‘I absolutely love what I do!’ What drives John Hughes to keep going at 78 years of age?

Perth’s John Hughes is one of Australia’s most successful businessmen, renowned for his hands-on management style, 12 new car franchises and his uncompromising attitude towards customer service excellence.

CB: What’s different about selling cars in Perth compared to Melbourne or Sydney?
JH: There’s not a great deal of difference. One advantage buyers have is that Perth is not as big as some major cities, making it easy for customers to get around.  So within a couple of hours they could go and get a price from two, three… even four Dealers, whereas it might take you that length of time in Melbourne or Sydney just to get to one Dealer. Perth is also more accessible to Dealers, which might encourage the buyers to shop around more, which obviously then makes it a more competitive market.

CB: Does that mean that Perth buyers use the internet less frequently to find their best price?
JH: I can’t answer that because I don’t have comparative statistics. I wouldn’t think so, but don’t forget people also use the internet as part of the buying process. They still want to go and drive the vehicle. And they still want to visit a couple of dealerships, especially if they’ve got a trade in. You can get your best price on a car on the internet, but you can’t get a trade in price, or not a firm one, so they still need to see a Dealer.

CB: Did you always intend to become Perth’s biggest Dealer?
JH: I was always very ambitious. No matter what I did I wanted to be the best. I don’t pound my chest and raise my voice, but I think you’ve got to have that quiet sense of inner confidence that says ‘hey, I know where I’m going, get out of my way.’ I’ve always been driven and I don’t want to settle for second best. Forget this year; go back to 2013, which horse ran second in the Melbourne Cup?  Who cares? There’s no prize for second.

CB: What are the qualities that make for a successful car dealership?
JH: Like any other business, it’s the focus that the manager or the owner of the business applies to it. I am totally focused on it. I get here at 7:45 in the morning and leave at quarter past 6:00 in the evening. My lunch is ten minutes at the desk, we never, ever go out for lunch, and it’s MBWA (Management by Walking Around). I visit my service department every Wednesday morning and make the coffees, wipe the tables, unwrap the newspapers and talk to the customers. And like every other business, I do a lot of public speaking, and the question I always get asked is ‘Mr Hughes, can you sum up in a few words what it takes to run a successful business?’  I always say there are many attributes, but if I had to sum it up in two words, it’s: be there.
First to arrive, last to leave. The other important aspect is customer service of course.  I know everybody preaches this, but in most cases it goes in one ear and out the other. I am paranoid about customer service, I built my business on it. I survey all of my customers, and every time I get a survey form back I read it. Comments from customers help me to run a better business, and if I get an adverse comment, I’ll ring the people personally…
45% of my sales are from direct advertising, 55% from personal recommendation, reputation, and repeat business.  I get this information from my survey forms and I’m the only Dealer in Australia that regularly runs double page ads in the press with unsolicited comments from satisfied customers.
People want first class service, non-pushy and friendly salespeople and that’s what I offer.

CB: Are you still the world’s biggest selling Hyundai Dealer?
JH: I got the award in Istanbul in October, 2012 – we did 6,250 for the year. A couple of yanks came up to me afterwards and asked how many dealerships I had. When I said one they were absolutely shattered, they couldn’t believe it, so they just walked away with their tail between their legs, I felt pretty chuffed about that.

CB: How did you get involved in the Hyundai product?
JH: I was initially involved at the grass-roots level in 1986 with Alan Bond when we brought the vehicles into Australia.

CB: Was there a lot of buyer resistance to the brand then?
JH: Nobody wanted to know us, so we had to get a ‘big brother’ involved and that was Alan Bond. We went to Dealers and they couldn’t pronounce the name, they didn’t know anything about it, really didn’t know much about South Korea and we had great difficulty getting Dealers in those days. Now people are fighting over each other to try and get a franchise.

CB: What will you do when you retire, if you ever do?
JH: Never going to happen. I don’t have any other interests other than family and business. I don’t race horses, I don’t have a boat, I don’t play golf, I don’t play bridge, don’t go bowling, and I haven’t got a property at Margaret River. The thought of gardening fills me with dread.  I just love what I do. I absolutely love what I do. And when you love what you do, you never have to go to work. This is a full time hobby.

CB: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
JH: Number one, trying to handle Dealers and trying to compete with Dealers who are financial lemmings, committing financial suicide by putting cars on the internet at ridiculous prices, but then not backing it up with service. My biggest challenge is to try and put my head on their shoulders. Now I know I can’t do that. But I can provide regular training and I can let them see what I do. I do my own television and press ads so I’ve got to make sure that if I stand up on television and make these promises, my people will carry them through to the letter. We do it pretty well most of the time.

CB: If you weren’t a car dealer, what would you be?
JH: I originally wanted to be a lawyer when I left school, but we couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t afford to go to University. So I finished up as a personnel cadet in the Department of External Territories in Canberra, although I was born in Perth. I hated it and after 18 months I came back to Perth, I needed a job in a hurry, and I saw an ad in the paper for a clerk at Attwood Motors – they were Vauxhall and Bedford distributors and I graduated from there. I could also have been an accountant, I’m wiping my brow while I say this and thank goodness it didn’t happen.

CB: What have you discovered about yourself over the course of your career?
JH: I never pronounce O-L-D or A-G-E, I talk about maturing. As I mature, I’ve gotten better. Better and better. I will be 79 in December and I’ve never been more on top of my game.

CB: Your best car memory?
JH: I sold three new Austin A-55s in one day in ’58 and I can still remember the surnames of the three people I sold them to. I thought that was a remarkable achievement.

CB: Favourite travel destination and why?
JH: Best city in the world is New York, I love it, I love the vibrancy, I love the ease of getting around and I love the action. And I also like Asia, because there’s no jetlag, they’ve got great hotels and they’ve got first class service.

CB: What sells cars?
JH: Passion, product knowledge, and a determination to put the customer first.

CB: What was your first car?
JH: I’ve only ever owned one car – a 1936 Austin 10.

CB: Favourite movie of all time?
JH: Stalag-17 and Zulu.

CB: Finally, have you ever considered opening a dealership in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane?
JH: I have. And I’m doing an IPO later next year. I’ll be looking to expand then and that’s when that will happen. Until then, I’m concentrating on WA. I do have an outlet in Chatswood called North Shore Auto Centre, where we sell late model pre-owned vehicles, predominantly prestige, all on the internet, and that’s going very well.


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