Daksh Gupta, chief executive of Marshall Motor Group, on attracting fresh talent

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Interviews Profile Daksh Gupta Marshall Motor Group October 2009

Daksh Gupta washed cars on Saturdays to pay his way through university. Now he is chief executive of Marshall Motor Group, one of the largest family-owned and family-run motor dealer groups in the UK. He reveals how people, not profit, drive him and why it’s important to attract fresh talent into the automotive industry

For somebody who ended up in the automotive industry by accident, Daksh Gupta has moved at meteoric speed. He is just 38 years old, but already he holds what he calls “one of the top three jobs in the industry” as chief executive of Marshall Motor Group—a job he very nearly rejected.

After graduating with a degree in computer science and software engineering from Oxford Brookes University, Gupta’s parents were not best pleased when he decided to take a job as a car salesman. “I remember my parents saying ‘we have not spent all that money on your education for you to go and sell cars’,” he laughs, well aware of the cheesy car salesman stereotype. But Gupta isn’t your average car salesman. He’s got the gift of the gab—it’s hard to get a word in once he starts talking—but that’s where the comparison ends.

In fact, he’s being touted by his peers as one of a new generation of leaders in the industry. “He thinks in a very different way,” says Lynda Pickess, managing partner of Courland Automotive Practice. “He has a large range of skills and he can multi-skill across an organisation as well as up and down, and that is a rare thing in the automotive industry. He is also very people-centric.”

Gupta took a Saturday job, washing cars at a local dealership, to pay his way through university. When the manager asked him to do some admin work on Sundays, he “accidentally” sold a car on his first day and was promptly taken on as a part-time salesman.

After his graduation he decided to stick with the job. He recalls: “It was bang in the middle of a recession and the number of computing graduates had increased fivefold between 1986 and 1991, so there was no demand and I wasn’t sure what to do. I just saw it as something to pay my student loan until I got a proper job. I didn’t have any ambition when I joined.” But he soon became hooked by the energetic and fast-moving pace of the business: “I ended up being one of the top sales people in the network,” he says.

Robert Hazelwood, managing director of Skoda UK, met Gupta around this time and he says his potential was evident from the start. “You could see early on that he was a very driven and focused individual. He was quick to pick up the sales process and he understood the mechanics of how you sell cars extremely well. He was hugely energetic,” says Hazelwood.

Yet when he went for the general manager job, aged 25, he was considered too young. “I remember being really pissed off. I was one of the top performing sales managers, I had the support of people and I thought ‘if you are good enough you should be given the opportunity’,” he says. But the rejection has helped to shape him as a leader. “My approach throughout my career has been to give people an opportunity because it creates loyalty,” he says.

When he left Nissan to work for fleet provider Camden Group, he built a reputation as a turnaround specialist, taking charge of struggling dealerships. But it was at car distributor and retailer Inchcape where he spent the longest spell of his career, first as general manager and later as franchise director. “I’m very grateful to Inchcape because a lot of companies wouldn’t have given that opportunity to a 31-year-old,” he says.

Hazelwood, who made Gupta a director at Inchcape, says he is one of the best retailers in the business. “His attention to detail set him apart from other operators at the time. He had a very good grassroot grounding in the retail motor industry and if you add that to his determination, his driven personality and his obvious ambition, he was always going to do very well,” he says.

Gupta established solid relations with manufacturers, including VW, Audi and Mercedes, and says he has built his success on excellent customer service. “I didn’t sell my first car because I was a good salesman. I discovered that if you talk to customers respectfully and politely and if you qualify their needs, selling cars is not difficult.”

After seven years he decided it was time to try a new experience, but moving to accident management company Accident Exchange as chief operating officer turned out to be a mistake. “I knew very early on that I had made the wrong decision and I missed the speed of the retail sector,” recalls Gupta. “People think the grass is greener on the other side, but that is not always the case. Within the year I was back in the industry,” he says.

He became group managing director of auto retail group Ridgeway in January 2008 and although he describes the job as “the perfect fit”, just six months later he was headhunted by Marshall. “It was such bad timing,” says Gupta. “I’d had a stable career track record up until leaving Inchcape. I just said ‘no thanks’.”

But a former colleague persuaded him to at least find out about the job and the company. “So I went and met the Marshalls and I found a 100-year old company that had zero debt, as well as integrity and ethics in the way it operates,” he says. “I was really impressed.”

Robert Marshall, the chairman of the family business, says it was immediately obvious that Gupta was the right man for the job. “I think Daksh is absolutely unique in having what I call old-fashioned core values—a very high ethical behaviour, a commitment to customers and to developing people—which accorded with our family company values,” he says. “But he also had an extremely good grasp of modern technology and how it could help us to propel our business forward.”

The prospect of working for a business like Marshalls—the motor group sits alongside three others, including a successful aerospace company—intrigued Gupta, but he was still taken aback when they offered him the job. “I just thought ‘bugger’. I didn’t expect that to happen,” he says.

Nevertheless, it was an opportunity he felt he couldn’t pass up. “The potential for growth, for a company in a strong position within the automotive industry, was immense. It was just too good an opportunity to turn down,” he says.

Leaving one company after a few months was bad enough for his conscience, but doing so twice was difficult. “The hardest thing was not whether I wanted to come to Marshall,” he explains. “The hardest decision was regarding my relationship with the owners of Ridgeway. My reputation and the way I conduct myself is really important to me,” he explains.

Marshall has been impressed with Gupta’s work so far. “He has made an enormous impact. I think it is the attention to detail in all parts of the business that has changed our performance substantially in a relatively short time,” he says. “I had a choice of some industry heavyweights who would have been extremely good on guidance and strategy, but they would have depended on management teams to do the implementation. Daksh is a two-in-one in that respect. He operates exceptionally well at the board and on the shop floor.”

He’s certainly managed to keep the business healthy in challenging times for the industry. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders sales in the new car market are down by 21.5 per cent this year. Marshall is only down eight per cent. And while used car sales fell 6.6 per cent in the second quarter, Marshall was up 19.8 per cent. Its service departments are up 24 per cent, its parts department up 24.8 per cent, its body shop is up 28 per cent, and sales on finance and insurance products are double year on year. A turnover this year of between £330m and £340m is also ahead of the market.

“We have banned the ‘R’ word because for me it is all about mindset,” says Gupta. “It is very easy to say that the market is dying and a lot of the groups have made redundancies, but in this country there will still be 1.8 million people who will buy a new car this year. What we have to do—and what every business should do—is go out there and win an unfair share of the market,” he says. “In terms of a recession, is it affecting us? Actually I see it is as an opportunity.”

This year Marshall has added seven new franchises and employed 180 people and Gupta’s ambition is to increase the current 48 dealerships to 80. “We want to be regarded as the UK’s premier retail and leasing name and by that I don’t mean the biggest but the best,” he says. “You can go bigger, but once you go beyond 80 you lose that special touch of a family business,” he says.

He has overhauled the management team and put together a new company vision and values, which he expects the 1,700 staff “to live”. Again, customer service is the priority. “What I am more pleased about than anything else this year is our performance in customer service; we are number one for many manufacturers,” claims Gupta.

Performance reward plans have been changed accordingly. “We only reward exceptional performances above budget; we don’t reward people at 80 per cent because that doesn’t drive the right behaviour.” And it is not about profits alone. “I don’t want to have someone making millions for the company but with appalling customer service. So somebody might be ahead of budget, but if their customer service is poor, they will lose their bonus,” he says.

With his background on the shop floor he likes to get out and visit the franchises on a regular basis. He says he enjoys chatting to staff and it is important that he is seen to be accessible. Besides, as he points out, they often come up with the best ideas. “I think most people think that they know where they stand with me. I am dead straight, I call a spade a spade and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I think a lot of people like that about me,” he says.

Lynda Pickess believes that it is his ability to “bring people with him” that really differentiates him. “If you have people like Daksh, who is a really good figurehead and who people can look at and think ‘yes, he is really inspirational’, then it will attract more of that type to work in the automotive industry,” she says.

Pickess is aiming to attract more young people to the industry via a competition, the Autocar-Courland Next Generation Award, which she has launched for university students. Sold as a cross between Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice, it offers one graduate the chance to work with four companies in the industry, including Marshall.

Gupta is looking forward to being involved. “It is a great opportunity to see what young talent is coming through. Although there can only be one winner, I think we will find some real stars of the future,” he says.

He’d clearly like to change people’s perception of the industry. “I don’t think you naturally finish your studies and think ‘right, I am going to go and carve myself a career in the automotive industry’,” he says. “But if you look at our people, especially our general managers, they get experience on so many different levels. They can read management accounts exceptionally well, they understand balance sheets, people management, manufacturer relationships. So I don’t know why more people don’t consider it. We don’t sell the industry to graduates as well as we could do,” he says.

As for his “accidental career path”, Gupta admits that it has worked out well. But he hopes that this role as CEO at Marshall is his last. “I think I have got everything I need to fulfil my ambition and how I want to develop,” he explains. So what does that mean? “I want to build something that is regarded as the best in the industry,” he says.

He washed cars on Saturdays to pay his way through university. Now Daksh Gupta is chief executive of Marshall Motor Group, one of the largest family-owned and family-run motor dealer groups in the UK. He reveals how people, not profit, drive him and why it’s important to attract fresh talent into the automotive industry.

by Tina Nielsen

@MarshallMotorGp

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