Our man Mike Humble talks to former Phoenix Retail salesman Mark Newton about his experiences at the coal face selling new MG Rover cars immediately prior to that fateful day in April 2005.
Tell me about Phoenix Retail and how you came to sell MGs and Rovers?
Well, Phoenix Retail had been set up to plug the gaps in MG Rover’s Dealer Network left by the bigger dealer groups backing away from the brands when BMW AG disposed of them in 2000 – notable former “Big Group” dealers such as, for example, Henlys and Quicks. Showrooms had been set up in towns and cities such as Chorley, Coventry and Northampton to name but a few and, even though the premises were smaller than they had previously been in some cases, it had advantages. Because we were manufacturer-backed, we had a direct line of communication to the plant enabling us to act quicker and get non standard models to the customer cheaper and with less delay than rival MG Rover dealerships.
My interview was an interesting one… It very quickly became apparent in the office that they were there to make money and, when I touched on the fact that I had gained some previous exposure to the brand and had a bit of enthusiasm with ownership experience, they were not interested – it was all about the money and the numbers. In a showroom environment this is the norm and my past experience had taught me that enthusiasts do not make for good business people or salesmen as their emotions run wild – in this game it’s your job to control the customers’ emotions. But the job was mine and after a day of training and a week of shadowing their most experienced salesman (who shortly left soon after) I had a desk to sit at.
Just like Daewoo had tried a few years earlier, we were, in effect, the men from the factory if you like – selling directly to the masses. Ford were doing the same thing with their Dagenham Motors brand but on a more of an arms length basis – we were openly proud of being under the PVH umbrella. It really instilled a lot of customer confidence in people who had never previously bought into the brand knowing that they were dealing directly rather than through a traditional franchised dealer, who operated as a middle man. Despite the managers chasing the bottom line on every deal, we were constantly reminded to hammer home the importance of dealing straight from the factory to customers.
What was it like initially and who were your general types of customer?
Even though our showroom had been hastily converted from the premises of a former Hyundai dealership which had gone bankrupt and was a quarter of the size of the previous huge Rover dealer in the town, we were smack bang in the middle of what was the most populated part. Footfall traffic (walk-in customers) was superb partly due to a busy BP petrol station next door, so business was pretty good from the word go. The typical customer was typically Rover, that is, they were middle-aged or senior citizens who also came with a distinct advantage to other volume brands being sold through much bigger dealer groups.
Our customer base in general was 90 per cent retail and around 10 per cent fleet and the typical customer for Rover was a mature or family person, while the MG range excluding the TF, to a degree appealed to a younger audience with the ZR being extremely popular with female buyers. The MG Z range were extremely well received and enjoyed by the public but were sold on cost rather than product. My own preference was to sell a typical Rover customer a typical Rover model as they were easier to please and brought you more customers through recommendation. MG customers tended to haggle more for a deal or a discount and spin off no extra custom no matter how well you treated them.
Older and loyal brand customers quite often would be either embarrassed to haggle or ask for big discounts. So long as they were treated right with courtesy and respect they bought whatever you showed them there and then. Selling a car at full list price was quite common, especially with the 45 and 75 models and they became known to us guys as Honeypots. Put a 75 in the showroom dead centre in the right spec and colour, leave the spotlights on it at night and you just knew you would have prospects beating a path to the premises the very next day – for most of the time, it was happy days selling the brand to the masses.
At what point did you feel the wheels were falling off MG Rover?
In all fairness, I believe the first inkling of the slippery downward slope was the CityRover. Some of us were invited to Longbridge to see this new little car which was said to have been “the answer to all our prayers” but, in fact, turned out to be a nightmare. We were treated to a most unorthodox speech by a most senior MGR employee and then able to fully inspect the car. Some expressed their concern – especially our fitters – about build quality, paint finish and general interior presentation only to be frowned at, rebuffed and told that the customer base it was aimed at either “won’t notice” or “wouldn’t care.” Back at the showroom customers did and, when we had an evening launch event, the feedback on the night was far from ideal.
The next alarm bell which added to our fears was parts and supply from the manufacturers. Normally a factory-ordered car would come through very quickly – even those with bizarre options such as the rare monogram paint and interior designs would be built and delivered swiftly. These bespoke vehicles were getting more difficult to order and we were getting pressurised from up high to sell stock or standard cars wherever possible. Out back in the service bays it was occasionally known for a car to be stuck in a corner or on a ramp awaiting certain non-consumable parts and I even recall two fitters visiting a breaker’s yard to locate an engine mount for a Rover Tourer diesel taxi that we couldn’t get hold of from the factory.
How did the media attention and obsession with MG Rover in the public spotlight affect your job?
When public news of the first possible Asian involvement (China Brilliance) became known I thought it might bring a lifeline, but in reality it did nothing for customer confidence. MG Rover had noticed a steady slide in retail sales and our own used car activities were ramped up as were the service bay practices. Technicians were “encouraged” to be extra vigilant when servicing vehicles and our MoT tester was leaned upon to use less discretion which, from my own recollection, caused one or two heated debates in the showroom. Our customers may have been the more mature type but they were far from stupid and, once it was public knowledge MG Rover was desperate for a new owner, my own potential sales slowly started fading away.
A further warning came as word got around that MG Rover were pressurising dealers to buy extra models for stock. We could understand why they were doing this as any potentially interested party looking to buy the company wants to see numbers on paper but, in hindsight, here was pure desperation from MG Rover that moved the onus of their financial problems onto many of the superb, smaller group MG Rover dealers. Once the press and media got their teeth into the story that the company was as stable as balancing a piano on a pin, many customers who had shown an interest or left deposits for uncollected cars went elsewhere or collected their money – at this point I had to re-evaluate my own situation work-wise.
At what point did you know the game was up for MG Rover?
The final nail in the coffin came during a branch sales meeting. Our Dealer Principal expressed his major concerns to us about a week before the implosion following his own covert discussions with key MG Rover staff in Birmingham. Bills were not being paid, the company was on stop with some key suppliers and our ‘phones were ringing off the hook with concerned customers – many who wanted to sell their MG or Rover before the official news came. The key issue was a simple one: we knew if the NAC deal fell through then MG Rover was finished. On a personal level, I was the only sales member left of the original team when I first started and had just been paid – if I hung around any longer, would I be working for free? On the whole I was gutted by the whole affair but with the luxury of present 20/20 hindsight, it was kind of inevitable really.
What really saddened me was being ordered to tell customers that everything was okay and under control even though, deep down, you knew it was going down the tubes. The panic and hysteria from the public was unbelievable as each day came closer to the final ending. I cannot even think how many customers with paid deposits marched into the showroom demanding their money back – I know it cost us tens of thousands at least. I still remember with total recall one customer turning round to see something on the lunchtime news about MG Rover on the TV in the showroom. She was minutes away from signing an order form when her husband at home called her mobile having seen the same item telling her to leave and not sign for anything.
How did it affect you personally?
Well, to be brutally honest, I was lucky… My then partner and I were planning on relocating anyway so we decided to bring our plans forward by a month and my last working day was Friday, 1 April 2005. The town was so big that all of the sales guys and most of the back room staff fell into similar roles quickly as the motor trade has always been short of good staff. The bulk of the staff battled on to the very end and most never saw their wages – I have still kept in touch with some of them. It was good while it lasted but came as no real shock when it ended.
AROnline would like to thank Mark Newton for his insight and his wife for her generous supply of tea and biscuits.