Case Study: Nathan Sawbridge

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Name: Nathan Sawbridge
Job Title: Vertu Motors - Dealer Principle - Toyota Division

Tell us how you got into automotive and about your first role

I never wanted a job in the automotive industry, I fell into it by accident!

I went to Sheffield Hallam University age 20/21, to study Business in Human Resource Management, and we were recommended to do a placement year.  I submitted some CVs out at what would have been at the height of the 2008 recession, and I submitted one into Pendragon Plc, but I had no idea who they were!  I didn't know what was what, but somehow I ended up managing to get a position.

I went to Pendragon for a year as an undergraduate, and can remember looking around when everybody was given the fancy job titles in ‘Marketing’, ‘Accounting’, ‘Events’ and when I got my offer letter he said ‘Used Cars’, and I could remember I was so disappointed because I didn't know what Used Cars was!  But when I look back, it is the best thing for me because it gave me an absolute great grounding in the motor industry.

I was lucky enough to work with a guy called Russell Smith and Chris Hines and they gave me my first opportunity.  I started out, underwriting cars, valuing cars, and understanding how the retail market works.  From there I had my placement year, and I was asked if I wanted to come back after I finished University, which I definitely did, because I enjoyed it.  I put one proviso in and that was that I could work with them part-time while I was at university, selling cars. 

From there I went to sell cars in Citroen in Sheffield for a year, and really understand what it was like working at the front end.

The great thing was I didn't even know the difference between a Corsa and an Astra when I started working in Pendragon. To go into the used car team and have zero knowledge, I was really lucky to be surrounded by some great people that  coached me and taught me well.

The training that I went through by the company was intense, to understand the values and the direction of Pendragon, but also, I had to do a lot more research outside of the company as well, because cars had never been a passion for me, and I've got to admit, I don't think it ever will be a passion for me, but delivering good customer service is, so it was an interesting start!

When I left University, I think I'd have been 23 or 24, and I went straight into  full time work with Pendragon. I was with them 10 or 11 years in total.

My Grandad warned me about the automotive industry, he said “don't do it”!  He said “You didn't study hard and go to university to become a car salesman!”  He didn’t work in automotive!  His perception was that he didn't really see it as a career opportunity.
It wasn't until after I started to understand the business model that I started to realise it was a career opportunity.  I can remember going back to him and saying “Look, this is where I want to end up and this is where I want to be within the motor industry”, and after we had that long conversation, (it was more like a lecture) he finally gave me permission to do it!

Tell us about your career progression and experiences during that time.

I was very lucky because a lot of the opportunities that were given early doors were around undergraduate and graduate projects, so I was almost let into the circle of inside knowledge. I was working on projects before they got launched into businesses and that type of thing.

For me that was massively insightful, because I can remember one project where I went out and oversaw the purchase and distribution of 2 million pounds worth of stock, and I’d only been in the business for about nine months at that point!  To be a 20-year-old, with those kind of responsibilities was huge, and for me that's where I suppose it quickly dawned on me that the motor industry is all about how you perform and meritocracy, rather than necessarily length of service. So even as somebody quite young, you can progress quite quickly.

Everybody that I worked with very much knew where I wanted to be.  And even when I was at the sales executive level it wasn’t hidden that I wanted to progress into a management role.

One thing that I found with the sales team, that I worked with at the time, was even though they were  competitive, they were also supportive, and particularly when I then progressed into a business manager and later on as the sales manager in the same dealership.   Therefore, the team that I was selling cars alongside  became the team that  worked with me.  I was always conscious of managing my shadow early on, but at the same time I think the team very much knew what my long-term aspirations were, so they supported me in getting there. In terms of my progression, I have not experienced any hostility , which was nice.

People who have supported me and been my allies have included Russell Smith, who was the used car director at Pendragon at the time, he was a big one, and even though we've not worked together now for over 10 years we still talk regularly.

Chris Hines, he was the HR director at the time as well. We still regularly talk. And then there's countless people and I suppose it changes every step of your career.

They were very much my early allies and as I've progressed into different roles it's changed. One ally I had when I moved into the dealership was a guy named Nick Waite, he was my second dealer principal.  It was under him where I made the transition from working in the service department as a Service Advisor and Workshop Controller into the sales department, and I progressed really quickly under him.

It was nice because he also had been through a similar scheme to what I went through, so there's almost a bit of a friendly rivalry there as well to outdo each other!

It significantly changed though when I became a Head of Business because your allies become very become different, it’s not just the people that you work with. At the moment Kevin Finn, Dee McHugh, and Jim Saker, I've got three of the best allies that I can have at this moment in time. In the  past, I’ve come up against some tricky situations and to have them there now to be able to talk with, and to help me, it's been absolutely amazing, you can't put a price on it, so I'll be eternally grateful for that.

The environment when I started in the industry was very different to what it is today, especially in a dealership. So even going back 15 years they were really not the most fun places. It was very male! Very white! Very difficult to see any level of diversity in there, which is now starting to change.

I think the mentality back then was, there was no real focus on work life balance, no real focus on mental health awareness.
But that's definitely changing now as well. What we've really seen is in the last 15 years of transition of becoming the motor industry to becoming more retail focused, which is nice to be part of that journey.

Tell us about your current role.

I've been a Head of Business or Dealer Principal for the last eight years now, and I've been with Vertu Motors since August 2022.

My role is really the overall operation of the business.  I've got a team of leaders that work with me in terms of specialization in after sales, sales parts departments. My role really is to set the tempo, set the mood, the standards within the dealership, make sure that everything that we do is legal and compliant, and to make sure the business is performing, not just for Vertu, but also for every stakeholder.

I suppose from the way that I look at my role is I want Vertu to be happy, I want Toyota to be happy, I want my customers to be happy, and anybody that does business with us to look at us and say, “You know what, that's the place that I want to do business with”.

It's interesting, every day is different, no two days look the same, such as reviewing accounts, involvement with recruitment, constantly developing the team and if I get a spare minute, I try and sell a couple of cars just to keep my toe dipped into it!  Every day is different, I love it!

I try and get involved in recruitment as much as possible because you've got to make sure that you've got the right people with the right mindset around you, and they've also got to be representative of the communities that you do business in.  Vertu is massively supportive of that.

I suppose one thing that really stood out to me is the business that operates in Leicester has a large Asian community around us, a large Asian customer base, and when I first arrived, there's actually very few Asian customer facing team members. 

So, when I said to Vertu that I wanted to actively get some more Asian people within my team they were supportive and actively looked at how can we do it.  Can we look at posting on different job boards, is our wording in our adverts attractive to people in different communities?  For me it was absolutely music to my ears, and in the past, I've worked in companies that haven't had that approach.  I still look at those companies now and they become monotonous in terms of everybody that they seem to employ in certain roles looks and comes from the same type of background. They are carbon copies of each other! 

It's that age old feeling of ‘you remind me of me when I was younger’, which is a logical feeling to have when you interview somebody, but you come from a position of strength, when you look for somebody who isn't like you, so they can give you a different opinion, a different worldview, and deal with customers in a different way to what you can deal with them.

I know a lot of people get nervous about having that within their business because they worry about, how can I merge people in and gel people and get them to work together as a cohesive unit?  But that's where the culture of the business comes in.

One thing that Vertu has is a very very strong culture, we recruit based on the five unteachables;  Character, Talent, Drive, Attitude, Energy and once you've got those five unteachables, it doesn't matter about the rest of you, because we know that you're going to gel in with the rest of the team.

It’s an unbelievably strong message!

Tell us about your progression and inspiration

I want to get as high as I can in the Motor Industry, and I want to because it feels like is the area that's never really been charted for somebody from my background.

As yet, and still to this day I've not met another black or mixed-race Head of Business, or Dealer Principle. To see somebody at that next level from that background, I suppose to me, it shows that it is possible, and I think when I sat down with my Grandad all those years ago, we said “How far can you actually get?”  I feel like I owe a lot to him, even though he's not with us to this day, to show him what my capability was.

I think my next role would be a Regional Director of some type of description, so managing multiple sites and hopefully I'm not too far away from that.

My Grandad was definitely my main role model and, and I suppose, a lot of that comes from understanding his story when he came from Barbados in the 50s, and understanding some of the trials and tribulations he had at that point.  Even as a child he kept me very much on the straight and narrow.

But within the industry I look at the likes of Kevin Finn, Jim Saker and Dee McHugh, because to stick your head above the parapet and say, you know what, something's not right, and we need to do something about it, that just resonates with me.  Because some of the worst things that we can do is stick our head in the sand and hope that things go away.  To take that mantle and run with it, I absolutely love it.

I'm not just saying it because I now work for him, but I look at Robert Forrester, and I look at Daksh Gupta and the way that they've embraced what we're doing with the IMI, and I look at the way that they operate their businesses, and particularly Robert Forrester with the culture that he is creating at Vertu, for me, he is miles ahead of game.

We want to reflect reality but there is a temptation to always talk about negative experiences.  Therefore we invite you to give us an example of good practise and bad.

Example of good practise:

When I go back to the beginning of my career and look at the likes of Russell and Chris, I believe that they had that forward thinking to say we're going to get somebody who's different, that in itself for me, at that moment in time, is what opened the doors.  I think that once I get to know people, it tends to leave a bit of an imprint in their mind.  I think that once I get to know people that is what allows me to be treated favourably.  I suppose it's one of the reasons for the hair (dreadlocks), because you're never going to forget the hair!  I think that has an impact.
Would I say that I had it any easier than anybody in the motor industry?  I definitely don't think so, and I think being memorable doesn't necessarily mean that you get an easy ride, but I think it means that you last in people's minds.

Example of bad practise:

If I roll back to when I started in the industry, you used to see people treated differently.   

My Mum always warned me, she said “Someday you're going to come up against a brick wall and I try and do my best to prepare you and to protect you from it, but I know that it's going to happen!”

I came up against that around a year ago where I raised concerns over equality of pay and from that point my time with my last employer became untenable.  There were decisions that were made that were unjust, unfair, and I think now that I'm away from that environment, people know when there's an unjust and unfair decision being made.  I still keep in touch with a lot of my previous colleagues, and they can't understand why that decision was made, they can't understand why I ended up in the situation I was in and why somebody would let me go in the fashion that they did.  For me, you always have to look for the silver lining and, if I didn't experience it at that point I wouldn't be where I am today with Vertu, so when I look back on it, it's a great thing that happened.  But at the same time, I can't put it down to anything performance wise why I ended up in that situation.

I think if you challenge the status quo, that can be a bad thing, and that can isolate you, and I think that's purely what happened to me. It was a horrible time!

What are your views on diversity and inclusion

There's definitely been changes in the industry and I suppose one thing that I'm conscious of is, has the change occurred because the labour market is shrinking, or are we changing because it's the right thing to do?  Or are we changing because it means that we can meet our customers?  There's always a commercial and a moral argument for both.

The environment is definitely changing, and I suppose the reason is because leads in the businesses are becoming more vocal in their support for diversity, but also more direct in stamping out behaviour which is not tolerable.

I think from a ground level perspective there are still a lot of barriers.  I think the message at the top is very clear, but as it filters down is not so clear, or the message is clear and chosen to be ignored and I think the reasons behind it are numerous. I can remember, reviewing CV’s and somebody turned around to me and said “I'm not going to interview that candidate for a technician role because they're female”!  My response to that was “You're now going to interview that candidate, because they're female, and because you told me that!”

There are more people willing to speak up and challenge, and change doesn't happen without the status quo being challenged.  The more people that are vocal about it, the more internal and external pressure that happens from the industry, the quicker and more effective that change is going to be.

I keep coming back to Vertu, we now offer a sales advisor role, which is a high basic minimal commission type of role and that's designed to encourage more people from a diverse background into it.

So, what we've got is now a combination of attitudes changing, but also business practices changing.

Do I think we can do more in the industry? Without a shadow of a doubt! Although without having data behind everything that we're talking about we're never going to understand where we are in terms of change.  There's still a premise out there that we don't need to collect data on ethnicity or sexual orientation or disability so what we've got is, we feel that we're moving in the right direction, but we can’t actually pinpoint whether we are.

I think the one thing that needs to change has definitely got to be more businesses out there that take that data more seriously and look to interpret the data, hiding behind ‘it’s not a legal requirement’ doesn’t wash anymore!