Dealer Insight: Jonathan Gravell, MD Gravells

By 13 Min Read

South Wales family-owned dealer group Gravells has won Kia’s Dealer of the Year accolade for a third year in succession. Managing director Jonathan Gravell gives an insight to the group’s continuing success.

The Motor Trader dealer insight series regularly features dealer-of-the-year winning groups, some with multiple accolades – but winning the top award three years in succession is a rare achievement.

Such success is, however, no surprise to South Wales dealer group Gravells, a consistent award winner over the years – currently as well as its Bridgend outlet taking its third straight Kia dealer of the year accolade, it also won for Sales Excellence and Aftersales Excellence while Gravells Hereford took the Customer Experience award.

Founded by Tom Gravell in the small town of Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire in 1932, Gravells is today Renault’s oldest UK outlet, gaining its franchise in 1954. The first Kia centre was opened in 2007 at Kidwelly, and today the group has six Kia outlets.

Speaking to Motor Trader at the Kidwelly head office, third-generation managing director Jonathan Gravell puts the continuing awards success down to dedication, focus and family culture; “Throughout the business we have people with incredibly long service records who enjoy working here, who feel valued and empowered and therefore able to make changes that produce a positive outcome for them and the customer.”

The family culture is described by Gravell as “always trying to do things better, fixing what’s broken and apologising if it goes wrong, being the honest broker and doing the right thing and making it enjoyable,” and was formed in the original Gravells dealerships of Kidwelly and Narberth.

Promoting staff who began their Gravells career in Kidwelly has helped to roll out the culture to other centres as the group has expanded, most recently to Bridgend, Abergavenny and the first centre outside Wales in Hereford.

Gravell cites as a prime example of this Cassion Wright, who oversaw the awards success at Bridgend; “Cassion started as a salesman from school and has done 20 years at Gravells – he progressed to Dealer Principal and more recently sales director. We progressed him through the business and with expansion we were fortunate to be able to offer the opportunities for promotion.

“You replicate the culture. We work with those with a strong sales and customer focus, people who see the fun in the car trade. We don’t have to recruit very often and we haven’t yet looked outside automotive, because we’ve been lucky enough to grow with our people.”

The first dealer principal not ‘home grown’ by Gravells was appointed to the Hereford centre and here personal impression was the factor. “He had Kia experience, working in Wessex, and in fact we met him during our meetings at Kia – in conversation we noted that he had a similar culture to ours. We’ve recently taken on someone on the Renault side who again we were able to determine had a similar way of doing things as we do. We’ve been quite lucky finding people from making connections.”

Jonathan Gravell has always promoted a culture of all departments working together; “When I came into the business in 2006 it was very divided, parts, service and sales – the first few years were spent breaking those barriers. Certain people quite enjoyed the barriers and we needed to show them that the customer is with us for two things, cars or service and their money is our income, so let’s make it easy for them. Service upsetting sales achieves nothing – we kept repeating the message that we would be successful if we were all successful.

“No-one wants to come to work to be obstructive, so make it enjoyable, make it as easy as possible – we probably as a business don’t measure enough internal data points, but we try and measure what we think is valuable. Don’t try to complicate matters, just have a few key metrics that are easy for people to trust and relevant to how they do things.”

Efforts to improve the customer experience revealed one easy win but Gravell admits the business learnt late the value of service plans. “The more customers you can sell a service plan to, the less painful are their visits – on a plan they will spend say £50, rather than £200. So, we are very strong on service plans – we now use Kia and Renault’s with our own for used. It’s the biggest retention tool you have and gives us opportunities to have conversations with customers, making the aftersales department’s job easier.”

Gravell believes that the role of service adviser is probably the hardest in the business, and in some places the least valued. “You need to recognise that they are a valuable individual and a prime customer touch-point. Sales have support but those guys have a harder job.”

Covid cast a long shadow over the industry but according to Gravells it proved less a case of recovering from the pandemic and more when Covid would stop interrupting the business. “We of course had different rules in Wales to England  we were open, then closed, open and closed.

“It was the uncertainty of how long we could operate – the issue was the constant changing and having to adapt to the business conditions. We had just picked up the Hereford centre and being in England it was allowed to be open when Wales wasn’t. The contradictions were an issue but we got there.”

The supply chain issues that followed caused further issues and according to Gravell only recently have component supplies from Kia returned to normal, those from Renault being “a bit slower”.

The one remaining issue from the period is workshop resource, a shortage of technicians.“Covid interrupted the training of apprentices and we’ve also had increased sales so we are now feeling that delay. It will come right – there’s just a lag at present.”

Nationwide, the continuing dearth of suitable technicians has long been recognised – the Gravells answer has been to train apprentices. “We had some past difficulties attracting them but both the trade and our brands are steadily getting more attractive, and that’s working well.”

Motor Trader visited Gravells at the same time as reporting that dealers see the currently struggling retail sales of electric vehicles as a huge hurdle to future profitability, and Gravell agreed that action needs to be taken. “Two years ago, EV was in a sweet spot, we’d lost the plug-in grant but there was a lot of consumer engagement – people wanted electric product. Since then, we’ve seen high electric prices at home, and a lot of negative press towards EVs – getting the EV message out over the last year has been more difficult than previously.

“More than 80% of our EV customers would not go back to something else. The other 20% are nervous of range or think EVs are not the solution now. There’s work to be done on public charging – on the M4 in Wales there are more than 10 superchargers at every services so you are not going to be queueing, but head into England and it’s a different picture – all you have is a decent hub at Leigh Delamare and then Reading.”

Used cars, a vital aspect of the business during the period of supply-chain issues, remains strong according to Gravell. “Our used transactions were up in Q4 2023 compared to 2022 and are still ahead of last year now. It’s a more competitive marketplace and there is less good quality stock out there, but we have a good customer base that renews with us, so we have been able to maintain a decent forecourt of used opportunities. I’m not seeing a drop-off in demand – sale prices yes, we’ve had a 15% reduction which we have to account for.”

Gravell admitted that adding outlets in Swansea and Bridgend proved an eye-opener to the business. “We’ve always been successful due to our presence in our locality, making the best of where we are. People come to Kidwelly and wonder why we are in such a very rural location, and it’s because we’ve been here a long time.

The biggest challenge of running a dealer group today, according to Gravell, remains the amount of finance required. “Vehicle pricing has moved quite a lot and there are increased demands from manufacturers and customers, so your cost base continues to increase – customer expectations are very high without them necessarily understanding that the margins in this business are not massive.

“You need to understand what you can offer, how you operate and control those elements. It’s more difficult these days particularly with the online marketplace – you don’t sell very much online but one bad experience shared on social media can have a great effect. Such things are much harder to control.”

So, does Gravells have further growth plans? “We’ve always looked to expand where it makes sense to the business. We’ve opened a Kia dealership every couple of years since 2012 and if an opportunity to expand the footprint further arose then we would take it.

“We would not likely be looking to take on another franchise though we might watch where the new Chinese brands coming into the UK are going. An EV brand might be worth looking at but we’d more likely go for the right site with one of our existing brands.”

Gravell sounds a confident tone about prospects for the rest of 2024. “You wouldn’t be in the motor trade if you weren’t an optimist. I think rates will come down, the market will improve, new and used car supply will remain mostly in balance.

“The industry might be facing a problem as certain brands are looking at having fewer dealers, which could lead to more bad experiences for customers dealing with people who are less engaged. With our brands, however, we are in a good place.”

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