Williams Automobiles is a fourth generation, 100 year old family business operating a luxury car dealership for prestige brands such as Morgan and Lotus, based in the heart of the Cotswolds, in rural Gloucestershire.
Headed up by Henry Williams, the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2014, the firm has built an enviable range of stunning, premium brand cars and a first-class reputation for supplying the ‘unobtainable’ in specialist cars and sourcing the perfect vehicle for its distinguished and discerning clientele.
Entrepreneurial family history
Williams Automobiles has had a long and eventful history spanning the last century, surviving significant social and technological changes in the car industry, two world wars and several recessions, including the Great Depression.
The origins of the business began in the early 1900s when Harry Williams, a born entrepreneur with big ambitions, started running a successful cart business. His friends thought he had gone completely mad when he bought his first car, a Belsize, in 1911, convinced that these new-fangled automobiles would catch on. They urged him to stick to horses and carts citing the fact that cars break down and are unreliable; but Harry, like all good entrepreneurs, listened to his intuition and stuck to his guns. His friends were left eating humble pie when he quickly sold that first car for a handsome profit and Williams Automobiles was born.
The Second World War took the wind out of the business’s sails when the premises were requisitioned and Harry was forced to sell all his stock and assets; but after the war, Harry’s son, Cliff, took over the business and built it up to its former glory, selling mainly Austin Morris and British Leyland cars as the economy recovered. By the time the swinging sixties arrived and the Beatles were at the top of the music charts, the business was once again thriving when Richard Williams, the original founder’s grandson took over the reins.
However, as any entrepreneur who has ever run a successful business knows, you can experiences both highs and lows over the years and Williams is no exception. By 2010, Williams had a prestigious car showroom in Bristol city centre, was one of the largest Saab dealers in the UK, with seven franchises and nearly 100 staff but as Saab was going into liquidation the company started operating at a considerable loss especially as each car manufacturer demanded the firm take its own individual corporate branding and use its own operating systems. With large overheads and car manufacturers such as Saab and Mazda’s market share declining, it simply wasn’t commercially viable to continue in the same vein.
A new era
Step forward Henry Williams who, aged just 26, displaying the same entrepreneurial spirit, zeal and determination of previous generations of the Williams family, persuaded his father that the answer was not to cut their losses and run but to completely change the way they did business. He and his father Richard rented out the glitzy city centre showroom and sold off the company’s remaining franchises , buying some derelict farm buildings in the beautiful South Gloucestershire countryside to create his vision – a luxury ‘destination dealership’ for prestigious, top-end vehicles, in particular British made Morgan cars.
Starting from scratch again, Henry set about rebuilding the business, rolling up his sleeves by day to help physically convert the dilapidated barns into a showroom and offices and by night, building the new company website. He was more than ready to face the biggest challenge of his young business career with just six Morgan cars to his name in the middle of a field with no internet, no landline, intermittent mobile phone reception and no planning permission! His mantra was simple – if Grandfather Cliff could rebuild the business following the Second World War with far bigger constraints and challenges, then so could he.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Williams Automobiles has been revitalised and is thriving once again. Business is booming with nearly 25% of the firm’s business in exports. The company has been awarded Morgan Dealer of the Year for 2011, 2012 and 2013 and won several high-profile industry accolades in the past year. It also runs a small Morgan race team and has expanded in to weekend and short break hire of Morgan cars for tourists, including onsite cottage accommodation.
Secrets of long-term success
Williams Automobiles has succeeded where countless other businesses have failed. Henry is convinced that it is the company’s flexibility and willingness to change and adapt with the times that has been the key to its longevity and commercial success. From the traditional horse and cart in the early 1900s to the large ostentatious car showrooms of the 80s and 90s to its reinvention and reincarnation of a smaller, leaner, more dynamic, destination luxury car dealership located in heart of the Cotswolds, the business has come full circle and is more successful than ever.
For the Williams family and their loyal team, loving what you do and enjoying your work is fundamental to long-term success. They consider themselves extremely fortunate to be working with beautiful, handcrafted, handmade luxury cars in a fantastic rural location. Converting some of their Morgan stock into racing cars and bespoking others to their clients’ exacting requirements, they realise only too well that they are selling not just cars but a lifestyle which for many is a dream, a hobby and the cars themselves are works of art that so much enjoyment can be derived from.
Entrepreneurialism is well and truly in the family’s blood and it is that driving ambition and determination which runs through the business like letters in a stick of rock. Henry is not resting on his laurels and does not take the success for granted. The business has ambitious plans for the future and is looking to expand its exporting business across bespoke cars, parts, accessories and leather products. With long-term plans in place and sales on the up, there is no reason why the business won’t keep going strong for another 100 years to be driven forward by the next generation of Williams family entrepreneurs each making their own mark on the business.
Henry’s family business top tips:
1. It’s good to talk – good communication is key. Never assume just because you are family that everyone understands where you are coming from and what you want to achieve. You need to communicate clearly and openly, just as you would with any non-family business partner.
2. Play to each other’s strengths – establish boundaries and have clearly defined roles and responsibilities in place separating family life and business life whenever possible (although it can be difficult sometimes not to talk a bit of ‘shop’ at family gatherings!)
3. Keep it professional – family members typically have insight into each other’s personalities and often use a kind of shorthand way of speaking that they wouldn’t dream of using with other co-workers. While this is fine it is important to keep things professional and leave emotional matters at the door.
4. Respect the generation gap – it is only natural that younger family members will think differently to the older generation. That’s life. It’s important to appreciate the wisdom and experience older family members can bring to the table and likewise, the older generation should respect the insights and enthusiasm the technologically-savvy younger family members have in abundance.
5. Get your priorities right – remember that blood is thicker than water. We all want to be successful and realise our business dreams but it should never be at the expense of the family. At the end of the day, you can build another business or find different ways to generate income but you’ve only got one family. Remembering to get your priorities right helps everyone keep things in perspective.