William Blackshaw has grafted his way to the top of the family firm in Northumberland – via shifts at a pizza shop – but it took a chat with a cousin to realise where his destiny lay, as JAMES BATCHELOR found out
WILLIAM Blackshaw is busy organising a big celebration. The family business’s current site in Alnwick, Northumberland, notches up its 10th year of successful trading in just a few months, and he has tasked himself with doing something special to mark the occasion.
‘We used to be in the town centre but moved to the new site 10 years ago,’ he tells me. ‘So we should do something to celebrate it. We are looking to get the stunt driver Paul Swift to put on a display for our customers, and there will be the usual music and food on offer.
‘The car industry has a habit of doing just the same things all of the time – when one person has an idea we all tend to copy it. We just want to do something a bit more special for our celebrations but nothing silly.’
William may well be making final arrangements to celebrate the anniversary but the Blackshaws business is far older than just a decade. It all began in 1919 when two brothers, John Charles and Edward Warren Blackshaw, decided to create their own garage selling cars and motorbikes, quickly becoming one of the only places in Northumberland to buy a two- or four-wheeled vehicle. Six years later, the firm moved to Bondgate Without, Alnwick, where it was to stay until 2004.
Through the next decades, ownership of the business passed through successive family members and saw Blackshaws ditch its Rover franchise for Datsun/Nissan in the 1980s and acquire representation for Suzuki in Northumberland in the 1990s.
‘I couldn’t run this business without the people around me. We have some really fantastic staff members’
William’s story began in 2000. ‘Back then, the business probably wasn’t as strong as it is today and that was because my dad didn’t have the quality of people that I have around me,’ he says. ‘I was never interested in the family business, to be perfectly honest.
‘I didn’t know how a car worked, I never had pictures of cars on my bedroom wall and I certainly never watched Top Gear – it was all about football and computers for me.
‘I was chatting to my cousin, who asked me what I was going to do for my work experience, and I said I wanted to go and work in a computer shop. He said: “Are you stupid? You’ve got a family business. Why do you need to go and get work experience anywhere else?” I remember thinking he was probably right, and if it hadn’t been for that conversation, I wouldn’t be where I am now.’
William spent a short while learning how his family business worked while juggling schoolwork and shifts at the local pizza shop. ‘I got so involved, it got to the point where my schoolwork went downhill massively.
‘That’s when my dad said to me: “If you think you’re coming to work for us with poor grades, then you can forget it.” It was then I realised I needed to work hard at school and I got some average grades.
‘I always thought my dad gave us rubbish pay as an apprentice mechanic – especially as I was earning more money at the pizza shop, two nights a week. But now I understand what it’s like to run a business!’
William worked his way up, trying his hand at various positions before taking the top job of dealer principal in 2012. But if he isn’t a car guy and is responsible for the operation of a 95-year-old business, the pressure must be intense?
‘I don’t know if it’s because I was taught well or if it’s the people around me, but I do find it easy,’ he says. ‘For example, last weekend Suzuki asked us to paint the showroom to conform to minimum standards.
‘I always thought my dad gave us rubbish pay as an apprentice mechanic, but now I understand what it’s like to run a business!’
‘Bearing in mind I had been on holiday all week, I turned up at eight in the morning on Sunday to meet the painters and decorator. I thought better start scrubbing the workshop from top to bottom. It was 9pm when I left, so the passion is there – it’s not that I love cleaning, it’s just that I am passionate about the business.’
Despite him being a dealer principal in his 30s, you could never call William arrogant. He’s down-to-earth in his outlook.
‘I couldn’t run this business without the people around me. We have some really fantastic members of staff who stay with the business – and we are so lucky to have that,’ he says. ‘I think what also helps is the camaraderie we all have, especially among the senior members of staff, and the fact that this is a proper family business. My sister is in accounts, my uncle is in sales and my auntie is in HR and marketing – but I refer to all of our senior staff as uncle or auntie because they have been there while I have grown up and have helped me.’
So, how does William see the future panning out for this family business that’s rich with heritage? ‘I’m aware we need to be a lot better digitally and with our customers. We have very strong customer satisfaction but we could be doing more with those customers that contact us via email,’ he says.
‘I have been spending a lot of my time developing our online presence with a new website, improved SEO and the use of video content, but we must continue our momentum. We have some large dealer groups nearby and we must fight them to get hold of and keep that online customer.
‘We need to maximise our DMS system, integrate our website lead-management system, ensure our staff continue to perform strongly, and make sure our CSI maintains its strength. Blackshaws will never be the biggest, but we will be the best – I am confident of that.
‘I just hope I am here with this business when I talk to you about our 100-year celebrations.