'Growing up the forecourt was our family playground. It was what we knew and loved...'
Caroline Willis, financial director of Shelbourne Motors tells Emma Deighan about playing cars from a young age, and opening what she calls a ‘utopia’ of showrooms
Caroline Willis says her playground as a child was the family’s forecourt business in Portadown. Her closest friends were her two brothers Paul and Richard and today, the three siblings are the second generation to run the business which grew into car sales empire Shelbourne Motors.
“Our house was right beside the garage. It was a very small garage but it formed the playground of our childhood.
“We were always helping out. There were paper rounds to do, we served petrol, tidied the place up and it was something we just got on with, it was in our nature,” Caroline says.
“It was country life, a different setting.”
Today she is the financial director of Shelbourne Motors, which was set up by her father Fred in 1973.
It was a role that Caroline believes was destined for her, despite her early decision to go to Carlisle University to study art.
“A family situation brought me back home from university and then I went into accounts in the business. When I was there I had a really great mentor and started moving through the company into the body shop and then on to after sales,” she says.
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Now the company is making an ambitious move after pumping £5m into a brand new showroom on the Armagh Road outside Newry.
It will be home to a multi-franchise dealership selling the Kia and Renault marques as well as new car handover bays, lounge-style waiting area with café and a drive-thru service centre with a 28-bay service workshop.
It will add to existing operations in its Portadown headquarters, where it operates Toyota, Renault, Nissan and Dacia franchises, as well as a used car supermarket, rental division, accident repair centre and valet centre.
“It’s been a talking point for a long time and but we could never get the perfect piece of land,” says Caroline.
“We had been back and forward for a number of years and knew this site was the one. We then negotiated with Renault and then Kia came on the full site too.”
Carolien is the mother of three children, Molly (16), Louis (13) and Harry (10). She says every child n the Ward family has been indoctrinated to be part of Shelbourne Motors.
“My sons have the gift of the gab and I would love to see them one day come into sales. You just don’t know what part they will take but it would be fantastic if the third generation came in and took over from us.
“That’s unheard of these days. There are less and less family businesses around, especially in the motor trade and even less with the third generation in them.
“More businesses are becoming plc-owned but that’s the nice thing about us, we are still a strong family-owned business.
“Growing up we didn’t see that much of my father because he worked very, very hard and when we did see him, it was great, but I suppose that work ethic rubbed off on us all,” she continues.
Just recently the company celebrated 45 years of operations, and Caroline confesses that it was an emotional occasion.
“We didn’t anticipate just how emotional that would be,” she admits.
“But seeing how far we’d come made it emotional. When my father got up to say a few words there wasn’t a dry eye in house.”
Caroline says the firm’s business model, which is a mix of “great morals”, “strong relationships” and “career building”, is the backbone to Shelbourne’s success.
She fondly recalls customers who have followed the business through its evolution.
“We have one man who told me recently that when he first bought a car with us my dad was holding me as a baby and he handed me over to him while he got the keys. Today he still comes to us, as does his son.
“It’s not all about volume and getting cars out, but doing it in a way that’s nice and that shouldn’t be difficult.
“Our products are the second biggest purchase a person will make and we need to make that an experience for them. We need to give them a service that will make them come back, especially today when we have an online system on which a person can choose and buy their car.”
While a personal service and continued focus on that service is a priority for Shelbourne Motors, volume is still key.
Pre-tax profits for the business sat at £1.2m in 2018 representing a 28% increase on the previous year.
The family said the growth could be attributed to a strong sales performance in new and used cars, as well as after sales.
“Our 2018 performance has strengthened our position as one of Northern Ireland’s leading vehicle retailers, built upon an ethos of delivering exceptional choice and service to our loyal and ever-expanding customer base,” says Caroline.
It’s a positive message given the automotive sales sector is a challenging environment at the best of times, she says.
The number of new cars sold in Northern Ireland in August was 3,394 - down more than 8% compared to August last year, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). New car sales for the first eight months were also down from 38,407 last year to 37,989 this year.
Caroline says: “No matter what is thrown at us it’s a very hard sector anyway but we try to be at the forefront of everything and we’re very forward-thinking.”
The director describes the long-awaited Newry premises, which will launch this week, as the “utopia” of showrooms.
“Where we are in Portadown is very different. We’re slightly restricted in Portadown so this showroom in Newry is what we would’ve done with Portadown in hindsight.
“This is the utopia and if we were to do Portadown all over again, this is what it would look like.”
The new showroom will employ a further 60 members of staff bringing Shelbourne Motors’ employee count to 145.
“Everyone is buzzing ahead of the opening. The new fleet is arriving and the reception in the area has been very positive, from both customers and the Chamber of Commerce,” adds Caroline.
Looking to the future Caroline is confident that no matter what the sector faces, the company’s strong history will keep it resilient.
“Many things will come and go. Brexit will come and go but we’re here to reaffirm that people who come here are making the best decision and we’ll guide them.
“We’ve built a trust and deliver that to the customer.
“And we have to look at trends in the sector. The big challenge will be keeping the supply of more eco-friendly vehicles in full flow with demand.”
By 2030 Caroline says we can expect 60% of cars to be electric.
“But what we need is support from the government for charging points, stations and grants on how to encourage people to make that transition. We all have to be prepared. We can’t have supply of cars but not have the resources for them.”
Caroline says that her father Fred has taken a step backwards from the business, “letting us have our wings” — but come what may, the business is sure to continue as a family concern.
Q What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A My father and the founder of Shelbourne Motors, Fred Ward, instilled in me many qualities that prepared me for life and the business world and the one piece of advice that has always stood me in good stead is “Never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.” It’s a true way to be a leader. My father led by example and wanted to inspire and there is no better way to inspire those around you than leading by example. I’ve tried to live by this as I’ve developed my leadership style.
Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A It might sound like a cliche, but I firmly believe that everyone should follow their passion, be prepared to work hard and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve their ambitions. I believe that as long as you’ve got passion, faith and are willing to work hard, you can do anything you want in life.
Q What was your best business decision?
A When my brothers, Paul and Richard, and I took on overall the responsibility for the business from our father, we made a commitment to build on his legacy and never stand still. We have never rested on these laurels and have taken strategic decisions, at the right time, to grow the business when opportunities presented themselves.
Our new £5m multi-franchise complex in Newry later is testament to this bold approach as we strengthen our position as one of Northern Ireland’s largest family-owned vehicle retailers.
Q If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I think I would have been an architect. I have always had a considerable interest in architecture, art, design and technology. Although Shelbourne Motors was always part of my life, I never imagined working for my father as part of the business. But I started to work part-time whilst studying, got a taste for the industry and loved it. I worked my way through various departments, which made me even more passionate about the industry that we operate in.
Q What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A Spain with the family. It has been a yearly ritual for the past 20 years. We go to the same place and we have built up great relationships over the years with the locals and know all the best places. The next holiday is a few quiet days in Ibiza with my husband.
Q What are your hobbies/interest?
A There is nothing better than putting on my running gear, plugging in my headphones and running the country roads around my house. It is a great way to unwind and refocus the mind. I also really enjoying playing golf and played it competitively from a young age.
Q What is your favourite sport and team?
A I’m really passionate about golf — both playing and watching. I am really competitive on the golf course and I love the valuable life lessons it can teach you such as discipline, tenacity, strategic thinking and achievement orientation.
Apart from the European Ryder Cup Team, I don’t have a favourite team. But I do really respect Rory McIlroy for his success and his continued dedication and professionalism to his craft. He is a real credit to Northern Ireland and will be rightly regarded as one of our greatest ever sportspeople.
Q And have you ever played any sports?
AI have played golf from a young age. I love the sport and still play today with my husband and son. It provides a high level of challenge and helps me focus on improving my mental strength and discipline.
Q If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A I really enjoy autobiographies as they give a first-hand account of the author’s successes and struggles in life, and the emotions they went through. My favourite autobiography to date is Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ as it gives you a real insight into her childhood, the highs and lows of life with Barack Obama and the pressures of being the First Lady of the United States of America. I would highly recommend it; it is a powerful book.
Q How would you describe your early life?
A I had an amazing childhood filled with love, laughter and hard work. My brothers and I grew up with the motor trade in our blood. We spent all our spare time at Shelbourne Motors, witnessing first-hand how hard my father worked to deliver his vision for the family business.
Q How would you assess your time in Shelbourne Motors?
A I am honoured to be part of Shelbourne Motors’ amazing success story. We celebrated our 45th anniversary in 2018 and playing my part in helping us go from strength to strength as we reached this significant milestone is my proudest moment in business.