Graeme Potts’ CV reads like a who’s who of the business world. Marks & Spencer, Inchcape and the RAC are just some of the corporate giants he’s worked for, yet he readily admits his achievements have been driven by good fortune rather than a grand career plan. Today he is best known as the founder and managing director of the Eden Motor Group, a network of 12 dealerships across the south and south west of England, which employs 500 people and has a turnover of around £200 million. An armchair sports fan, he still manages to attend home games at his beloved Sunderland Football Club and enjoys nothing more than mentoring up-and-coming young managers.
Now 56, Potts was born and brought up in a former mining village just outside Sunderland. With both parents working – his father was a clerk and his mother a shop assistant – he says he and his two siblings enjoyed a happy, if not especially affluent, home life. Academically bright, but probably not focused enough, he attended the local grammar school before studying economics at Leicester Polytechnic, a result that didn’t sit well with his teachers, who said he was clever enough to go to Oxford. On leaving university, he beat competition from fellow graduates to win a coveted place on a Marks & Spencer graduate training programme and four years later was headhunted to join the motor giant Reg Vardy plc, going on to become CEO. From there he took on the role of group managing director of newly-demutualised RAC Motoring Services, turning around a sharp decline in membership numbers and returning it to profitability. Several years as Inchcape MD UK, Europe and Latin America then followed, giving him the chance to fulfil his international ambitions. In 2008 he changed tack and, striking out on his own, went into a joint venture with Vauxhall, buying five car dealerships with a turnover of £60m in 2008, transforming them into the business they are today. Potts has two adult sons, both of whom work in automotive retail.
Were you always ambitious?
I had one driving ambition from the age of 12, and that was to buy a car of my own. As a family, we didn’t have a car until I was 15, but I worked hard and saved hard to reach my goal. My elder brother and I had paper rounds, but he used to spend his money every week at the football, whereas I saved mine and had a second Saturday job as well. I passed my test quickly and bought a battered old mini-van with a bus seat mounted on blocks in the back – I bought it for £70 and sold it six months later for £110, which wasn’t bad.
Career-wise though, I never had a plan. Apart from my first job at M&S, I have never applied for a job in my life. When things have come my way and they have felt right, then I have done them to the best of my ability.
Who inspired you?
I had a headmaster at primary school who used to talk about a desire for excellence and I still remember it very well; that pursuit of excellence has stayed with me in everything I do. I also admired my father, who worked exceptionally hard in what was probably a very mundane job in order to provide for the family.
Take us back to your first job at M&S, what was that like?
I was hugely impressed with their culture. Every manager was expected to know how to do the jobs of the people in their teams, so that meant working in the warehouse, in packaging, on the shop floor. They also taught me that with seniority comes responsibility and accountability and that’s something I hold dear today. I spent four and a half years with M&S and that time was very formative in terms of attitude to business and an unremitting focus on standards which could never be compromised.
Why did you leave to join Reg Vardy?
I knew Peter Vardy personally and he wanted to develop the business. One day he said why didn’t we combine his salesmanship and my retail expertise and work together. That was in 1983 and the next 16 and a half years were a rollercoaster. Peter was an out-and-out entrepreneur, whereas I see myself as an entrepreneurial generalist, but we worked well and it gave me a great experience in taking a smaller business up through various acquisition and expansions and on to flotation. It was a very small senior team so I was dealing with all sorts of things, from HR and training to lawyers and accountants. I called it the “university of business experience”.
What I particularly loved in the later phases was being able to take those younger managers who had a real commercial drive and business nous and coach their business careers. I believe that some skills are more innate, they can’t be taught because it’s all about passion and mindset that moulds them into good business people. When I look around today, I still see several of my alumni in the industry, it was a bit like giving them a masterclass in business skills.
How would you describe yourself?
As driven but not ruthless. When I joined the RAC, the number of customers using their roadside service had been in decline for about seven years, but within three months we reversed the decline and in just over a year took the number of individual customers from two million to about four million. We had a huge celebration.
I also have a competitive spirit. When I arrived, the parent company had already engaged a number of advisers, including a cultural change consultant to help align the values and objectives of the business. I told my boss that was what I would be doing, so we agreed the consultant would come back a few weeks later. There were 10,000 people in the organisation and I went on roadshows, spoke to every colleague at group meetings and made it my job to communicate. When the consultant returned, he could see the changes – if someone says you can’t do something commercially and I know I can, I will go to the nth degree to make it happen.
Having been so successful, what prompted you to start again?
I had promised myself that when I reached 50, I would do something completely different and leave the large corporate world. I took some non-exec director type roles, made some investments in some small private companies and enjoyed providing mentoring advice to help them grow and succeed.
I had a longstanding desire to own my own business though and I didn’t want to hang up my boots without doing so. I was fortunate to be able to buy into five Vauxhall dealerships which Inchcape was selling because they were no longer part of the core business, and from there started Eden Motor Group.
You’re very much a people person
Yes, I passionately believe in taking time to get to know people and I genuinely get my energy from my colleagues. My business meetings always used to overrun because I was talking to people – it took two PAs to keep me focused.
We have about 500 people and I take very seriously the fact that I am responsible for making sure they can be paid every month. I still love employing young people at the start of their careers but I also really value our older colleagues – we have a great spread of ages from 16–77 years old.
What are your future ambitions?
One is to live up to our strapline “A better world of motoring”, that’s the lifeblood of my ambition for the business – to prove to ourselves, to our customers and manufacturers that we can deliver excellence and market share. We always hit our targets and we do it in six days, not seven because we don’t open on Sundays. I think generally speaking, customers get a poor service on Sundays, I won’t open if there isn’t a responsible manager on site who can take decisions and, as someone whose faith is important to me, I think it’s right that we should have Sundays as a day off.
Secondly, I don’t have any aspirations to run a mega company, if I had, I would have stayed in a plc. For me, what’s important is a culture where I know everyone, speak to everyone and they know me. It’s about names not numbers and we want to provide the level of quality and service commensurate with a specialist brand, while providing a competitive product.
I’ve been told that “never satisfied” is my middle name – I prefer to think of it as having a healthy discontent with the status quo.
Your charity work is also very important to you
Yes, the industry has been very good to me and I’m very socially conscious about the need to give support and help to those less fortunate, which is why I’m involved with BEN, which is a charity for those who work, or have worked, in the automotive and related industries, as well as their dependants.
What do you do on your time off?
My father was always a Sunderland supporter and although he’s no longer with us, we keep two family season tickets so still I manage to go to some games. Closer to home I support Reading but overall I’d say I had a “non-active interest” in most sports.
You now have your pick of cars, so what do you drive?
Normally I drive a Vauxhall or Mazda, but in the spirit of “openness” I am currently driving a Jaguar XF, simply because I’ve had a lifelong love affair with them.