Course studied: BA Town & Country Planning (1994) and MSc Marketing (1995)
Position at time of writing: Chief Commercial Officer, Arnold Clark
Interesting fact: John has had the honour of meeting and having a drink with the legendary Rolling Stone, Sir Mick Jagger, and the band.
Tell us about your background?
I was brought up in the village of Killearn, just north of Glasgow, the eldest of six children. I attended The High School of Glasgow from the age of 5 until 17, before heading to Strathclyde Business School in 1991 to study for a B.A in Town and Country Planning. From there, I progressed to do an MSc in Marketing, graduating in 1995 at the age of 21 years old. I was lucky enough to spend my summers during the 1990s gaining vital experience in the family business. When I wasn’t partaking in skiing, sailing, or tennis, I was building my skills in aftersales, sales and customer services. I officially joined Arnold Clark Automobiles in 1996. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working in every department within the business, which has given me a great overview of how the company works from the inside out. All of this experience set me in good stead for my first management role in 1999 at our Helensburgh Ford site, which latterly became a Volkswagen branch.
Why did you choose Strathclyde?
Strathclyde was always my first choice, mainly due to my affiliation and loyalty to Glasgow and my shared ethos with the university. I was under pressure to start work immediately and had even considered not going into higher education, however, Strathclyde Business School had such a great reputation for pragmatic learning, and I knew I would leave with a high level of practical knowledge.
Do you have a highlight from your time at University?
The highlight has to be the people I met and the life-long friendships I formed. I really enjoyed the social side of university and got involved with the ski club, attending many trips abroad.
What piece of advice would you give to current students?
Don’t let the subject of your chosen degree depict what career you have; an education at degree level underpins the mental and physical discipline that can be applied to any type of work. Don’t restrict yourself to the chosen subject – it’s not always easy, but with dedication you will succeed. For example, our business is now very digitally driven, and even though I don’t have a background in computing, I still have a lot of input when it comes to this essential part of the business.
What has been the most memorable moment from your career so far?
There have been many highlights throughout my career at Arnold Clark; from leading one of the UK’s largest VW retailers and establishing our car buying service and our UK wide delivery centre concept. However, my most memorable moment was in 2015 at the age of 41, 16 years after taking on my first management role, when I was appointed to the main board as Group Franchise Director. It was a huge honour to take on this leading role in the company, and it led me to my current position – Chief Commercial Officer.
My proudest moments, however, have been watching the staff I started and trained move into senior roles within the business. It’s the number of people I have trained and their progression that gives me greatest satisfaction. In his later years, my father said he was a trainer, training staff every day – I now understand what he meant.
It was also a great landmark selling over 300,000 cars in a year and being the first UK motor dealer to make over £100 million in profit and the first to make over £200 million in profit.
To emphasise how amazing these achievements are, if you were to put all the cars that we sell in a year end to end, they would stretch from Glasgow to Geneva!
Can you give us an insight into being part of a successful family business?
Being part of a family business has many different challenges. However, the real advantage is that you are accountable to the ‘family’ who always take a long-term strategic view. We are not under threat of takeover, or the short termism. We are also able to reinvest nearly all our profits and take calculated risks that other businesses cannot. Furthermore, we have a CEO who has been in place for over 20 years, while our competitors continually churn through their senior management team. At Arnold Clark, all the board members and senior management are pretty much all long-serving employees, so stability and long-term experience is a massive advantage!
We try to take the best of both worlds. We put the best people in place from an operational perspective, whether they are family or not, but the family continue to have a strong input, and they still retain control – particularly when it comes to instilling our strong family values and encouraging a supportive working culture across the business. Inter-generation governance can be a problem; however, we have so far managed to navigate our way through this successfully and have a good solid framework in place for the future.
The success of our business, especially during recent times, has also been down to attracting and retaining the best possible talent – there’s no doubt that our people make Arnold Clark the business it is today.
We’re the UK’s largest independently owned, family-run car retailer; we’re the master of our own destiny and we’re not controlled by banks or financiers. Our aim is to become an employer of choice and to be the number one retailer, not just for cars but in relation to all forms of retail. We’re not just looking for short-term wins; we’re always looking ahead with a long-term vision and strategy in mind. This was evident in the acceleration of our digital business model throughout the pandemic and our 2030 plan.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I promised my late father that the team would transform Arnold Clark into a household name across the UK with the same recognition as it holds in Scotland – and we’re nearly there! We want to keep the business privately owned and uphold the family values and ethos we started with, particularly as we grow the company. We want the Arnold Clark name to be as recognisable as Sainsburys and Tesco. We also aim to keep good, well-paid Head Office jobs in Glasgow, continue to attract and retain top talent across the UK, while still offering employees the opportunity to develop a distinctive and rewarding career within Arnold Clark.
Our ambition is to sell 500,000 cars by 2025, but simultaneously reduce our carbon footprint by 33% by 2030. On top of this, we intend to roll out an electrification charging network and be the number one car retailer from a digital perspective. Meanwhile, local communities will remain at the heart of our business. As our profits grow, we want to increase our charity contributions, increasing the £10 million in 2021 we have already given to charity through our Community Fund initiative.