Features Interviews

Interview: Paul Tanner

Time 11 years ago

screen-shot-2011-05-10-at-161947From delivery driver to MD, Alan Day Volkswagen’s boss has had a remarkable career path. JAMES BATCHELOR chats to him

Paul Tanner joined the motor industry 24 years ago and has remained in it ever since. ‘I joined Alan Day Volkswagen as a parts driver in 1987 when I was 19 years

old. In actual fact, my wife-to-be had been working there for one year in the admin department before I joined. We also went to school together,’ Tanner, now managing director of the same firm explains.

‘What he doesn’t tell you initially are the really impressive bits’

That decision to become a parts driver started a path that has led him to eventually taking the top slot at the firm – quite a career path…

‘After a short while as a driver, I moved on through the business into the parts department. I then spent two years in an apprenticeship in the service department doing electrical work, then I went back into the parts department as supervisor, and then I was asked to jump straight past parts manager to service manger. Later I took on the whole site as aftersales manager.’

Tanner describes his career in a very modest fashion. What he doesn’t tell you initially are the really impressive bits, like the fact he combined them with sporting talents on a national level.

‘I played football for Watford up until the age of 18, and I was also quite good at athletics.’ Quite good is an understatement as Tanner represented Great Britain at hurdles at the European club championships in his late teens.

However, at the age of 19, disaster struck in the form of an injury that immediately ended his sporting career. It’s clear he finds it a difficult subject to talk about. What is clear, though, is the accident forced Tanner to pick himself up and put his efforts into something other than sport.

‘I had always had a strong work ethic. When I was an athlete I trained every day, and only ever had one day off a week. When I joined Alan Day Volkswagen, I most certainly wasn’t your typical driver. You would never find me just sitting around waiting for the next job – I was up cleaning shelves in the parts department! I’m just like that. I can’t sit still and I have to be doing something. That was something that Alan Day himself noticed and gave me the opportunities he did.’

It was this attitude to his job that saw Tanner work his way up through the business so quickly. After his time driving the firm’s vans, Tanner began an apprenticeship in the workshop. ‘I was your typical boy in that I loved electrics, and enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together again,’ he says. ‘I spent six months with the vehicle electrician, working alongside him to learn the ropes, and then I was doing my own electrical repairs to vehicles.’

‘I remember standing on top of the cars with a saw cutting out a hole for the sunroof to go into’

This was early 1990s London. It was a time when expensive luxuries in cars in the previous decade started to filter down to mere mortals who desired these comforts in their Volkswagen Golf GLs. It was a moment when the fitment of aftermarket radios, CD and cassette players, central locking, alarms, electric windows and cruise control systems to customers’ cars were in extraordinary demand.

‘There was a huge market for it,’ says Tanner. ‘Cars would come in without electric sunroofs, and such was the demand for them, I remember standing on top of the cars with a saw cutting out a hole for the sunroof to go into. If that happened today, health and safety would have a fit!’

But standing on top of a VW Jetta and cutting holes into the roof to slot in a tilt and slide was 20 years ago. Now he’s managing director of Alan Day Volkswagen which has four sites, and is one of Volkswagen’s most forward-looking dealership groups.

The story of Tanner becoming the big boss began in 2006 when Alan Day wanted to retire. Tanner had been running the Volkswagen sites for Day for a number of years, but then decided to join Volkswagen’s sponsored retailer programme. If successful, Tanner would have been in charge of a VW dealership, but VW could give him the keys to a dealership anywhere in the country.

‘It’s fitting that Tanner took over the Volkswagen side to the Alan Day business’

In an extraordinary stroke of luck, Alan Day decided to retire in 2006. Tanner seized his opportunity and bought Day’s Volkswagen dealerships, and was granted permission by the Day family to use the Alan Day name.

In many respects, it was quite fitting that Tanner took over the Volkswagen side to the Alan Day business. Not only had Tanner joined when he was 19, but he was mentored by Day in the art of dealership management.

‘When Alan Day was running the business, he was a very driven man,’ explains Tanner. ‘He was a stickler for detail who settled for nothing less than perfect. The showroom had to look and feel right, and the cars outside had to be spotless. Everything that I know about the motor trade, I learnt from him – he was a great mentor.’ One significant piece of business acumen Tanner learnt was customer service. ‘Back in the days I was starting out, Volkswagen had a programme called Blue Ribbon and it was something that Alan Day Volkswagen won six times on the trot,’ Tanner recalls. ‘It was given in recognition of excellent customer service and the deliverance of a quality service from sales through to parts, and was much respected by the network.’

So what’s the secret to good customer service? ‘Employing the right staff,’ says Tanner. ‘For me it is all about getting the right people who have the right mind-set, and we work really hard in delivering the best customer service. An example of our attitude towards customer service is us bringing back “host” staff. I’ve recently been interviewing the candidates myself to make sure that we get the right staff to do the job – a job which I see in the same vein as air hostesses on first class flights, or a maitre de in a restaurant.’

‘Tanner is also at the forefront of Volkswagen UK’s drive to make its dealers more ‘green’’

It’s not just bold plans like this, though. Tanner is also at the forefront of Volkswagen UK’s drive to make its dealers more ‘green’. A new site under the Alan Day name will be built by 2012 and will be the ‘greenest car dealership in the country’.

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While the future is bright (and green) for Tanner, the present is nevertheless a far cry from being a delivery driver all those years ago. ‘That is the very thing,’ says Tanner. ‘I have 10 to 15 people that have been with me right from when I was a driver who recognise that I am still the same guy now as I was when I was driving vans.

‘I play football with six of my technicians once a week, and we regularly have nights out to enjoy ourselves. I don’t think I am different from anyone – they know that and there’s a strong connection between all of us.’

Thanks to his father being a lorry driver, Tanner has always had transport running through his veins. But it’s sport that is the real driver in his life – and it’s a theme that is present in the next generation of Tanners too. ‘I have a boy and a girl,’ Tanner remarks. ‘My son is a gymnast. He’s 12 and trains 25 hours a week. He was national champion at the age of nine – the sport and the commitment has definitely run through. But my wife is pushing towards the academic side.’ Like father, like son then – only time will tell if he’ll be the next safe pair of hands for the Alan Day Volkswagen business.

James Batchelor's avatar

James – or Batch as he’s known – started at Car Dealer in 2010, first as the work experience boy, eventually becoming editor in 2013. He worked for Auto Express as editor-at-large and was the face of Carbuyer’s YouTube reviews. In 2020, he went freelance and now writes for a number of national titles and contributes regularly to Car Dealer.

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