Stillwell Motor Group (SMG) is one of the premier vehicle retailers in Australia, and aims to be the premier vehicle retailer in Melbourne. By building on a 60-year tradition of service excellence, and forging a new path focusing genuine customer engagement and professional management, Stillwell Motor Group are well on their way to achieving that aim through their premium and prestige brands.
As a company, SMG is run through a structured board process, but has been a family business since Bib Stillwell, a successful open wheeled racing driver, founded the business with the financial backing of his mother Marion in 1949. Bib was appointed dealer for MG, Morris and Jaguar, and after his retirement from full time racing in 1965, Bib expanded the business to four dealerships.
One of Bib’s five children, Chris Stillwell, took on the role of CEO after the death of his father in 1999. Over the next decade, he grew the business to 10 dealerships. In 2009, he decided to focus more on his role of Company Chairman, and Chris Downie joined the group as COO, with a view to moving in to the CEO role within twelve months.
Downie brought with him over 25 years experience in the automotive industry, having spent 12 years with Ford Motor Company and 10 with English company Inchcape, a global distributor and retailer of automotive products.
After moving into the CEO role in 2010, Downie helped draft a five year strategic plan, key to which has been the recent divestment of the company’s volume brands (Ford, Kia and Chrysler) and a reframing of their strategy to focus primarily on prestige and premium brands – including BMW, Jaguar and Volvo.
“What we effectively executed is the departure of our volume businesses from our portfolio,” Downie says. “Now, we’ve reframed our strategy to where our primary focus is prestige and premium brands in Melbourne.”
As part of that rebranding, Stillwell Motor Group sold two of their dealerships, and then recently opened a new one – a Jaguar Land Rover business. “We are pumped,” Downie says. “It’s an absolutely sensational brand.”
A company of integrity
According to Downie, Stillwell’s 63-year-old history as a family business is one of the most important ways the company stands apart in the market. “We still have five second generation family members that are involved in the business in varying capacities,” he says. “We represent seven brands across nine dealerships, and those nine dealerships represent 13 facilities. We have over 400 staff, so we employ a lot of people in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne.”
“A business doesn’t last this long and grow to this size if it doesn’t have strong values,” he adds. “It’s our integrity that we’ve built up over the years that makes us a retailer of choice.”
Stillwell Motor Group’s integrity is most apparent when it comes to their customer service, which Downie says is of the utmost importance. “We spend a lot of time nurturing our existing clients with additional activities such as golf programs, launch events, and what we call CEO breakfasts, where I’ll have 10 to 12 top clients for a breakfast meeting at one of our dealerships to talk business.”
“We have a lot of touch points with our existing clients throughout the year,” Downie adds. “That helps our word of mouth in the marketplace, and also assists us with finding new clients and bringing new people into our brands and our business.”
In addition to selling, Stillwell Motor Group also services vehicles, and in that arm of the business they also have a number of processes aimed at keeping customers satisfied. As a company, they are in regular communication with their clients, and will remind them via email and telephone when their vehicles are due for servicing.
“The way we provide our service is quite unique in the marketplace as well,” Downie says. “When customers come to get their car serviced, our service advisors make a commitment to the customer. A lot of businesses don’t do that. By making that commitment, a customer knows where they stand before they walk out of the dealership.” Delivering that kind of service helps build Stillwell’s reputation in the city, which also helps to attract new clients.
Other ways they attract new clients include the group’s many marketing initiatives. They will host sale events, new customer appreciation evenings, press advertising, direct mail, and more. “We run a lot of different campaigns to say to people ‘Come into our business and experience it.’”
Stillwell Motor Group also has a referral program. If one customer refers another to Stillwell, and that second customer buys a vehicle, the first will get a voucher for some items they can buy within their business. “That helps us build new clients as well,” Downie says.
The integrity of Stillwell Motor Group is also readily apparent when it comes to their staff. As a business with over 400 employees, Downie says the corporate culture is important. To foster that culture, Stillwell Motor Group has a philosophy called “PCP” – which stands for People, Culture and Performance. That philosophy encompasses their HR and administration, but also the different functions of their recruitment process, their training, performance improvement, and their communication.
“We have a culture of winning,” Downie summarises.
As part of PCP, Stillwell Motor Group conducts an annual employee opinion survey, which is completely anonymous. “That allows us to receive a lot of feedback on how people are feeling, and how their work environment is,” says Downie. That information is then worked into the company’s HR business plan.
According to Downie, the most important thing they have learned from those surveys over the years is that employees want regular touch points with their managers. “They want feedback, they want to be coached, and they want to have clear direction.”
To help with this, Stillwell Motor Group employs an internal trainer. Across their different dealerships, that trainer runs classrooms, small group sessions, and trains people one-on-one. A common issue in the automotive retail industry is the tendency to move people into management roles too quickly, without proper preparation – Stillwell’s training focus heads that issue off at the pass.
The right size
The automotive retail industry in Australia is made up of a number of big businesses – companies that own over a hundred dealerships – as well as a lot of single site operators. “We sit in a very unique position,” Downie says. “We’re not one of the massive corporations, but we’re not a single site business either. We’re large enough to have scale and central services and support.”
“That’s evident through HR, training, our centralized accounting services, parts trade and distribution services, vehicle pre-delivery and our IT department,” he adds. “A lot of those things don’t exist in the small dealerships.” On the other side of the coin, they are not so large as to be spread too thin over many different brand partnerships.
Stillwell Motor Group’s IT department is a particularly valuable facet of their business, Downie says. When he was with Inchcape in Europe, he was exposed to a lot of really good IT products, many of which he has now implemented within Stillwell.
One example is the “complimentary visual health check” that Stillwell Motor Group offers to customers who come in for service. When a car goes into a workshop, Stillwell’s technicians walk around inspecting the vehicle, rating over 40 points of the vehicle on a traffic light scale. “Green means that point is fine, red means it needs changing today, and amber means not today, but before your next service,” Downie explains.
“We’ll look at things like brake pads, brake discs, exhaust systems, suspension – all the things that are important for our customers safe motoring,” he adds. Stillwell’s technicians fill that information out an iPod or iPad, and once they hit submit that report goes to the parts and service people, who input the pricing. At that point, the report goes to the service advisor. “He rings the customer and takes them through the inspection results, so they are comfortable with and confident in what we are doing,” Downie says.
“In terms of the speed, integration and immediacy of data for both customers and service staff, it is an absolutely wonderful process.”
Moving forward, the rest of Stillwell’s strategic plan focuses on positioning them as the best prestige and premium automotive retail business in Melbourne. To get there, they will focus on sustainable growth and acquisitions – what they will not do is rush in to anything. “In this period of the strategic plan, we want to grow at a pace that allows us to grow successfully,” explains Downie. “I’ve worked for large corporations where they’ve acquired businesses too rapidly and it’s been difficult to integrate.”
“We certainly have the ambition within our strategic plan to acquire additional businesses,” he adds. “But one at a time, while professionally integrating them.”
In the long term, Downie says they are looking at the ages of the second and third generation Stillwell family members and making the plans necessary to, essentially, keep the ‘Stillwell’ in ‘Stillwell Motor Group.’
“We’re developing them as the future custodians of the business,” Downie says. “In 2022 or around then, there will be a transition from second generation to third generation. We’re deeply into that process at the moment. That demonstrates how serious the Stillwell family is about the longevity of the business.”