The tire market in the UK and Europe can be a very unpredictable and challenging business environment in which to work. That makes the achievement of anyone completing 60 years in the industry as one of the UK’s most successful business entrepreneurs even more remarkable.
I was recently invited to visit and interview Sir Tom Farmer exclusively for Modern Tire Dealer to give North American tire dealers a unique insight into one of the global tire industry’s most flamboyant individuals, a man who was knighted in 1997 for services to the European automotive industry.
I was eager to capture Tom’s personal memories and reflections on his long career in the tire retail business, and he didn’t disappoint me as he immediately made it clear he considered himself to have had an incredible life. After 60 years of successes, failures and happiness, he wouldn’t change anything... even if he could!
Tom was born in 1940 in Leith near Edinburgh into a typically Scottish neighborhood where people cared for each other. “I had a very loving family but didn’t do particularly well at school,” he says. “To be honest I just didn’t try hard enough.” Leaving school at 15, Tom went to work in a local tire company, Tyre Scotland, where he was fortunate to benefit from a manager who knew how to encourage young boys to reach for realistic challenges.
He says, “Another important factor about this job was that if I passed my driving test I would be able to drive a van. So when old enough I passed my test, and eventually a vacancy came up for a van driver and I got the job. However, instead of becoming a van driver, I was shocked to learn I had actually been promoted to ‘company representative.’"So at just 18, Tom was propelled into being Tyre Scotland’s direct contact with customers, and for the next couple of years he enjoyed travelling all over Scotland and building up a good reputation in the industry, which directly led to the next development in his already aspiring young career.
Tom picked up the story again to say, “I went to work for Tyre Services in Carlisle (in the north of England) who were looking to expand their business into Scotland, tempted by the offer of my ‘own car.’ However, this new job eventually came to an end when the company was acquired by one of the leading tire manufacturers and everything changed.”
At this time in 1964 it was still illegal to offer a discount on products, and a fixed price was strictly stipulated by the manufacturer. But not long after this law was abolished, and Tom decided his future lay in selling tires to the public at more appealing prices. So in April of that year, with a stock of 100 tires he started a company called Tyre & Accessory Supplies and placed an advert in the local newspaper stating “Tires 25% OFF” with one determined ambition — to earn £15 (US$18) profit each week!
Tom told me, “The business went very well and set me on a trail of events over the next few years which turned out to be the structure of my continual development in the tire industry. I was now known as ‘Tyre King Tommy’ and encouraged by a steady rise in income, I eventually formed a company called Tyre & Accessories.”
In 1968 at 27 years of age, Tom received an offer and after a lot of “bargaining,” sold his business for £475,000 (US$592,000) — a great deal of money 48 years ago — and decided to take early retirement and move to San Francisco in America. But within two years he got bored and returned to Scotland and founded Kwik-Fit. The first center opened in Edinburgh in 1971 and in the following eight years up to 1979 the company grew at a rapid pace, launching over 50 centers in Scotland and Northern England.That same year Kwik-Fit acquired the business of Euro Exhaust to raise the total number of centers to 102, followed by the important purchase of Firestone’s 180 depots for £3.2 million (US$4 million) with 82 truck tire centers being resold to Dunlop for £3.25 million (US$4.1 million), therefore displaying an example of Tom’s “eye for business deals.”
By 1980 the Kwik-Fit Group had gone nationwide with well over 200 centers, and in the next few years a series of new services and developments further underlined the company’s undisputed position as the leading tire retailer in the UK including the revolutionary investment in a £2 million computer system, which involved the installation of Management Action Terminals (MATs) in all centers.
Also Tom, believing the quality of Kwik-Fit staff was an integral part of the company’s continued success, opened his first Training and Development Centre in 1981. In addition, a Kwik-Fit Code of Practice was introduced in the same year and a further 17 centers opened in Holland. In 1982 the unique “no quibble” guarantee was introduced.
Then in 1984 some more memorable initiatives were launched including the award winning “You Can’t Get Better than a Kwik-Fit Fitter” TV commercials. In 1986 Kwik-Fit Fleet was formed to meet the growing needs of the company car driver; a year later the first center opened in Northern Ireland followed by the first center in Eire in 1989, by which time the number of Kwik-Fit centers had grown threefold to 609 and annual turnover was now £193.4 million (US$241 million). The early years of the 1990s saw the company add even more accolades to its name: It captured the government-backed National Training Award, introduced the Kwik-Fit Apprenticeship Programme and achieved the BS5750 quality standard.
By the mid-’90s Kwik-Fit had expanded in the UK, Holland, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Ireland, increasing the total number of centers to more than 2,000. Then in 1999, to the surprise of the industry, Ford Motor Co. made an offer to buy the Kwik-Fit, valuing the business at £1 billion (US$1.25 billion). The offer was put to shareholders, who accepted, and Tom Farmer joined the board of Ford and then resigned in 2002. He then formed Farmer Autocare, and over the last 14 years this second business empire has progressively emerged as Scotland’s most successful independent tire retail chain. It also holds the distinction of being the country’s first auto repair group to be approved as “female friendly.”
With a company trading slogan of “Low prices and great customer service,” Farmer Autocare prides itself on offering the cheapest tires in Scotland and also offers exhausts, batteries, brake services and MOT vehicle safety and emissions testing with a guarantee that for all products “you only pay the price you see.”
When asked what was the biggest and most significant change he has seen in the last 60 years in Europe, Tom immediately stated it had to be the emergence of large, powerful wholesalers who in the past decade or so have significantly changed the structure of tire sales in the UK.
So, what of the future? Well as far as Sir Tom Farmer is concerned, it will continue to be “business as usual.” As he says, “Retirement is not for me, as I believe it is about ‘graduating’ from one chapter in life to another, and I intend to carry on being involved in the tire and automotive repair industry, which I have had the good fortune to enjoy all my working life.” A defiant statement from one of the European tire market’s true legends. ■
John Stone has been working within the global tire industry for the past 25 years. In 2004 he launched his own consulting company, Sapphire Media Services, which caters to business media clients around the globe. Stone also writes for tire and automotive-related publications in Europe, South Africa and Asia.
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