Peoples Ford Strategy & Operations Director, Nicola Gilda was interviewed for Business Herald Magazine and here's what she had to say...
Much of the success of family-owned companies, as Ian McConnell points out in his column in this month’s Herald Business Magazine, comes from taking the long-term view. It’s been one that is central to the operation at Peoples, the Ford dealership founded in Bathgate in1983 by the indomitable Brian Gilda. Last year the Falkirk-based company, with three branches in Scotland and four in England, turned over a record £237 million, with profits of £5.5m, adding to growth over the previous two – and 2015 also saw the appointment of Nicola Gilda, Brian’s eldest daughter as Group Strategy and Operations Director, one of the most senior roles at the company.
The promotion, she points out, was no sudden elevation; rather the result of years of experience gained at Peoples since she was 18 and through occupying a place on the board for the past 11 years.
It was, though, an important one both for her and the industry in general, in which women executives are still rare, despite the significant spend and influence females have when it comes to car and garage sales.
She herself has played a pivotal role in developing the strategy at Peoples since joining the board – though as an 18-year-old, she admits, her ambitions were not meticulously planned.
Nicola describes herself as having a good English and social sciences student at school but without any firm idea of what career path to take. “My sisters Jocelyn and Stephanie now work as a solicitor and for fashion designer Robert Cavalli in South Africa and I began working in the dealership we then had in Rutherglen doing holiday cover for reception. When my father suggested that I came in to work with the group finance director we were in the process of creating a separate HR department.”
It was, she says, a lightbulb moment. “Working with people, development and planning spoke to my values.” She studied for an MSc in business and strategic HR management at the University of Strathclyde, combining that with her work at Peoples. “And when my role changed last year to Group Strategy and Operations Director, I had in effect, already been fulfilling that role for several years.”
She says her father, who is chairman and managing director remains extremely active – and has exacting standards. “He always strives for excellence and expects nothing but the best – in fact probably more from me than anyone else and my colleagues are well aware of that.
“The staff know the family and I try very hard to be approachable. If a colleague at any has a problem I want them to have trust and confidence in me.”
She recalls an event in 2009, during a period when she spent five years running one of Peoples’ dealerships in Merseyside. “It was the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough stadium disaster and feelings were very raw as we had staff who had family members who had been injured or died so we arranged to have a two-minute silence. When the Scottish team found out about it they immediately decided to take part.
“Equally, when the result of the Brexit referendum result was announced the first reaction of our English staff was concern about the consequences for Scotland.”
The extended family approach is a laudable – and apparently effective – one but Peoples operates in a marketplace where competition is ruthless and margins notoriously tight.
“The reality is we need volume; our car and van sales are up to 18,000 units and we want people who will return to us, as aftersales is the backbone of our business.”
The company’s close association with Ford is, Nicola says, a unique advantage for Peoples, which is in the process of changing its trading name to Peoples Ford to reflect that. “We won’t dilute our expertise, and that comes from our association with Ford.”
She works with the company on its dealer councils and has been appointed to Ford of Europe’s consumer experience council, alongside Elena Ford, a granddaughter of Henry Ford II.
These are big responsibilities. “If someone had told me as a teenager dancing to the Stone Roses that I’d be writing policy papers that would go to the upper echelons of the Ford Motor Company I wouldn’t have believed them but I’ve grown into the job.”
It’s a job she now has to juggle with family responsibilities. As the mother of a four-year old-son she says that phone conversations as she takes him to kindergarten are occasionally punctuated by his happy singing. “But that’s what makes me human and it’s important that my colleagues know what I’m like as a person.”
As a person – and a woman – she’s sensitive to the fact that female car buyers are often less likely to say that the process of buying a car is and easy or enjoyable one and to find it daunting.
“We constantly ask ourselves how we can make the experience memorable, and ensure that the customer recollects it fondly. It’s a buyer’s market and our success is largely down to how the customer is treated and how valued they feel.”
This also informs the company’s recruitment policy, one based on character and personality. “In Merseyside I hired my taxi driver purely because his personality fitted our ethos: he had an enthusiastic approach and I knew he would be able to chat to people easily and direct them to the products they wanted right away.”
Customer expectation has risen exponentially since Nicola, now 41, first began working for the company 23 years ago and much of this has been driven by the advent of digital technology and social media. “We have a hugely experienced customer relationship department and whether it’s out-of-hours live chat at 9.30pm or someone wanting to talk to us at 8am there will be a member of our staff there to respond.
“The market keeps evolving: we have a fluid business model and have to anticipate and respond to change and if something is developing in the marketplace we are in discussions with Ford about it very early on.”
She would like to see positive moves in advancing the role of women in business. “If you look at the current political landscape and how women are represented there, there’s no reason why we should not have more women in senior business positions.”
Motivation and staff engagement at Peoples she says is high – boosted, among other things by the arrival in the UK after almost 50 years of a right-hand drive variant of the iconic Ford Mustang and the new Vignale range.
“We have people in their fifties who have been with us since they were apprentice technicians and we wouldn’t have it any other way. The way forward is a combination of consistency in delivery and keeping the business model fluid. I don’t shy away from making tough decisions, foreseeing change and not being afraid to grasp the opportunities.”