I was there : Phoenix Venture Holdings Retail Northampton Limited

Rover in the Phoenix era

I often think back to the times when I first got involved in vehicle sales a number of years ago. The Internet was in its infancy, vehicle emissions were not really thought about and footfall in dealerships (the term used for walk-in customers) was sometimes akin to a busy department store.

Cars were sold face-to-face or over the telephone, with a fair wallop of business done via a fax machine* too (*younger readers may need to ask Google or a parent/guardian about that). I had been involved with Rover cars a number of times prior to swapping overalls or a parts man’s dust-coat for a suit, shirt and tie.

Having worked at dealerships that included Henlys, the Marshall Motor Group and a small independent retail dealer, I’d done the rounds previously in the Workshop and Parts Departments.

Who you really need to know

It isn’t common to ‘cross-pollinate’ from after sales into new vehicle sales as the Managers and Dealer Principals are forever frightened that you are going to spill the beans warts ‘n all about the cars they sell. If you think about it, if you really want to know the full picture of any current car in terms of its problems, you ask a mechanic who works on them day in day out and not a booted and suited squeaky-clean salesman. That’s the reason why they set the Rottweilers loose on any fitter who goes anywhere near front of house in a dealership.

When Henlys rather quickly went belly-up, the county town of Northampton was left high and dry without a Rover dealership. This happened shortly after the PVH take over and formation of the MG Rover Group and the Weedon Road showroom was a properly large gin palace that sold a hell of a lot of new and used cars in addition to operating a healthy LDV commercial sales operation.

Within a very short time of this happening, an advert ran in the local county rag, The Chronicle and Echo, looking for dealership staff. Very little info was on offer, there was just a rundown of what they were looking for in terms of department and a local rate 0345 number to respond to. Yours truly called and it connected to an answerphone voiced by a very subtle West Midlands dialect asking you to give your contact info and which role you were enquiring about and ‘one of their operatives’ would call you back.

Blow me down, it’s a Phoenix job…

Here I got a bit cheeky. My ex-girlfriend’s father, Frank, was rather high up in local British Telecom management. She might have (ahem) cut me off some time earlier, but her dad always remained on the line ever cordial and friendly – right up to his death a few years back – our shared love for the Jaguar XJ6 and Eric Clapton’s album ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ I think did it. This was useful.

Anyway, I gave Frank the number and he quickly came back to me with who was operating it – you’ve guessed it, our old friend MG Rover. Normally, when a dealer goes pop, the brand has to act fast and usually re-franchises it to A.N. Other PLC dealer group. However, on this occasion, MG Rover was looking to operate its own dealerships run by its own staff – albeit recruited under the company name Phoenix Venture Holdings (Retail) Limited.

A telephone interview took place soon after and then a face-to-face interview was held at a Coventry motel. I was offered a job soon after, but had no premises to work from yet, so I was put on a retainer and attended a small number of courses up at Longbridge.

Resizing the business

MG Rover dealer

It soon became public knowledge that the former Corby Motors Hyundai showroom in Abington Avenue (opposite the Northants County Cricket Ground) was to be the new dealership for MG Rover in Northampton. Corby Motors had also gone upside down a few months earlier and the premises (about an eighth of the size of Henlys) had stood empty.

In a whisker the builders, painters and totem makers were doing the refits and the dealership was open for business. Despite the place being tiny compared to the old Weedon Road gin palace, it was clean, bright and fit for purpose with more rubber plants than you could possibly imagine.

The old boy who ran the parts counter used to have us rolling around laughing with his near spot on impression of Dr David Bellamy owing to the impressive amount of foliage that bedecked the showroom and service waiting area.

Telling the natives about the move

There was a big bally-hoo advertising campaign on the local radio and in the newspapers before and during the initial opening that caused plenty of fuss and curious wal- in customers. We tried to operate a transparent and honest practice at all times – something that Henlys failed to in their later years. Despite the Northampton branch of Henlys being massive in terms of local and national fleet deals, the retail showroom reputation was nothing short of poor.

The company was a staunch user of the ‘Pendle’ sales method to the very end – a very high pressure and outdated process that, in some cases, virtually bullied potential customers into buying a vehicle. PVH had clearly done some research into local dealer practices and the emphasis was hammered over to us on two levels – sell yourself before the car and to maximise profit wherever possible.

We were lucky in one important respect. The customer demographic for Rover branded products historically had always been middle aged to mature. Mr and Mrs Wealthy and Retired of Earls Barton wouldn’t even be as vulgar to even think of haggling for a new Rover 75. The number of cars sold at ‘list’ or near list price was almost unreal. MG customers tended to be younger, especially on ZR or ZS so, rather than slash pounds of the price, they were decontented in terms of specification compared to the 25/45 and accordingly priced to the bone so deals such as free insurance or ultra-keen finance packages would often be offered as deal sweeteners.

There was real profit in MG Rover sales

We rarely ever sold a car at a loss like some dealers do – if we were coming to the end of the rope in terms of profit on a deal, it wasn’t uncommon for our Dealer Principal to step in, shake hands with the customer and pretty much say ‘that’s yer lot, buy or bugger off’. Sales targets were pretty realistic, and we were incentivised over things such as recommending a friend or relative for repeat business – it was a really pleasant environment to work in.

Any of you who came to our 20th anniversary gathering at Gaydon last year may remember I touched upon communication with HQ. In the BAe or BMW era, communication with Head Office was a complicated and convoluted affair when it came to ordering cars for stock or for sale – especially if bespoke or fitted with options. The Monogram process was a cracking idea giving the retail customer a genuine tailored vehicle rather than something off the peg, especially in terms of colour.

The uptake was fairly good albeit pricey and, when it came to getting a date of when the car was ‘physical’ – the term where the car drops off the end of the track ready for shipment, the answer could be had inside an hour. Bespoke cars in the BMW era could take days to get an answer. We never struggled to locate cars either, many a run up to Longbridge to collect a vehicle ensued if group dealer stock couldn’t find something, our nearest group dealer was PVH Coventry – formerly known as Quicks Parkside.

Great comms and a fighting spirit

Information was fed from Longbridge regularly about how the company as a whole was doing and local Area Managers often popped by to rally the troops and boost morale if it was required. The first signs of things going wrong came with the upheaval of the parts system to Caterpillar Logistics – a major balls up in my opinion.

It also coincided with thousands of part numbers for obsolete models being deleted from the system in the interests of cost-cutting despite there still being thousands of cars in everyday use.

An example of this was a relatively youthful Rover 418 Tourer diesel which required a new hydraulic engine mount. It sat in the car park for a week before the customer, quite rightly, got a bit upset in the showroom playing merry hell. A fitter was quickly dispatched to trawl the local breaker’s yards with £20 of petty cash to find a mount to get the car back to the customer – I kid you not.

At death’s door

The final death knells came when firstly, the China Brilliance deal literally went west and then getting hold of cars started to become a patchy process as suppliers got the jitters over MGR’s future solvency. It started getting hard to get delivery times for vehicles with optional extras fitted and MGR foolishly started playing games where we would be asked to incentivise customers financially to take standard vehicles in whatever colours were in stock.

The Project Drive programme went into overdrive too – there was much more to come had MGR not gone bust when they did. Engineers were testing out ultra-cheap bottom suspension arms for Rover 75 and ZT made out of steel rather than aluminium saving them money not to mention ideas to replace the L-Series diesel, one of them being a bought-in unit possibly from Fiat Power Train.

Like I said, up at Gaydon with the agreement of two former MGR key personnel, whatever your thoughts about the Phoenix Four may be, for the first three years, they did everything to keep the company going, keep morale high and keep thousands of lads and lasses in gainful employment.

John Towers: ‘I have a three-year plan’

John Towers

I recall John Towers (above) being interviewed by the stalwart of West Midlands broadcasting, the late, great and much missed Ed Doolan on BBC Radio WM shortly after handing the Quandt family a tenner. He said to Ed they had a three-year Business Plan but, moving beyond that, the company was nothing without a collaborative partner – how true he was indeed. During the last two years of 2003-2005 there was an atmosphere of sheer desperation filtering through the Longbridge corridors of power.

Those who worked at the coal face of ‘the Firm’ could see the outcome well before the press started sniffing trouble. I managed to jump ship and get all my owed monies but, as the stories and rumours started being bandied about, prospective customers started to cancel their orders in droves.

This resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds being handed back in customers deposits making the financial status even more perilous, especially at a local dealer level.

Still tugging at the heartstrings

On a lighter note, though, one thing is evident. Despite there being no car production now at Ellesmere Port, Dagenham or Luton, it’s Rover and/or MG Rover that still tugs on the heartstrings throughout the industry and of all those who worked for them directly or indirectly. Virtually everyone I know who’s done their bit at a plant or dealership level, all claim it to be the best times of their working life.

If it had not been for the Designers and engineers who were fully qualified in creating real silk purses from sows’ ears, the company would have probably died way back in late-1970s and not April 2005. So many key personnel did their work with passion and fire in their bellies.

Stories of Engineers working on solutions or projects in the Phoenix era behind locked doors when all others had gone home, and often unpaid are legendary – all with the aim of betterment to the firm they so dearly loved. Stories that might just become fit for public consumption if a project with Dr Ian Pogson that I am working on gets the go-ahead. What breaks my heart more than anything is the plain old fact that the press was never interested in the plucky good news stuff that went on behind the bottom end of the Bristol Road right up till the implosion, instead choosing to concentrate on the negative right to the very end.

Watch this space for developments!

Mike Humble

1 Comment

  1. Quote: “What breaks my heart more than anything is the plain old fact that the press were never interested in the plucky good news stuff that went on behind the bottom end of the Bristol Road right up till the implosion, instead choosing to concentrate on the negative right to the very end.”

    Er, not completely true as there was a small band of motoring journalists, including myself who worked for a regional newspaper group, who were very supportive of the company and its products. Even in February 2005 when I was writing about the Rover 75 V8 for our weekly motoring supplement (which attracted in excess of 100,000 readers), the car received a favourable roadtest and no mention was made about Project Drive or the wider news about the directors of MG Rover Group that national titles such as the Sunday Express seemed to relish writing about on a weekly basis in their Business pages.

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