was massively loyal. Twelve dealers, including myself, put forward money to help MG Rover perform due diligence in 2000 when they took the company from BMW, and we’re not talking about a couple of hundred quid. We got the money back, but it shows how keen the dealers were to make it work.

What are your thoughts on the Phoenix Four now?

They have taken an unfair battering. They took dividends they were entitled to, they bought a company for £10 that came with a £1 billion dowry because, while I wasn’t party to the meeting, I don’t think there was ever an intention the money from BMW should have been paid back.

If they took £40m themselves, that’s not a lot from the whole – don’t forget they kept 6,000 people in work for five years. I remember having a conversation with John Edwards 36 hours before MG Rover went into administration and him saying it’s all systems go for the SAIC deal.

He believed that. I’ve known him for 25 years and he’s not a liar.

I spoke to him recently and he’s still a broken man by all this. Don’t forget, he was a car dealer who was approached to join the Phoenix Four.

He’s lost his company and has been pilloried because of the spin Labour put on it. I believe he’s still fighting to get money put into the employee trust fund. He’s a good man, but maybe not a good businessman.

Dealership lost £750,000 in MG Rover collapse

Name: Andrew Soul

MG Rover dealerships in Olney and Milton Keynes, Bucks

What impact did MG Rover’s collapse have on you and your business?

I had opened the MG Rover dealership inMilton Keynes 18 months earlier and had been running that at a loss to get it established.

Then the whole thing goes down. All in all, it cost me £750,000 – a lot of money for a small business like ours – and it affected the balance sheet for a number of years.

It had an impact on family life because I was working flat-out seven days a week trying to overcome it all. We felt let down by MG Rover.

They led us to believe the Chinese money was coming. I was at the factory a couple of weeks before it all collapsed and was persuaded to buy more cars, which I then lost money on.

You’ve taken on MG again. Why?

We initially chose Fiat for the Milton Keynes dealership, but that didn’t work out, so it’s now Mitsubishi and, yes, MG again.

It’s the first Chinese brand in the UK, the first of many to come I think, and we’ve decided to give it a go.

We’ve had some interest though not as much as I would have liked, and we’ve got our MG6 demonstrator. It’s a terrific little car and we’ve already sold a few.

Timeline to collapse of once proud carmaker

2000: Phoenix Venture Holdings buys MG Rover from BMW for £10. The new Directors – the Phoenix Four – are John Towers, Nick Stephenson, Peter Beale and John Edwards.

2001-04: Facelifted versions of the Rover 25, 45 and 75 launched, along with sportier MG variants.

2004: Losses in the first four years were £611 million. Talks about financial support from Chinese firm Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) begin.

2005: Talks stall and MG Rover goes into administration. Debts are put at £1.3bn, 6,000 jobs are lost.

2006: MG Rover’s assets are sold to Nanjing Automobile.

2007: Limited production of the TF two-seater begins at Longbridge.

2009: The official independent report accuses the Phoenix Four of enriching themselves while mismanaging the company. They are said to have paid themselves a total of £40m in salaries and benefits. A month later the Serious Fraud Office said no criminal charges would be brought.

2011: Production of the British-designed and engineered MG6 begins at Longbridge.

2011: The Phoenix Four voluntarily agree not to serve as Company Directors.

Out of the ashes a new MG is born

Chinese ownership has ensured that the MG marque will live on.

Almost six years since the collapse, a new generation of MG Dealers was given a civic send off by Midlands politicians in April after they collected the first UK-produced MG6 models to mark the start of a new era for the brand.

The Dealers collected the first MG6 demonstrators from MG Motor UK’s factory at the Longbridge site then drove to Birmingham’s Council House where they were waved off by Mike Whitby, the Leader of Birmingham City Council.

The first deliveries of the MG6 – the first ground-up new car for MG in 16 years – began last month.

Priced between £15,495 and £18,995, MG wants 2,000 sales this year and double that in 2012 when the line-up will be joined by a 1.9-litre turbodiesel. The Longbridge facility has capacity to assemble 5,000 units annually at present.

The 39-strong MG Dealer Network, which was established in 2008 as MG rejuvenated the TF roadster, will grow to 60 sites this year. MG has a target of 85 dealerships for the end of 2012, when its range will also have a compact hatchback.

Guy Jones, MG Motor UK’s Sales and Marketing Director, told AM the Dealer Network could support 115 outlets by 2015 when an SUV will also be introduced to its model line-up.

‘The MG6 means we start with two models, but prospective Dealers need to look at the potential growth of the franchise when it has two or three different car lines in the market.’

He said: ‘We’re keeping investment costs for new Dealers extremely low at £20,000, most of which is accounted for by signage costs and branding.

‘We want to give them the best possible chance of a return in their first two years of trading, but this should not be a problem with the arrival of additional products from year three.’

Asked about the extent of a collaboration deal with GM, SAIC Motor’s principal partner in China, Jones said: ‘We are working on a new range of collaborative engines for small cars and we’re also looking at commercial collaboration such as sharing resources and support services, vehicle distribution finance and the potential of working together.

‘The idea is to generate savings and it is an interesting project. But we’re not looking to sell our cars directly through Vauxhall showrooms.’

[Source: AM-online]


Clive Goldthorp


  1. It’s interesting to see what the Dealers thought of the Phoenix debacle. The point Richard Cort makes concerning the Phoenix Four’s receipt of £40m in five years about that sum “not a lot from the whole” (of the £1bn BMW dowry) is wide of the mark though.

    Phoenix bought the company for £10 only after the Government persuaded BMW to talk to Towers and co. Their purchase of the company was only ever a short term measure and everyone, including the Phoenix Four, knew that. Indeed, the Phoenix Four regarded themselves as the custodians of the marques, so they clearly envisaged a deal that would take the company forward with or without their involvemment.

    However, rewarding themselves with £40m and claiming this was in line with other car manufacturers managements was scandalous. Their reward should have come when they had steered MG Rover to safety. They could then have walked away as heroes complete with generous pensions and gongs and we’d have all thought they were jolly good fellows.

    Finally, with regard to Andrew Soul’s point about not having as much interest as he’d hoped for the MG6, I live 9 miles from Milton Keynes yet the MG website directs me to the Hemel Hempstead dealership which must be a good 12/14 miles away. Furthermore, Soul’s premises in Milton Keynes are hard to find. Maybe Andrew needs to put up some signs…

  2. Richard Cort says : “If they took £40m themselves, that’s not a lot from the whole – don’t forget they kept 6,000 people in work for five years. I remember having a conversation with John Edwards 36 hours before MG Rover went into administration and him saying it’s all systems go for the SAIC deal.”

    I think that’s probably fair enough. Yes, they took a fortune and it seems morally dubious. However, the alternative was closure in 2000. I recall Towers being very reluctant to get involved in 2000 and the Unions almost begging him to do so. The other bidder, Alchemy, would have put most of them out of work very quickly. That’s business…

  3. Patricia Hewitt announced that MG Rover Group Limited was in administration before it actually was and that announcement precipitated the failure.

    The article above doesn’t mention the ill-fated China Brilliance deal and, whilst John Towers’ heart was clearly in the right place, it’s not clear that Kevin Howe was the right person for the job.

    The real scandal was that more UK investors didn’t step forward in 2000.

  4. The real scandal was the mismanagement of the previous thirty years. MG Rover enthusiasts like us want, and would have wanted, investors to put their money into MG Rover but this is business we’re talking about and you’d have to have been a lunatic to invest serious money into the company in 2000. Indeed, only another car company could have considered it and the sad fact of the matter is not one established company wanted to know.

    Yes, the Government didn’t handle the company’s demise at all well but then it was thanks to them that the Phoenix Four were able to buy the company in the first place. We should also remember that there were a lot of concerns about the way MG Rover was being run before its collapse.

    The China Brilliance deal was a shame and not, I think, MG Rover’s fault but it wasted precious time. The same is true of the TWR debacle. I think that, if a straw poll had been taken of the company’s entire workforce, the dealers and the fans, there’d have been a majority saying use the the dowry to bring in a new car to replace the 45 – if that had failed, then at least they’d have given it their best shot and they’d have gone down with their guns blazing. Instead, they used the dowry to subsidise the company – and pay themselves.

    I think Towers’ heart was in the right place but sadly he wasn’t at the company most of the time. He really needed to be hands-on from the start and I don’t think he was.

  5. @Richard
    You are right about the China Brillance deal – it was not down to MG Rover Group that it collapsed, but a change of events in China.

    Patricia Hewitt originally announced that MG Rover Group was in receivership, not administration – how could she not know the difference?!

    I, for one, hope that there is a new book about this coming out, written from the perspective of the Phoenix Four, as their side of the story is one that we have not heard a great deal about, only the comments from the Government.

  6. I am not an expert on all this, but the fact that MG Rover was selling off the family silver e.g. the land and buildings at Longbridge should have signalled it was all going to go pear-shaped eventually.

    The intended JV partners, such as NAC, should have honoured their commitments and put their money where their mouths were instead of waiting for them to go under and pick the corpse. In my opinion, the Government should have blocked any attempt by NAC/SAIC to buy the assets, although I would imagine that this could have potentially been illegal and wouldn’t really have solved anything.

    I agree that we need to to hear a full and frank account of events from the likes of John Towers so we can understand what went on, if only to ensure nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again.

  7. The problem was that, when MG Rover collapsed, nobody was surprised and, worse still, nobody wanted the company. The Government might have been able to stop NAC/SAIC buying the assets but then what? Nobody wanted the company and too few people wanted to buy its products so, had the Government stopped any asset sale (which would probably have been illegal), they’d have been stuck with them. That wouldn’t have helped anyone.

    It would have been great had SAIC and/or NAC or any other OEM got into bed with MG Rover at an earlier stage but it didn’t happen. Were they boxing clever or was it just more cock-up than conspiracy? We’ll probably never know for sure but MG Rover didn’t exactly put themselves out to make the deal, did they? They only injected some urgency into the discussions (famously getting drunk at a banquet in Shanghai in the process) in the dying months when the money was running out.

    SAIC may have thought they’d be clever by pushing MG Rover into receivership and walking away with the goodies but, if that was the case, they got it wrong. They didn’t own the Rover name and they didn’t acquire all the rights and assets that they thought they had. They ended up taking over NAC (at the behest of the Chinese Government) which gave them the MG brand and has eventually lead to MG’s return.

    It would be interesting to hear from the Phoenix Four but there’s probably not a lot that’s new that can be said. They will, of course, be able to point their fingers at all sorts of people and say they did them down. However, in reality they bought the company (+ a £1bn dowry) for £10 in 2000. They must have known that for the company to survive they had to get at least one new car out there that would appeal to a bigger group of buyers (i.e. none of the retro 75 nonsense) and they failed to do that.

    They also failed to show the necessary urgency and application to achieve that end yet they managed to waste time, money and effort on the SV and Le Mans projects which were never going to get them anywhere.

  8. @Richard
    I think the Phoenix Four knew they couldn’t even afford to get a new model out without a partner (even getting the pitiful CityRover out was a major undertaking), so most of the five years was spent trying to sell the company.

    The SV, Le Mans and land speed efforts, and others, were aimed at showing off the company’s technical skills to a buyer with manufacturing capability, but no Designers or Engineers.

    Actually, to be fair, that strategy nearly worked and, perhaps, would have worked but for famously getting drunk around the negotiating table. The recent development of an R&D centre at Longbridge, for SAIC, suggests that this policy was basically corect.

  9. Just like Saab is finding now, a volume manufacturer cannot survive with sales of 100,000 units per year – Saab has fallen to 30,000. This is a volume game so a partner was always needed.

    MG Rover were given the opportunity to develop a 45 replacement on the Fiat Bravo platform and, with Fiat diesel engines, that would have been a good basis. Alternatively, if they had been able to develop the TCV as a Nissan Qashqai-type vehicle, that could have generated sufficient interest to get another manufacturer on board. They trod water for too long and just burnt through the cash.

    The Goverment’s exchange rate policy killed BMW’s interest in making MG Rover a net exporter to Europe so ultimately Britain’s economic policy killed manufacturing just as it did in 1979 when Sir Michael Edwardes could not export BL products becuase of the exchange rate.

    Jaguar Land Rover are making £1bn now partly becuase of the exchange rate and excellent products. However, MG Rover’s demise can be attributed to a sad combination of events which stretch back to the 1970s. I wonder what would have happened if Jaguar Rover Triumph had been formed in 1968 as Europe’s biggest specialist producer and BMC had been reorganised seperately by Wilson and Benn and investement had gone in then?

  10. Exactly – the Phoenix Four trod water and burnt through the cash.

    The really pitiful thing about the CityRover was its price – starting it at £6500 was plain stupid and put it up against more accomplished and more modern cars. The CityRover was a cheap runabout, perfectly okay for what it was but it needed to be priced at £5000 or under to sell. Kia launched the Picanto at roughly the same time and sold 50,000 in the first year or so. The CityRover’s main purpose in life was to spurt cash onto MG Rover’s balance sheet and it didn’t because it came to market too late, was too expensive and under promoted.

    After MG Rover’s demise Motorpoint bought up the remaining stock of CityRovers, put them on the market at £4000 (+ new warranty) and they sold.

    MG Rover did, of course, need a partner. Did they talk to Tata Motors about further co-operation after the CityRover? Why did the Fiat deal never get off the ground?

  11. @Richard
    @Jonathan Carling
    Thanks, folks – it’s all flooding back now!

    Perhaps all those who say the Phoenix Four were unlucky are looking at it in hindsight with a slight tint to the spectacles and they really were a shambolic management team. Maybe they were inspired by the concept of…

  12. @Richard
    I think you will find that the Fiat figures for the Stilo platform were potentially too ambitious for MG Rover Group in terms of the volume they needed and potentially the cost to them. At the time, Fiat had made massive losses and was undergoing a major restructuring programme. The Italian company clearly needed to shift a large number of their Stilo-based platforms and likely at a price that was too expensive for MG Rover Group to stomach.

    The arrangement with Tata had not been a successful one for MG Rover Group as they wanted Tata to incorporate a higher level of specification and other changes, including upping quality for the Indica-based CityRover, to meet the expectations of European markets. Tata had not sold the Indica outside India before and so did not recognise the pressing needs to meet the production requirements that MG Rover Group knew its customers demanded.

    However, a few changes to the CityRover were announced for the summer of 2005 but we never got to see them. We can only speculate as to whether the two companies might have worked together on other projects if MG Rover Group had remained in business beyond April 2005…

  13. @David 3500
    I agree that the early stages of the MGRover/Tata relationship were not easy and that the latter had a lot to learn about marketing a car outside India. Mind you, MG Rover, like nearly all its predecessor companies, was not exactly a whizz in that department either and that was the major problem with the CityRover: overpriced and badly positioned in the market; very little advertising to make the public aware of the car.

    I would also agree that the changes made to the CityRover could have resulted in better sales had the company survived but the fact is they got it wrong and pitched the little car against better cars. Selling it as a cheap and cheerful runabout would have been a better course of action.

    Yes, Fiat wanted to shift a lot of Stilo platforms but do we know what price they were asking? What Fiat wanted was co-operation/help in developing larger cars (for Lancia) and saw the 75 as possibly a way forward for them. Maybe they were looking to some sort of trade there: a Stilo-derived 45 replacement for MGR and a 75-derived large Lancia for them.

    Certainly, in 2005/6, there were those in MGR who felt that a real chance had been missed and they blamed Howe for not exploring the proposal more thoroughly.

  14. @Richard
    You are right about MG Rover Group’s marketing strategy – even now I still get rather frustrated over how they pulled out most of the stops for promoting the MG marque and did little to rejuvenate the more commercially damaged Rover brand. After all, Rover was to continue to be the volume selling brand (and ultimately proved to live up to that expectation) and it would have made sense to have worked more with this greater revenue-yielding brand which they effectively left to stagnate.

    I have no idea of the figures regarding the possible future use of the Fiat Stilo platform as neither party has ever released them – can you advise us on this please, Mr Towers, if you are reading this?

    However, the possible association with Fiat certainly didn’t end here – aside from MG Rover Group evaluating the possible use of the JTD engine for the Rover 75 and MG ZT in place of the very expensive to buy M47R engine, the facelifted Rovers featured a new grille design inspired by that found on Lancias!

  15. @David 3500
    An ITV programme about MG Rover’s demise (made, I think, in 2006) featured Peter Stevens talking briefly about the proposed Fiat deal. He said they’d gone to Turin to talk to Fiat executives with him thinking ‘at last, we’re talking to a proper car company’ (this was after China Brilliance, Proton etc.) but, while they were waiting to go into the meeting, Kevin Howe turned to him and said ‘what are we doing here?’ and promptly left. God knows what Fiat thought of that.

    Additionally, and I think this had some tie-in with a possible deal with Fiat for the Stilo, the Polish Government were very keen for MG Rover (or anyone) to take over the former Daewoo factory in Poland for a nominal sum. There were some discussions and the Poles expected MG Rover to get back to them but they never did. Again, God knows what the Poles thought of that.

    I think it was this kind of amatuerism and slapdash approach that caused concern at the DTI and quite probably deterred other parties from investing in MG Rover.

    I agree that they should have concentrated on Rover. What they did with creating the MG Z range was very good and I think it was largely paid for out of internal cost savings. Equally, they performed fantastically well in transferring the 75 line to Longbridge and bringing the Tourer to market.

    I recall that, when the TCV made its bow, one had real hope that the Phoenix Four knew what they were about and that the future, whilst far from certain, looked considerably brighter. What we all expected next was a small car to generate showroom traffic and, more importantly, a 45 replacement. Instead, we got the overpriced CityRover and…nothing.

    I look at what Peter Stevens, Lee Mitchell and company were proposing for future Rovers from 2006 onwards and I could weep. In those drawings they do exactly what Rover had failed to do since the SD1: they defined what a modern Rover should look like. Ever the optimist, I still think there’s a market for such a car (or cars) aimed at Audi and Volvo in particular and that maybe Jaguar Land Rover will restore the Rover marque to us. I live in hope…

    • Richard & David 3500

      This afternoon I came across an Autocar article concerning the Fiat Stilo platform. Some detail would be interesting. On the face of it, this does appear a lost opportunity.

  16. An MG Rover/Fiat deal might have resulted in a 25 based on the Lancia Ypsilon, a 45 based on the Lancia Delta and the Thesis being based on the 75 (instead of a Chrysler 300C).

    Alfa Romeo could then have sold the 916 tooling to MG to produce a “mini-SV” based on the GTV and a Midget-replacement based on the outgoing Spider.

    Umm… an MG hatchback based on a Lancia Delta? That could have been taken rallying.

  17. @Will
    I think this was how Fiat saw things developing had the Stilo deal gone ahead – it would have been a bold and ambitious plan but I think MG Rover’s management was too cautious.

  18. Kevin Howe has a huge amount to answer for in pushing MGR in the directions it went, and it seems obvious that given too much power and no one there to rein him in, it’s difficult to see how the company could have stayed together without explodiong apart. Total communications faliure between all sections of the bosrd an the MD.

    Towers is generally a good chap but if he’d been around to keep tabs on things (and push Howe’s ego back in the box) then correct decisions could have been made sooner.. why on earth he didn’t take over as MD is beyond me.

  19. I was told recently by a friend who was vey close to events which led to that £10 deal that on the day John Towers was to ceremonally hand over the £10 he said he had not got a £10 note on him and so had to borrow one from a colleage.Say no more!

  20. I agree with you, Ross A. Towers should have been running the shop from the beginning. I think Howe was out of his depth and Stephenson just a petrolhead.

  21. @ Dave Dawson, a tie up with Fiat seems interesting, as British Leyland did own Innocenti until the seventies. Yet Fiat, which had its problems with falling market share in the noughties and a lingering reputation for making badly made and rust prone cars, probably would have wanted a far bigger partner, hence their dalliance with GM and now with Chrysler. Yet an MG Alfa Romeo collaboration could hace been interesting.

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