Snows Motor Group recently added the Mercedes-Benz van franchise in Exeter, bringing its impressive line-up to 18 automotive brands. Group chairman Stephen Snow tells Tim Wickham you can never afford to stand still in the motor business.
One of the south’s leading motor groups, Snows is seventh in the Solent 250, with a turnover of £268.2m in 2016. The company forecasts annual turnover for 2017 will be well in excess of £300m.
The group’s story starts with Andover-born Geoff Snow, who joined the Royal Navy at 16, then worked for a local business equipment company. In 1962, aged 29, he borrowed £275 from a friend and took over another office supplies company. Before long, he’d added printing and rubber stamp making operations. The Snows Business Forms name continues today, still supplying to the automotive industry, although the family no longer has a connection with the company.
Snow’s ambitions lay in other directions. After brief forays into hair salons, boutiques and furniture sales in the 1970s, his entrepreneurial spirit drove him even more to the automotive industry. First as a supplier and then, in 1979, with a Toyota dealership.
The group now employs nearly 800 people across 41 dealerships, from Yeovil and Plymouth in the west, Chichester and Guildford to the east, and north to Basingstoke and Newbury. The 18 brands in the group are Abarth, Alfa Romeo, BMW, Citroen, DS, Fiat, Jeep, Kia, Lexus, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz Vans, MINI, Peugeot, SEAT, Suzuki, Toyota, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles and Volvo. “We were honoured to be asked by Mercedes-Benz to look at representing them with a brand new Van Centre,” said Stephen Snow, who took over the group when his father retired in 2007.
Expansion through acquisition
The range of brands in the Snows stable illustrates how the automotive industry is consolidating, as well as the group’s desire to stay one step ahead. “If you stand still you won’t be around for long, you’ve got to keep growing and developing. When suitable opportunities to buy dealerships come along, we’ll take them,” said Snow.
“We recognise we can’t compete in buying dealerships with the bigger public limited companies, they would simply outbid us. Instead, we concentrate on smaller networks, often where a dealership has cashflow problems or the motor manufacturer wants a change in ownership. Manufacturers know we are prepared to get stuck in and get our hands dirty to improve them.”
Having premium brands in its portfolio offers the group a degree of protection against economic uncertainties, although a degree of ‘plate-spinning’ is always needed. “When one brand is doing well, another might not be and will need attention,” noted Snow.
Snow and his team of directors take difficult decisions to turn around new businesses, but he never forgets people underpin its success. “We want employees who join the group to come on the journey with us and we invest heavily in supporting them, especially training,” he said.
Earlier this year the first intake of seven apprentices graduated from the recently launched Snows training academy. Through initiatives like this the group aims to be an attractive career choice for school and college leavers.
Digital technology is being used to transform the business. For example, customers can view video clips showing what repairs their car needs, or watch a live walk-around view of a car they are thinking of buying. “Our website currently receives 750,000 visits a year and we want to build that to over a million,” said Snow. “We’ve invested in adapting the website for mobile and smart devices, which now account for about 70% of our internet traffic.”
In the highly competitive car business, customer loyalty can be hard won and easily lost. The group is proud that over half its business comes from returning customers or those recommended by past customers. TWDs – ‘tremendously well done’ awards – incentivise staff to ‘go the extra mile’ delivering customer service.
“Our aim is to create amazing experiences for our customers over the period they own their vehicle. That means delivering what customers want and getting it right first time for them,” he said.