Business Profiles

Bayswater Group becomes a Super dealership

In 1990, Rob Townshend was fighting for business survival, faced with the sudden passing of his father and a legal battle that could prevent him from using his surname on a sign above what he says was a “gravel car yard” in Napier.

Fast forward to 2018 and Rob is at the helm of a super motor vehicle dealership covering the full spectrum of vehicles and brands, from the everyday runabout to the luxurious and high-performance vehicles many dream to own.

Firstly, there’s a great story in how Rob came up with the name Bayswater Vehicles … Not wanting to be financially crushed in a legal battle to retain the family name on the dealership, Rob went looking for alternatives.

After trying to come up with a name that everyone liked, Rob turned to the Google of the time – the library.

“It was taking months and the best we could come up with was Bluechip Subaru, so I said to the team I’m going for a drive and when I come back, I’m going to have a company name and you’re all going to say it is great.

“I jumped into the car but didn’t have any idea where I was going to go and I just started to drive. I ended up at the library, I walked in and found some Australian phone books and I started to flick through them. I found a dealership called Bayswater Mitsubishi, and because Mitsubishi was dear to my heart, after I had done all my training at Townshend Motors, Mitsubishi, my father’s family

business for many years, I instantly liked it. “Hawke’s Bay is surrounded by water, so that was it; I had the new name and I went back to the office and told everyone and they liked it – well that’s what they told me at the time!”

The rest, they say, is history. The Bayswater brand has since gone on to not only become the home of Subaru and Hyundai but also Suzuki, Isuzu, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, Renault and, just recently, BMW.

The newly opened Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo showrooms (a $2.4 million fit-out designed in London) is the latest addition to the ever-growing Carlyle Street site. A further $10 million will be invested in a makeover of the Carlyle & Faraday corner of the superstore, adding a 20-bay service workshop and additional dealership showrooms.

By 2020 the Napier Bayswater site will be one of the largest dealerships in New Zealand and far from the humble beginnings on the old gravel car yard.

In the early 90s, Rob started selling Subaru and Hyundai as well as second-hand imports from Japan. He knew that the import bubble would burst at some stage so he worked hard to make a success of the two relatively new brands into Hawke’s Bay.

That perseverance has since paid off with an array of dealership awards for most of the vehicle brands along with accolades as a great place to work, with Bayswater being a two-time finalist in the Kenexa Best Workplace Awards.

“I nearly chucked in the Hyundai brand in the early years. The technology was old and I didn’t think it was going that well. I spoke to my father-in-law, who did the figures and said it was making a bit of money, so why not stick with it.”

It was sage advice, Hyundai vehicles like the Santa Fe are top sellers and Bayswater Hyundai has gone on to win multiple dealership awards, culminating in the Asia Pacific Hyundai Dealership of the Year in 2016.

For all the award wins, Rob is equally proud of his team of long-serving staff, which he says is a real family affair.

“We’re very family orientated; my mother Dot at 87 years old is still a shareholder and we’ve got fair mix of fathers and sons, husbands and wives as part of the team.”

And a big team it is – with over 100 employees spread across the Napier site, Bayswater Hastings in Stortford Lodge and Manawatu.

As the business has expanded, so too has the need for specialist management skills, and Rob appointed Paul Brown as general manager last year.

With annual turnover of over $100 million, Rob was faced with the dilemma of either selling or investing in expansion and appointing key managerial personnel.

“To be honest, I got pretty close to selling the business but when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it because I felt there was a lot of unfinished business. The business is a big part of my life and the staff are part of the family.

“There was still plenty to achieve and it was a good point to be at as it got me asking myself questions like, do I have the skillset to take the business further? I could see some skill gaps but I still wanted to be part of the business.”

Paul came recommended by a senior partner at accountancy firm BDO, where Rob’s wife Lisa is an advisory partner at BDO Central in Napier.

“He came highly recommended; we met a couple of times and Lisa said he would be perfect – he’s a qualified accountant and had been running John Andrew Ford, another big dealership. But what I liked about Paul was that he had started out cleaning cars and he’s been a branch manager, business manager and had worked his way up.”

As everything starts to align at Bayswater Group with ongoing investment and expansion, Rob and his team can look to the future of the motor industry and forecast what changes are ahead.

“We already have autonomous and electric technology within our vehicle range now and I see this is where the industry is heading, everything has changed, and we don’t want to be a Kodak, which went from one of the best companies in the world to no longer being around.

“It’s very important for us to try and get a handle on the future of the motor industry.”

Two years ago Rob sent Bayswater Hastings manager Paul Kerr, wife and group marketing manager Sarah, and business partner Mel Chan to San Francisco to visit Google, Facebook and Hyper Island to get an idea as to where the future is heading.

“There’s electrification of cars, which is a big thing and it comes with issues such as not needing to be serviced as much, so that means that we need to think about what our service shops are going to look like.

“That’s why we have got to design something that is going to be future-proofed as well.

“We also need to look at what the next generation may want in vehicle needs and try and stay ahead.

“Where we believe it will head is that our children and grandchildren won’t actually own a car. We can see that you may pay a monthly sum of money to have a ‘Bayswater Plan’, which might consist of a 1600 cc hatchback for 40 weeks a year, a seven-seater SUV for 4–5 weeks over summer holidays, then a Ute for a while, and then a real cool sports car.”

As for picking his favourite vehicle on the lot, that’s also a difficult decision. There’s the gleaming top-of-the-line four-wheel drive Range Rover, the high-performance sleek F-TYPE Jaguar coupé, the BMW M-Series, Volvo safety, Subaru AWD, the hard-working Isuzu Ute, class leading vans, the versatile Suzuki, stylish Renault or the more unassuming but technologically advanced Hyundai Santa Fe.

With the wide selection of vehicle brands and types, does that make it harder or easier to recommend the most suitable vehicle for a customer?

“A lot of the time it’s about choice. I would sit down and ask them to list their wants and needs – and they will paint a picture of something they want and then we can make a recommendation. There’s very few limitations to what we can offer.”