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From missiles to Mitsubishi Motors

PUBLISHED: 15:30 17 January 2014 | UPDATED: 15:31 17 January 2014

big ceo interview

big ceo interview

Archant

You have to seriously doubt the sanity of a man who says he left a job where he legitimately spent his time firing missiles (albeit empty nylon cylinders) out of a massive air gun to test their velocity above the speed of sound, because he thought it a ‘bit dull’.

But Lance Bradley, managing director at Mitsubishi Motors in Cirencester, looks perfectly sane to me. “My first job was working at Hunting Engineering – a weapons systems design and manufacturing company. It sounds fun, but looking at some of the engineers who had been working there for 30 years, I wanted to do something more people orientated.”

He’s certainly doing that now. For the last five years, Lance has headed up the sole UK distributor of Mitsubishi cars and after a fairly awful period after the Lehmann’s crash in 2008 where every UK motor manufacturer struggled, the company is now most definitely on the up. He says confidently: “We will have five years of very decent growth because I can see it happening now. We’ve got new models; new plans and we’re expanding our dealership network again. I try not to be too excited but everything we see is good at the moment.”

This is great for the company’s 180-strong employee base at Cirencester, but also for its dealers and customers, because there is nothing more depressing than a miserable car dealer. It’s going to be a lot of work, adds Lance, though no-one minds effort if it’s about growth. “The miserable bit was that we had to work just as hard to manage the decline.”

Hunting Engineering’s loss of a missile-testing engineer when Lance was applying for jobs in sales and marketing was almost Scottish and Newcastle Brewery’s gain, which surely would have been the ultimate sociable job, but he decided instead to accept a role with Ford Motor Company as he’d always been a bit of a petrol head and having chucked in a promising engineering career, he wanted to do something that really interested him.

He stayed with Ford for almost 13 years before being persuaded to join Mitsubishi when his erstwhile Ford colleague, Jim Tyrrell, moved there to take over as managing director. At that time Mitsubishi Motors was known as The Colt Car Company and it was emerging from a financial mess. David Blackburn had established the business in 1974 on Spitalgate Lane in Cirencester and for the first 20 years or so it was a huge success story.

It has always struck me as a surprising that the only UK importer of Mitsubishi cars was based in leafy Cirencester, but there was a good reason for this, says Lance. “We’re surrounded by good shooting country and that’s what the directors at the time liked doing best.” In fact, when the business moved to its present site the security guard’s office was fitted with a gun cabinet, so that when the directors felt like it they could nip out in the afternoon for a spot of shooting, without the bother of going home first. The empty gun cabinet remains (Lance hastens to add that nothing like that happens now, but he does admit to enjoying a bit of country sport shooting in his spare time). There were also jaunts to Jersey for lunch in the company helicopter if they felt like it.

Perhaps that was when the company started sponsoring Badminton Horse Trials – a savvy move as it turned out and the company is still headline sponsor today. It was, of course, a different era and a different business climate too. That’s when there were restrictions on Japanese car imports so when you’d sold everything you were allowed to sell at the highest price the market would bear, the only thing to do was to go shooting for the rest of the year.

But in the mid 90s, import restrictions were relaxed and Mitsubishi took on a plant in Holland to produce the Mitsubishi Carisma. It had ambitions to sell 40,000 units in the UK and but didn’t know how to do it. “The company was trying to compete in the fleet market, which is what Ford does very well because it has the might to do it,” says Lance. “You can’t be a small player and expect to do well with a car that isn’t completely competitive.”

The business lost money and the year before Lance joined, David Blackburn brought in a turnaround specialist to sort out the most pressing problems. Soon after, Jim Tyrrell took over to get the business on an even keel, inviting Lance to become general manager of the sales operation. “He wanted someone who knew who how to plan stock and order cars. The process they had here was just looking at what they’d sold last month and ordering more. We started by simplifying the line up, which reduced costs but didn’t compromise sales. We made it much simpler for everyone.”

David Blackburn retired from the business in 2008, selling his shares to Mitsubishi Corporation, which now owns 100% of the business. Mitsubishi Motors’ core market, explains Lance, are often people who have bought one before and its flagship car, the Shogun is the authentic off-roader. I drove a Shogun for some years and it was probably the best car we’ve ever had as a family: Big, reliable, heavy duty, plenty of dog space and it’s got some nice accessories but it’s not a fancy car. Not like its rival the Land Rover Discovery, though Lance says that the Shogun no longer competes as, spec for spec, a Discovery is now around £20,000 more expensive than a Shogun.

“Thanks to a more favourable exchange rate we were able to reduce the price by £5,000 in the summer which tripled our sales,” he says. As the world economy revives, so have Mitsubishi’s ambitions and new concept designs were unveiled at the Tokyo Car Show last November, along with updated versions of old favourites, the Shogun among them. “Mitsubishi is out of recovery and into growth phase,” says Lance. “They are making a profit and there is a huge increase in company confidence.”

Last year Mitsubishi introduced two new models, the Mirage and the Outlander and sold 11,500 vehicles into the UK, turning over between £500-£600 million. This year Lance’s team is planning to sell over 14,000 out of its 107-strong and expanding dealer network.

“After two years of no new models, it was great to have two. The product drives the brand and having new cars is exciting. It motivates everyone. We have dealers who have been with us a very long time, and that’s what our customers want. “It’s not unusual for generations of families to buy a Mitsubishi and they like the continuity of buying the car from the son of the man who sold one to their dad. Our customers like continuity.”

In fact, it looks like the long-standing customers have been joined by a fair few new ones as Mitsubishi was the fastest growing brand in the UK last year (albeit from a low base), growing by 40%. “When that starts to happen it’s great, and we have now been asked by Mitsubishi Corporation to look at how we can dramatically increase our volume. “

That will take every member of staff at Mitsubishi Car’s Cirencester headquarters. “We have excellent people working here and my job is to help them. I work on the vision, my colleagues crank the numbers and that’s the hard job.” Mitsubishi is also recruiting again, and will take on five or six graduates to work this summer, before their final year. “Working for a sponsor teaches students a lot,” says Lance. “You can learn so much, even if it’s just being in a suit for a 9am start, and if we can give something back to undergraduates that would give me much pleasure.”

Mitsubishi Corporation has many hundreds of companies across the world and adopts a long-term vision. It generally employs locals to run its businesses, though there are Japanese directors at Cirencester who play a key liaison role.“As long as I deliver the number in the bottom right hand corner, that’s OK,” adds Lance. “Even when things got difficult last year they didn’t interfere, saying ‘we’ve appointed you – get on with it’, and I did.”

Mitsubishi has sponsored Badminton Horse trials for over 20 years and everyone across the business gets involved. “The 2012 cancellation was awful,” said Lance. “There was a big sense of anticlimax because we all know everyone there so well.”

It’s also the longest serving sponsor of Gloucester Rugby. “I knew Tom Walkinshaw reasonably well. He lived close to me in Oxfordshire and we provided him with a car. When you do this they are supposed to say ‘it’s lovely ’. Tom didn’t. He said it’s nice, but do you want me to tell you what’s wrong with it? And because he was an engineer and racing driver I agreed. We went for a drive and he said ‘the tip in and tip out is not perfect and it feels like there is a damper missing’. I couldn’t feel it but a week later we got notification from the factory that a small number of Mitsubishis had been built with a damper missing. He was an impressive guy. We also called a pickup truck model after him because he drove one on his estate. He wanted it to handle better on the road so his engineers developed a five-link independent rear suspension system. it was brilliant around the lanes but when I drove in it with him, he scared the wits out of a vw golf driver keeping up around the bends. now we make and sell them.”

Lance Bradley is 48 and recently moved from Charlbury to Cold Ash, near Thatcham after marrying again. He now lives in domestic contentment with his wife Heather, 15-year old stepdaughter Melissa and a labrador which has been known to attend management meetings at Cirencester.

He says this is his dream job, because he also gets to mess around with cars. “I drive an Evolution high performance rally car and we’ve massively upgraded it to 400 brake horsepower with a lowered suspension. Car journalists ask me how we do the research for these cars, and I say we don’t. If I want to drive it there are probably other people who want to as well, and generally that’s proved to be the case.

“I work in a fabulous environment with lovely people. Many of our staff have family working here too and I feel a sense of responsibility towards them, it’s one of the nice things about the job. We try to do the right thing and there are times when we could have been harder but you get more out of people if you are decent to them.

“My life has changed completely over the last five years,” he says. “A new family, new home and great job working with great people. What more coul

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