THE boss of one of the region's fastest growing PLCs is so intent on providing good customer service he still deals with all the complaints personally.
ALL customer complaints from the 56 dealerships in Newcastle-based motor retailer Vertu’s national chain arrive in the email inbox of its chief executive Robert Forrester.
Forrester recounts sitting at home in Gosforth in Newcastle on a Sunday night as his Blackberry goes off with a complaint about service from one of his showrooms, and he immediately responds by calling the customer to get to the bottom of the problem.
He reckons he gets up to four complaints every day and handles each one personally.
Vertu publishes weekly, quarterly and annual complaint league tables and the chief executive says this emphasis on customer service is now paying dividends.
"I like to deal with customer feedback individually. On our website we have sections for good and bad feedback and when we get good feedback I will write to the colleague to thank them.
"If I get negative feedback I will phone or write to the customer and hopefully sort it out quickly. A copy will also be sent to the general manager and the divisional director.
"That is why our staff do not like complaints. We are trying to build a culture where we do not get complaints and we are seeing progress with the levels coming down in the last six months.
"Complaint levels are published in the league tables. Our dealerships want to make sure they are not at the top!"
Forrester says last week he saw an after-sales consumer satisfaction report from car manufacturer Citroen which showed that Vertu’s Nottingham dealership had achieved a 100% rating.
"That is quite a staggering performance. All our dealerships are now on an upward trend," he enthuses.
Vertu, which is headquartered on Newcastle’s Quayside, is now the ninth largest car dealership in the UK and has grown rapidly since floating on the stock market in October 2006.
It now has 50 franchised dealerships across the UK under the Bristol Street Motors brand name and four Bristol Street Motor Nation used car outlets.
It sells around 70,000 cars a year, has annual sales of £800m and recently secured an additional £30m with a rights issue. It is on the lookout for further purchases as, and when, they become available.
Forrester is setting no limits on how big Vertu can go and he has learned to think big after he was tutored by Sunderland motor tycoon Sir Peter Vardy who grew Reg Vardy in Sunderland into a national chain before selling it for £506m in 2006.
He has a clear perception of why, in such a competitive and low-margin business, he can turn Vertu into the best.
"It’s all about our people. It’s about employing, motivating, training and rewarding the best people and they will deliver the best they can for the company. Our business is all about people," he says.
"Our goal is to be the best within the industry and we are focussed for growth. Our aim is to do the job the right way. We want to recruit the best people in the industry and deliver great levels of customer satisfaction. You cannot build a good business without the right people."
Forrester was born in Blackburn, although he is a supporter of nearby Burnley Football Club. Early in his life his family moved to Shropshire where they still live.
He studied geography at Oxford University and secured a trainee accountancy position with Arthur Andersen where he stayed for nine years.
At that point he decided to get into industry and secured a director’s post at private property investment group Brookhouse in Manchester.
He says he learnt a lot from John Hindle, who owns the property company.
"It was my first job outside accountancy and I got a lot of experience on how a good business is run," he says.
At 29 Forrester nearly died of meningitis and was only saved by his wife Helen, a doctor, who diagnosed his condition over the telephone from her home in Newcastle.
He said: "At first Helen thought I had "man flu" and I started to feel a bit better after taking some medication, but by 6pm I was at home by myself and my hands and feet started turning black.
"I was taken to hospital by a friend and the hospital said if I had left it for another hour I would have died."
It was while at home convalescing from this illness that Forrester applied for the finance director’s job at Reg Vardy’s in Sunderland.
He said: "I was 29 and I needed to get into a PLC."
He secured the job, moved North and stayed with Reg Vardy for seven years until it was bought by vehicle retail giant Pendragon.
Forrester continues: "It was a great job. I had a seat on the board and worked with Sir Peter who had built the business from one to 65 outlets. It was a godsend. I should have paid him to do that job! It was seven incredible years.
"Vardy’s was a company with values. It was professional, respectful, it had integrity and provided opportunities for its staff.
"That is how a business has to be run. Having values makes life easy in business. Decisions are made for you.
"Customers, suppliers and colleagues are treated with respect. These are the fundamental values and if you cannot get respect then what have you got?"
Forrester believes that by building upon those core values and developing his own with Vertu it will be a success. His faith in Vertu’s future seems unshakeable.
He is an intense and focused man who twists and turns in his chair as speaks of the forces which drove him to business success at a relatively young age.
He adds: "At 36 I decided to start my own company. If you cannot do something at 36 then you have to ask yourself, will you ever be able to do it?"
Forrester says the flotation of Vertu on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in December 2006 could not have been done without the "excellent" help and advice of the North East professional services community.
He also says that if someone had told him three months before the launch that he would have been able to secure £25m cash from investors for what was effectively a "cash shell" of a company he would have called them an "idiot".
Forrester has a ready argument to those in the North East who complain of the region’s lack of entrepreneurial drive.
"I could have established Vertu anywhere in the UK but I wanted it to be here in the North East.
"The region has a rich heritage of entrepreneurship in motor retailing with Tom Cowie and Peter Vardy and Bramall of Harrogate.
"There are great regional operators such as Benfield, and there is a pool of high quality people who have worked in the motor trade."
While core values of customer service and developing the company’s people lie at the heart of the business Forrester has built, he highlights financial conservatism as a further bedrock.
He mocks those who castigated "conservative" companies for holding on to freehold assets in the frenzied easy money days before the economic downturn began in 2007.
And he sees little sign of a speedy economic recovery saying "the downside risks far outweigh the upside risks".
He highlights the looming public sector cuts as another problem for the motor sector with cuts to orders from public authorities as well as their staff.
But he is far from gloomy and has a full life outside work, either spending time with his wife and three children at their home in Gosforth or even, when he gets the chance, having a blast on his trombone.
He has played in brass bands since childhood and says they are unique in their ability to unite people from all generations.
Vertu now sponsors the Dunston Silver Band, just across the River Tyne from the company’s major Newcastle dealership in Scotswood Road.
He used to play with the band but cannot find the time now, although it is a pleasure to find this understated and serious man has a musical side. Although his focus and deeply held beliefs about what his company should and must do mean that he is likely to have much keep him busy for many years to come.
Page 3: The Questionnaire
What car do you drive?
Honda Insight Hybrid.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Caraffini, Lower Sloane Street, London.
Who or what makes you laugh?
The Fast Show.
What’s your favourite book?
Longest Day, Cornelius Ryan.
What’s your favourite film?
Passport to Pimlico.
What was the last album you bought?
Lord of the Rings soundtrack.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
In charge of the NHS.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
Misery is an option.
What’s your greatest fear?
Letting my team down.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
It’s the people, stupid!
Worst business advice?
Sell all your freeholds and lease them back!
What’s your poison?
Côtes de Castillon Bordeaux Claret.
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£80, sorting out empty bottles in a pub.
How do you keep fit?
Running slowly and swimming.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Asking someone to do something and then asking someone else to do the same thing five minutes later.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I bought a new trombone for £1,000.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Ayn Rand, Abraham Lincoln, Lloyd George and Nye Bevan.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good man.
Page 4: CV
Educated: Oxford University
Work: Qualified as chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen
1999 - 2001: Director, Brookhouse Group
2001 - 2005: Finance director, Reg Vardy plc
2005 - 2006: Managing director, Reg Vardy
2006 to date: Founded and is CEO of Vertu