A Family Affair

Stillwell Motor Group

Bib, a champion race car driver in his spare time, successfully steered the business into a booming success before passing the wheel on to the second generation of family members. To this day, Stillwell Motor Group remains strictly a family affair. The third generation of Stillwells are currently learning the business, and they are thoroughly committed to keeping the company family owned and operated for many more years to come.

“A company of this size could lose its connection to the family because of its vast size,” CEO Chris Stillwell points out. “But, because there are so many family members still involved in the business, it still has that family flavour throughout. So we still hold that quite unique value compared to large corporates.”

Indeed, it is the company’s family-oriented, people-centred attitude that sets the business apart. “There are a lot of car dealers around, a lot of car yards around,” Mr Stillwell admits. “There are a lot of brands. We differentiate ourselves through really focusing on having genuine partnerships with our own people, with our customers, and with our suppliers.”

Strong long term relationships have been crucial to success, Mr Stillwell explains. “Our real point of difference is the level of engagement that we have with our suppliers and our customers,” he points out. As a result, Stillwell Motor Group can count on repeat customers and a steady stream of referrals. The key, Mr Stillwell explains, is cultivating mutually beneficial partnerships so that people “actually want to buy from us.” The entire team is actively involved in maintaining these important customer relationships. Numerous Stillwell family members jump back into sales every month handling repeat business and referral enquiries.

The team has actually made it a point to officially spell out its people-centred values in writing. “We have a little pocket guide that everyone has that outlines the strategy, the mission, and the values,” Mr Stillwell explains. Also included are “the actions that uphold and don’t uphold these values. It is important that people are aware of that throughout the group.”

Maintaining these core values across such a large workforce takes considerable effort. “As it cascades down it will lose its intensity, so we have to refresh it regularly,” Mr Stillwell points out. To that end, he has implemented a number of initiatives to keep the family’s people-centred philosophy at the forefront. All of the managers meet regularly to discuss the state of the business and redefine goals, and Mr Stillwell also hosts a “skip level” lunch every month to touch base with his employees – no managers allowed. “I sit with staff and talk to them about the business and any issues that they want to throw out that maybe they wouldn’t bring up in front of their boss,” he explains. In addition, he pays regular visits to every branch location in order to stay in touch with the people and operations there. “We do use a number of forums to continually keep the discussion going.”

The Stillwells also strongly encourage the entire team to put the company’s values into practice by getting involved in charity work. Ronald McDonald House is the company’s charity of choice. “You go into any of our dealerships, and the first thing that you will see is a Ronald McDonald House collection point,” Mr Stillwell reports. And the team doesn’t just invest money – they are fully committed to investing their time and talents as well. For example, Stillwell Motor Group participates in a program called Cooking up a Storm at Ronald McDonald House Monash. The company sends out two teams each month to participate in the good natured cooking competition. The camaraderie means a lot to the families who are utilising the charity’s accommodations in order to stay close to their sick children. “They could be there for a night, they could be there for months,” Mr Stillwell says. Regardless of the length of time, these parents need a break, so “we do a big cook up for them and they come in and have a meal with us. We sit with them and talk to them and hear about their issues.”

Ironically, the altruistic endeavour may have an equally large impact on the volunteers. “We do something nice for the community and for these people, but it also levels our own people because they realise that their problems aren’t that big when they hear the stories of these families,” Mr Stillwell explains. “You go home afterwards and you realise that you really don’t have any problems.”

Stillwell Motor Group is involved with Ronald McDonald House in a number of other areas as well, including sponsoring the charity’s national golf day. The relationship with the organisation has been going strong for almost seven years and has become a widely recognised aspect of the company. “It is all through the business,” Mr Stillwell reports. “It doesn’t matter what dealership you are at within the group, you know that we have a relationship with Ronald McDonald House.”

Although Stillwell Motor Group is committed to old fashioned, family oriented business practices, the company still knows how to evolve with the times in order to stay relevant. The business utilises a strategic five year business plan to remain ahead; in fact, this strategic planning recently spurred the team to shift the company’s focus dramatically. Two years into the current five year plan, Stillwell Motor Group had a balanced portfolio of prestige brands and volume brands. The latter consisted of two floundering Ford dealerships, and after taking a long, hard look at the situation, the company realised it needed to make a change. “We’d had a very rough trading period with the Ford businesses,” Mr Stillwell recalls. “We couldn’t see through the future product cycle and [Ford’s] brand position that this was going to work for us into the future. So as a board, we made a commercial decision to sell those businesses. And that had a significant impact on our long term viability for the better.”

Now, Stillwell Motor Group sells prestige brands almost exclusively. “You can see in the flavour of the brands we have that we are predominately prestige and premium,” Mr Stillwell points out. “We do have some relationships with volume brands, but typically we select those carefully to make sure that those are brands that are going to have exciting products coming through.”

The company currently represents eight brands in total. Stillwell Motor Group carries more BMWs than any other brand, and has four locations featuring these premium vehicles. The company’s second largest business division is its Volvo operations. Stillwell has two large Volvo sales sites as well as one satellite service site. One of these locations also sells Suzuki vehicles. The company also has a close relationship with Jaguar that stretches back 13 years, and just seven months ago, the team added Land Rover to its portfolio, and began construction of a new Jaguar Land Rover business in Brighton.

With such a large business and so many locations, the team has had to develop a centralised business model to keep operations running cohesively. The company opened a Dealership Support Centre, or DSC, in Clayton, a location that is central to all the branch offices. The facility includes a large parts warehouse, vehicle storage, and pre-delivery service centre, as well as centralised business-support divisions such as accounting, IT, and stock control. “All of those key areas are based there,” Mr Stillwell explains. For example, “when you have a traditional standalone dealership, you’ll have an accounting team based in that dealership. But, because we’ve got nine dealerships, we have our centralised accounting team at Clayton.” The company’s large size has also led the team to develop a centralised HR department. “And what that does is, it allows our dealerships to focus on their primary reason for existing, which is to sell and look after customers and service motor vehicles.”

Keeping the focus on selling and servicing motor vehicles is important – after all, it has brought the company 63 years of rapid growth and ongoing success. And the Stillwell family has no intention of slowing down now. “We are halfway through our five year strategic plan, but we’ve actually started planning for the next five years beyond that,” Mr Stillwell says. “We are looking at the opportunities to further grow as a business and we certainly have a desire to do that.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 9:21 AM AEDT