Look who’s back

December 1, 2015

Nigel McMinn was a prominent member of the North East motor industry as managing director and chief executive of Benfield Motor Group. He left the region in August 2013 to head up the motor division of Lookers plc, but is now back at the Benfield helm following his new employer’s acquisition of the motor group. He talks to Alison Cowie about his return to the North East and how both Benfield and Lookers are set to benefit now they are under the same brand

For Nigel McMinn, a passion for cars is in his genes.

His father, a bank manager, had a strong interest in cars and would take Nigel to Reg Vardy’s specialist car showroom in Houghton-le-Spring on Christmas Day and bank holidays, when they would peer through the windows at the motors by Ferrari, Maserati, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Aston Martin.

Now, Nigel’s own young son has developed a keen interest in cars and even educates his dad on upgrades to the world’s latest supercars.

It is a particularly impressive feat for the nine year old given his dad is a managing director at one of the largest automotive? retailers and distributors in the UK.

Nigel, who grew up in Durham, initially trained to be an accountant with PwC but knew he didn’t want to spend his life doing auditing or tax returns.

Shortly after finishing his traineeship, Nigel saw a job advertisement for Reg Vardy and the self-confessed petrol-head decided to apply.

Nigel spent more than ten years at Reg Vardy as a regional director, while learning about the automotive industry.

Following the acquisition of Reg Vardy by Pendragon plc in February 2006, Nigel moved to Benfield Motor Group, becoming its managing director.

“What attracted me to Benfield was it was a family business but had the financial firepower to do the things the manufacturers wanted,” says Nigel.

Over the next eight years, Nigel – as managing director and latterly as chief executive – helped develop Benfield into a multi-award winning enterprise and one of the UK’s top privately owned motor companies with high performing dealerships in the North East, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Scotland.

He oversaw the acquisition of North East business Colebrook and Burgess Ltd, which brought Audi back into the Benfield fold, and presided over the growth and redevelopment of a number of dealerships, as well as the implementation of new digital marketing strategies and a number of schemes to develop and support staff.

The lure of heading a public limited company, though, proved too great and in August 2013, Nigel left Benfield to take up a position at Lookers plc.

“I knew it would be a good challenge to be a PLC director and be publicly accountable for what a company does and how it performs,” he reflects. “But as I went further through the process, and got to know Lookers plc better, I found that, despite its size, it had a similar culture and ethos to Benfield.”

Now, thanks to the recent acquisition of Benfield by Lookers plc for £87.5 million, Nigel is back running the North East-focused motor group.

The former Benfield man is keen to stress that the dialogue for the acquisition was strictly between Benfield’s outgoing chief executive Mark Squires and Lookers plc chief executive Andy Bruce, but Nigel was still consulted on the proposition and able to provide an important insight.

He reflects: “In any acquisition, there is always a degree of a gamble. You can do a lot of due diligence, you can look at the figures and reports, but ultimately, you can’t absolutely know what you’re getting – especially in the motor dealership industry that is so built around its people. But I was in the unique position of knowing how great Benfield was as a company and how prudent, solid and robust it was.

“Inevitably, the board took a lot of comfort out of the fact that I was very positive about the company.”

The enlarged Lookers Group now presents 31 brands across 160 dealerships and employs more than 8500 members of staff.

In acquiring Benfield (which reached an annual turnover of £700 million and was recently voted the Motor Dealer Group of the Year at the Motor Trader Industry Awards) Lookers plc is gaining a stronghold in the North East, and will adopt a number of technological and training strategies from Benfield.

Benfield’s network of dealerships – which will begin to adopt Lookers plc branding this month – will benefit from increased capital and investment and more customer choice from a larger, national network of vehicles; something that is thought essential to cater for the modern motor buyer.

But as Nigel is keen to stress, the ethos and the high standard of service from the former Benfield dealerships will continue.

“We want to reassure customers that Lookers plc wants to maintain the best of what Benfield did locally – through the same motivated happy people – while also providing investment and choice.

“We want to give customers the best of both worlds.”

With the interview nearing an end, talk turns to the latest James Bond film, Spectre.

Unsurprisingly, what most interested Nigel were the film’s cars.

“When Bond was driving the Aston Martin DB10 around the streets of Rome, I was practically drooling,” he enthuses.

“There was also a Range Rover Sport SVR, and I’ve just ordered one, which I’m really, really excited about.”

Nigel may now be inside the dealerships looking out, instead of outside, looking in, but what’s clear is that his genuine passion for cars still burns bright.

Looker plc announced the acquisition of Benfield Group on September 3, 2015, in a £87.5 million cash deal.