Published: 00:01, 02 September 2015
| Updated: 16:28, 15 October 2019
The newly-refurbished Motorline Nissan dealership in Maidstone resembles an Apple store more than a car showroom.
The saloons and hatchbacks are almost an afterthought, with a coffee table in the centre of the room, newspaper racks, big flat-screen TVs and staff walking around with iPads.
“They wanted to remove the desks and create a more relaxed atmosphere,” said Gary Obee, joint managing director of Motorline, the car seller founded by his father Tom in Canterbury in 1972.
“The manufacturers are responding to new trends in dealing with consumers. It is all about removing barriers now.”
Motorline has been breaking barriers of its own in recent years, much to the delight of the 10 car makers it represents in dealerships across Kent, Sussex, the South West and Wales.
The firm has created more than 400 jobs in the last three years, taking staff numbers over 900, either through opening new dealerships or acquiring businesses.
It has been invited to take over dealerships by many of the manufacturers it works with, including a Toyota dealership run by the powerful Synter Group. It opened its first dealerships outside the South East in Bristol, Newport and Cardiff.
The firm enjoyed a record turnover of £335m last year, an increase of 136%, and the company’s revenues are already up 20% in the last six months, with the firm expecting it to reach £400m by the end of 2015.
After years of crisis for the new car industry during the recession, the family-owned company is in better shape than ever.
Trading out of multiple locations is the only way to get a reasonable return, said Gary, who owns the firm with brothers Glen, the chairman, and Thomas, his fellow managing director.
“Intrinsically we are quite ambitious but if you look at the way the motor trade is turning, our success is just a reaction to the consolidation of the industry.
“Many dealer groups are struggling to make a living or can’t keep up with the demands of the manufacturers. The opportunities have come our way.”
The company has developed a taste for growth and revealed plans to open three new sites across the South East last month, including in Dartford and Medway.
“You get to a point where you can take growth in your stride,” said Gary. “We have got teams of people who can go in to new dealerships and set up the IT infrastructure and bring in line the accounts.
“It was daunting when we started doing this three years ago but you get to a point where you know what is coming around the corner. Is it different running five dealerships in an area as opposed to four? Probably not.”
Motorline became the first Maserati dealer in Kent when it opened its showroom in Maidstone earlier this year.
It has introduced video diagnostics of each car it services, where mechanics point out any issues with vehicles on iPhones before sending the film to customers. The firm now makes up to 1,800 videos a week.
Gary said: “We are democracy when it comes to discussing good ideas but once we find one we become a dictatorship and we enforce it across the group.
“We are not shy in coming forward and will tell people if we see something we don’t like but we expect people to be equally forward.”
Glen, Gary and Thomas Obee joined the family business after leaving school.
Each was born and brought up in Canterbury and they all live within 15 minutes of each other today – Gary at Cliffs End, Glen at Preston and Thomas at Stourmouth.
They all cut their teeth in the parts departments, workshops, as sales executives and managers.
“Many dealer groups are struggling to make a living or can’t keep up with the demands of the manufacturers. The opportunities have come our way...” - Gary Obee, Motorline
Gary said: “In the late 1970s a lot of people were unemployed and it was difficult to get a job.
"I was fortunate to come straight into the family business. We have all come through the ranks. We weren’t invited straight in to run the dealership.”
The trio, who run the company with finance director Paul Betts, created a board of operations directors once Motorline became too big for them to handle the day-to-day running of each department.
Gary says he doesn’t always see his brothers, who can be working in various parts of the business at different times.
He said: “We have a monthly board meeting and look at the performance against the budget.”
Motorline sells new and used cars for Volkswagen, Toyota, Lexus, Hyundai, Renault, Dacia, Skoda, Nissan, Peugeot and Maserati. It also carries out repairs and maintenance for many of the companies.
It has bases in Ashford, Canterbury, Crawley, Dartford, Horsham, Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells, Gillingham, Coulsdon, Bristol, Newport and Cardiff.