Sir Arnold and the Punk

Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

image source, ArnoldClark/Brewdog
image captionSir Arnold Clark and James Watt have more in common than appearances might suggest

Two businessmen, generations apart, tell us a story of entrepreneurial Scots.

So what, if anything, do James Watt and Sir Arnold Clark have in common?

James Watt - the brewer, not the steam engine man - is half of the 34-year old duo that started brewing Brewdog in a Fraserburgh garage ten years ago.

He's been out and about explaining how come the company got to be worth more than £1bn.

That's the valuation placed on it by the Californian consumer goods investment firm that has taken a 23% stake.

As he was doing so, the Clark family announced that Sir Arnold has died, aged 89.

His family wealth was reckoned last year, by the Sunday Times Rich List team, to have topped £1bn, making him the richest car dealer in Britain.

Boundless ambition

So there's a round figure they've got in common. But on reflection about such success in business, 50 years apart, there's more than that. Lots more.

What's clear is a determination, and a passion for what they do. While others settle for selling up with enough millions to retire comfortably, they share boundless ambition.

They also got lucky, by timing their business start-up when it was ripe for rapid growth in their sector.

For Sir Arnold, it's nearly 70 years since he bought his first Morris for £70, refurbed it and sold it for a profit. He had just come out of the RAF, where he had trained as a motor mechanic.

image source, AC DIGI TEAM
image captionSir Arnold bought his first Morris for £70 and sold it for a profit

Opening his first showroom in 1954, the Arnold Clark story has rarely let up the pace, and shown no sign of doing so recently.

It's still taking on dealerships, now up to 200, with more manufacturers, now at 24.

Sir Arnold spoke in 1985 of seeing that if he had stayed with the woefully poor quality British Leyland in the 1970s, he would have gone down with them, so he branched out to a Renault dealership, and just kept going from there.

Forecourt foresight

Arnold Clark Group has spread to motor finance, insurance, vehicle renting on a fast-expanding scale, fleet management, leasing and the GTG driver training business.

Starting in 2004, the expansion has kept up the pace by spotting opportunities for acquisitions in England, starting in Liverpool and moving through the Midlands.

The company now employs 11,000 people, turns over more than £3bn, sells more than 200,000 cars a year, and keeps a stock of around 20,000 vehicles.

Three of the factors that stand out about the Arnold Clark story: the founder stayed close to the forecourt, he turned used car sales into a more respectable business that respected the customer more than it had, and he kept ahead of industry developments.

He set up Arnold Clark Finance in 1963, replacing the bank manager as the place to finance your purchase. Car hire came not long after. As with the move away from dependence on British Leyland, such moves were far-sighted.

His good fortune was to set out in car sales at the time that car ownership was being democratised. Through the decades the Arnold Clark badge would be stuck to the rear window of new owners' hopes and aspirations.

Equity punks

There are clearly differences with brewing, and not just that it's been around a lot longer than cars.

The north-east brewer takes some pleasure in showing disrespect - not to its customer base, but to its rivals, the big brewers, and those who want to emphasise alcohol's risks.

It has successfully drawn its customers into a fan base, a club, a fraternity (sisters welcome too) of those who take their beer seriously, and not at all seriously, at the same time. They court publicity with irreverent shock tactics.

By building capacity and aggressively driving distribution into the supermarket sector, they've built scale, and got ahead of the pack of 100-plus Scottish craft breweries.

image source, BREWDOG
image captionBrewdog has added a radical edge to the traditional craft of brewing

By contributing crowd fund investment, those 'Equity Punks' get to share the punk image the brand projects. The company draws you in with offers, samplings, regular communications and an Annual General Meeting-cum-beer-and-music-festival (last Saturday in Aberdeen) attended by 7,000 people.

It sets ever more audacious targets, not only to take on Australia and Asia, but to build a beer-themed Doghouse hotel next to its new Ohio brewery, with what they claim will be a beer-soaked food menu, a mini-bar in the shower, craft beer on tap in every room, a hot tub filled with IPA and beer-based spa treatments.

That beer enthusiast/crowdfunding base took Brewdog to the billion pound valuation before TSG Consumer Partners stepped in with its £213m injection.

Not much like Sir Arnold, perhaps - except that both successes have been driven by breaking the mould.

They've built in a culture that continues to challenge the conventional way of doing things: that reads the way consumer trends and technology are heading.

And both car salesman and brewer have been being lucky enough to have been there for the start of a long-term market upswing, selling a lifestyle and experience as much as a product.

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