Director joins a lucky group of north-west business leaders – and a former England rugby star – for a Jeep Grand Cherokee driving experience that puts its incredible off-road capabilities to the test…
It is the morning before England’s eagerly anticipated rugby international against Australia at Twickenham and Austin Healey, who won 51 caps forhis country, is holding court over tea and coffee. But nobody is asking him a single question about the match.
Instead, cars dominate the conversation. Business leaders from across the region have come to Carden Park Hotel in Cheshire for a special four-by-four off-road driving experience organised by the IoD North West in conjunction with Jeep.
Last year, Jeep (an acronym for “just enough essential parts”) celebrated its 75th anniversary. The first one was built for the US army during the Second World War and quickly sealed its place in military history.
General Eisenhower, who commanded Allied forces before later becoming US president, famously said: “The Jeep, the Dakota airplane, and the landing craft were the three tools that won the war.”
Yet it is only in recent years that Jeep has made serious inroads into the UK market as sales of SUVs and four-by-fours have continued to rise over the past decade.
Healey is Jeep’s brand ambassador in the UK and asks today’s guests to keep “an open mind” about driving a Grand Cherokee. He says: “I was speaking to some of you earlier and you were saying you’d never driven a Jeep before. I promise you, when you get inside that car you will have a different perception of what it can do.”
Jeep’s fleet marketing manager, Simon Wheeler, explains: “Today is about showcasing the Grand Cherokee. However, most people who buy it won’t get a chance to see what it can do off-road. So we’ve given some IoD members an opportunity to see just what this car is capable of. We will take them round a pretty extreme off-road course to show off the Jeep four-wheel-drive systems.”
“Austin has worked with us for four years,” Wheeler adds. “Most people recognise him from his rugby days but he’s also a successful businessman, so we wanted to bring him along today to meet some of the IoD members and to talk about what has helped him to perform to a high level both in sport and business.”
Since retiring from rugby 10 years ago, Healey has gone on to enjoy a successful business life – he was the co-founder of a venture capital firm that was recently sold to a US hedge fund – and he treats the IoD members to a talk laced with choice anecdotes from his playing days along with insights into his life following his retirement from rugby.
He describes competing in Strictly Come Dancing back in 2008 as the most pressure he’s ever experienced. Once you’ve done a paso doble for 10 million TV viewers, running a business doesn’t seem quite so daunting. “I think, wherever possible, people or businesses should try to take themselves outside of their comfort zone,” he explains.
Or, as Wheeler puts it: “Jeep is all about adventure. It’s about pushing the boundaries. It’s about going anywhere and doing anything.”
And with that the IoD members get in their Jeeps and embark on an off-road adventure. They return two hours later having negotiated their way through the woods around the course strewn with natural hazards at every turn. It’s the ultimate four-by-four ‘test drive’ that, given the terrain, often ends up on three wheels.
For Adam Sullivan, chief executive of Baywater Healthcare in Crewe, the experience also includes being in the same car as Healey. “Austin drives like he played rugby – aggressive and determined to do well at all costs,” Sullivan says. “We started with some gentle off-road courses and then we moved on to the big stuff. I drove a Jeep many years ago and the current cars are in a different class.
“The Grand Cherokee is beautiful. It handled off-road far better than I had thought it would. It’s a really smooth ride. The engine is really powerful and responsive and being able to use all the different settings on the car was a great education. I’ve got a four-wheel drive myself and I’ve never used any of the off-road settings. I might go over some fields on the way home tonight!”
David Lever, a partner at Manchester consultancy Tempus Fugit, is also pleasantly surprised. “I drove a Jeep abroad once but never off-road. Having had a four-wheel drive for many years it was an interesting experience. The best part of the day has been seeing what these vehicles are made for, to go off-road, which you don’t get many opportunities to do.
“It’s a very good car. And Austin’s speech was invigorating – he brought it home, that ability to work and play, to enjoy life. Adventure has got to come into your working day. Days like these, that the IoD puts on, bring business people together to socialise and have some fun.”
Healey agrees. “I was always a gobby rugby player,” he says. “They used to call me ‘The Leicester Lip’. But now I’m all about my family, my businesses and the great people who I work with. It’s about bringing business, adventure and pleasure into the same place. Otherwise, what is the point in life?”