One year on since the beginning of the UK’s first Covid-19 national lockdown, and the motor trade can look back on a period of unprecedented upheaval and turmoil.
On the evening of March 23, prime minister Boris Johnson said in a televised address to the nation: ‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.’
Within hours the pause button was pressed on the car industry as a whole, with car dealers told to lock showroom doors and forecourt gates.
The immediate restrictions would be looked at again ‘in three weeks’ and be relaxed ‘if the evidence shows we are able to’, said the PM.
Exactly 12 months to the day, Car Dealer has looked back at those first few weeks of the lockdown to see what car industry bosses were thinking.
Today is the anniversary of the worst day in my career. The Government ordered the forced closure of our business. c5000 colleagues furloughed, albeit many only for a short period. I was lucky to have a purpose but for many it was a deeply stressful experience.
— Robert Forrester (@vertumotorsCEO) March 23, 2021
We are at war
Car Dealer, just like the rest of the motor trade, wondered what the national lockdown would mean to car dealers, and the first Car Dealer Live aired on March 25 to discuss the then-new furlough scheme.
Four days later, Marshall boss Daksh Gupta appeared on Car Dealer Live to give a picture of what went on at the dealer group in the weeks running up to March 23, 2020, and bluntly said ‘we are at war with coronavirus’.
‘We were monitoring the situation in China very closely, but most people in business started to realise the severity in the second week of February,’ Gupta told Car Dealer founder James Baggott on March 27.
‘We took it very seriously at this point and started to put communications out to employees about what to do, but the pace of change was incredible.’
If you were to choose the worst time to close you’d do it in the last eight or nine days of the month. This will cost us north of £10m.
Marshall put their results out on February 28 and that from moment onwards ‘it was nothing but Covid-19’ with seven-day working weeks for Marshall’s executive team.
Marshall, along with other dealers including Sytner, Lookers and Chorley group, decided to close their doors before the prime minister’s announcement on the evening of March 23.
Marshall also said it would pay employees fully for four weeks, but asked workers to forgo some holiday, and said it would do all it could to prevent redundancies.
After the chancellor’s announcement of 80 per cent wages under the furlough scheme, Marshall said it would pay 90 per cent.
‘I spoke to the team over the weekend (before the PM’s announcement) and said we should close – big call because clearly hadn’t made any communications,’ he explained. ‘We then announced that on Monday morning and then got final board approval on the Monday afternoon.
‘If you were going to pick the worst time to do this, you would pick March or September – March is the bigger month and if you were to choose the worst time to close you’d do it in the last eight or nine days of the month. This will cost us north of £10m.’
Marshall quickly put in place a hub approach to its franchises, closing the fewest number of sites to give the maximum amount of coverage. Out of the 61 franchises, 44 sites were open.
When Gupta appeared on the show the UK had been locked down for just four days, and the immediate priority was not securing car orders in readiness for a predicted pent-up demand (a soon-to-be buzzword of 2020), but keeping NHS workers on the road.
‘In terms of sales, we’ll worry about that later,’ he said. ‘Let’s get our priorities straight and let’s make sure we are there for these key workers.
‘I’m not really worried if we sell a car – we’ll worry about this on the other side. Many businesses have completely shut up shop and taken the £2,500 grant from the government; there is going to be very little business out there because people shouldn’t be on the road.’
12 months ago our dealers closed the doors for what we believed would be 4-6 weeks, 12 months on and still in lock down, however a rejuvenated sector that has adapted and evolved with the speed of change, providing a world class click & collect service @GRANGEMOTORS @MotorParks pic.twitter.com/TBP6yOsgNH
— Ian Godbold (@Godders99) March 23, 2021
13 years to build it, two days to close it
‘A friend of mine in the City said to me in early February that I really needed to take this seriously, and we started detail planning in late February, early March,’ he explained.
‘We banned travel and locked people down and then as the news rolled in we started to think where we would go.’
Like Gupta, Forrester gave a blunt assessment of the damage the coronavirus pandemic would have on the motor trade, saying ‘our business will never be the same again’.
‘I think it has probably been one of the most stressful periods I’ve had,’ he said. ‘It’s taken 13 years to build a business and it took two days to close it.’
At the time of the interview – seven days into Lockdown 1 – Forrester was optimistic.
This is the new normal and people get used to things very, very quickly.
‘I think the uncertainty of the week before last was difficult because we kept making plans and then kept changing them,’ he said. ‘I’m a lot better this week – this is the new normal and people get used to things very, very quickly.’
Forrester added: ‘You read history and people get used to the most bizarre situations; both my parents were born in 1941, which I’ve always thought what a stupid time to have children. Why people would decide to have a family in 1941?
‘People will decide to have a family when they want to – there is a projected baby boom in December; people now have a lot of time on their hands.’
Speaking of the days running up to March 23, Forrester said: ‘We had a plan to close the business on the Wednesday (following the Monday announcement) and then we changed that to 4pm Tuesday. We were able to communicate to all 6,000 employees immediately and importantly keep morale high.’
Covid-19 escalated in no time
Neil McCue, Snows Motor Group chief operating officer, said he felt ‘panic’ when the PM’s announcement came, he said on Car Dealer Live on April 20.
However, the group’s board quickly came together to protect the company’s employees and cash management.
Thanks to a small board, which could take quick decisions on in an ever-changing climate, within a short space of time 74 employees remained working and 949 were put on furlough.
‘You just never think you’d have to close your dealership doors,’ he said at the time.
‘We work in an industry where you see customers and staff every single day and perhaps we were blasé as a country, but when you finally hear the words ‘you’ve got to shut’ – it’s a really, really tough thing to hear.
‘One minute you think it’s not going to affect you and then it escalated in no time.’
On March 23, Sytner chief executive Darren Edwards announced to staff and customers all of its dealerships would close on March 24.
When you put so much heart and soul into setting up a business, and then you’re standing there, locking the doors and the daily machine of work stops, it’s weird.
On the company’s website, Edwards said: ‘Over the coming days, the Sytner team will work together, to care for our customers and look after each other’s well-being.
‘This is a situation that we have not had to deal with before; we are entering uncharted territory and will be learning and adapting as we travel along this path.’
In May, a little later than expected, Sytner launched its click and collect service, just like hundreds of other dealers across the country in the months that followed.
Perhaps it was Car Quay’s Jamie Caple who summed up what thousands of car dealers felt in March 2020.
Speaking on Car Dealer Live on April 3, Caple said: ‘When you put so much heart and soul into setting up a business, and then you’re standing there, locking the doors and the daily machine of work stops, it’s weird.’
Showrooms are currently scheduled to open on April 12 as restrictions ease in the wake of the third national lockdown
- Join our breaking news WhatsApp group
- Listen to the latest Car Dealer Podcast
- List of the Top 100 profitable car dealers in the UK