In Scotland, Arnold Clark is a national institution; its deceptively simple, no-nonsense logo seemingly plastered across the back of every car traversing the country’s motorways and rural roads alike. The further south you travel, the rarer this sight becomes. But to view the fast-growing network of used and new car dealerships as a local affair would be a major misstep.
The business, founded in 1954 as a single Glasgow showroom, has unconstrained ambitions to become a UK-wide chain. Though it has been claimed as Scotland’s largest private sector employer, its 13,000 staff can also be found across the north and Midlands of England and as far away from its heartland as Southampton. Financially, it’s weathering the storm that has gripped much of its industry – revenues were up 7 per cent last year, though profits fell – and it has a thriving digital operation.
But the real story for Arnold Clark, and the area where it has arguably outshone its peers, is its reinvention of the showroom experience. “When people used to come in, they’d be shown the cars and it was a case of ‘which one do you like?’” says Lynne McBurney, group head of people at the business’s Hillington headquarters near Glasgow. “Now they arrive full of knowledge. They’ve already bought the car in their mind, they just want to test drive it and do the paperwork. So we need to give them a great experience – otherwise, they’ll just go and buy a car online.”
Unsurprisingly, a key factor in this shift has been ditching the traditional image of car sales as an exclusively male preserve. As McBurney puts it: “It’s about opening the doors to everyone who has the skills to come in and give our customers an excellent experience. We’ve done a lot of work to break down barriers.”
While all areas of diversity have enjoyed a focus, gender has been particularly important as almost half of vehicle purchases are now made by women. The employee engagement team already had an idea that the experience for women in branches was “very different to being at head office” and there was evidence that an overly male and formal atmosphere was putting customers off – Arnold Clark had introduced a ‘product genius’ role consisting of technical experts who wore soft shell jackets and polo shirts rather than shirts and ties, and had noticed they were viewed as more approachable than sales staff.
It led to a determined attempt to change both the demographic make-up of the shop floor and the culture, guided by a new set of values co-created with staff. But getting management buy-in was equally important. The key turned out to be discussing the barriers to hiring women during the directors’ regular meetings and branch visits with general managers. “One of our directors said ‘of course you can see why it would be intimidating to walk into a branch, either to buy a car or to go for a job interview’,” says McBurney.
Soon, the loosening of uniform requirements had been followed by a move to a five-day week, flexible working – 4,500 employees are now on flexi-time – and changes to recruitment marketing that emphasised inclusion and told the stories of newer employees. Focus groups helped improve aspects of the staff experience, particularly increasing support for wellbeing and better discussion of benefits, alongside unconscious bias training for managers and regular visits from the engagement team to break down barriers to being more inclusive.
The aim was to help create a better working environment across the board, but the results have been particularly revelatory for women – up to 40 per cent of employees in new branches are now female, and progress has been pleasing elsewhere. But the strategy hasn’t been about altruism: the business has had to work harder to find the right people and knew it had to focus on service to meet customer expectations “whether it’s our Google ratings as a branch or our Glassdoor ratings as an employer”.
“We thought people would come and work for us because we’re Arnold Clark,” says McBurney. “But then the realisation dawns that actually attrition is getting higher, unemployment is low and there’s a war for talent on. We needed to up our game and be an employer of choice, not just among other car companies – we’re competing with all the big retailers.”
In common with rivals, Arnold Clark has invested in digital development, but unlike others it has consistently grown its digital talent in-house, says group people director Carol Henry, forging relationships with schools and universities to ensure it has a ready supply of new entrants. This capability has benefited not just customer-facing parts of the firm but also departments such as
HR, which can develop new tech-led initiatives without external involvement. And it fits in with a broader focus on apprenticeships, which have been in place since the 1970s. Arnold Clark now has 700 apprentices but trains around 2,000 each year in partnership with other businesses.
“One of the most critical things is that we always recruit an apprentice with a view to giving them a permanent job,” says Henry. “Our training facilities are second to none, but we also give them mentoring support, and a lot of stretch and challenge activities. It’s not easy these days to keep a young person in a long programme, so we want to make it exciting for them. We’re always looking for the next big thing.”