Friday 11 September 2020 (by Zoom) with ALISON ROSS, Ops Director AUTO TRADER GROUP plc.
Once upon a time a man called John Madejski went on holiday to the USA and came back with the bright idea of magazines full of classified ads for used car sales. That’s how Auto Trader began, with its first Thames Valley Trader in 1977. Back then he and his friend Paul Gibbons drove round the local garages themselves every week; but as it became national then international, Madejski sold his share in 1998 for a cool £260m. His friend moved on to buying and improving golf courses.
For decades it was a classic publishing house, owned by the Guardian Group. Management was forward thinking however, getting ads onto the fledgling internet even before Google was founded. But the new CEO in 2013 (Trevor Mather) insisted it was time to move on: the final magazine was printed that year (“Many people say they’ve seen the magazine recently, but they haven’t,” said our guest). The Guardian sold out and the business went public in 2015. The website now includes new cars, with test drives on their own YouTube channel. Annual revenue is £370m, of which some £260m is… profit. Wow.
Numbers like these that had our Zoom jaws dropping. What a transformation Alison Ross has seen since she joined in 2002, when the firm had 43 offices all over the UK, three big print factories and 4,500 employees. “That was very difficult,” Alison said, “A patchwork, very fractured, very little collaboration going on. Head office was in Newton-le-Willows, the middle of nowhere, which made recruitment very tricky.”
Alison herself has an equally dramatic trajectory. Originally from a south Wales mining valley, she’s had a variety of jobs; she ran pubs and a fish and chip shop before she “fell” into IT, though she disclaims being a techie of any sort. Since 2013 she’s been a member of the leadership team, a “very fluid and loose” group of around 12 to 17 people. It’s a collaborative environment in which everything is shared; in her view, that reduces office politics and bureaucracy, is “high trust and purpose-led.” She explained, “We are 100% a tech company, a digital information business; we willingly share knowledge. We are quick to make decisions, bold to act on them. That’s how we stay ahead.”
Her role is employee welfare – “all the non-commercial underpinnings of the business.” But in Auto Trader, that means she has responsibility with her team for 1,000 employees, 600 of them in Manchester. HQ is now in the city centre, in a fabulous office with cars in the reception area, right opposite the Home entertainment complex. “The location is not an accident,” she said. It has to be fun to come to work.
How did they get on with lockdown? “At first everything stopped dead. Nobody was buying a car, no car auctions, showrooms closed. Since then it’s been busy, as so many are avoiding public transport and need a car for work.” Which raises the question, why does this entirely digital company bother having an office at all?
That produced a very thoughtful response. “It’s .. not without challenge. Before, all our techie people were in one place and able to collaborate easily, and now they’re thoroughly enjoying working from home. Individuals are very productive, but the company is losing out – usually they’re inventing all the time. We will lose momentum.” So they’re starting a rota with everyone in one day a week. But to me, basic economics suggests that like Bloomberg (who are offering $75 per day to get staff back into the office), if you eventually want people to give up WFH, you’ll have to pay them.
Future plans..? More new cars, and more ancillary services around vehicle sales. Buying a car is a complex activity: finance, delivery and insurance are obvious developments. Buying cars outright, offering a better deal than webuyanycar.com is another possibility. “Digitalising it all is tough, but Facebook are going hard for the automotive market. And if we don’t do it, Amazon will.”
And where do they find their hundreds of techie staff? Another challenge. “Digital” is not seen by ambitious people as a great career to compare with medicine or the law, so many high-end vacancies offering £50-60,000 pa go unfilled. “Our UK education system doesn’t produce what we need, so we’re still bringing them in from eastern Europe and beyond.” Actually, the wider the pool, the more disrupters with creative, innovatory responses, so that’s not necessarily a disadvantage. They have both a graduate scheme and are big on apprenticeships, while driving hard for more diversity – “it’s hard work but very rewarding.”
Alison concluded on an enthusiastic note. She chairs the trade association Manchester Digital; despite these problems, she said, Manchester is reaching the magical “tipping point” in tech, pulling in more people to high quality jobs. That has to be good news for Auto Trader and the whole north-west. We smiled; the new arrivals will find a better quality of life beyond work, too. But then we would think that, for we live here already.