The success of Unity Automotive Group – more readily recognised as the rise and rise of Cross Roads Garage – was probably assured by two events when its Managing Director, Jon Mathers, was at school. As an 11-year-old, bathed in the world of cars with his father running Birmingham’s biggest driving school (complete with a simulator on which Jon played) and later the city’s Nissan dealership, he declared that his career had to be with cars.
“All my formative years were around cars,” says Jon. “My Dad and uncle told me not to be a mechanic and for sales I’d need experience. So, when I was 16, I went to Stratford upon Avon College to do a two-year BTEC course before starting work at Cross Roads as the 18-year-old parts boy.”
When he was 14, the second pivotal event to help guarantee his success in the motor trade occurred. At a school disco he looked across the dance floor and saw Victoria, the girl who, in 1994, was to become his wife. “I knew immediately that she was the one. You know when something’s right. She’s the exact opposite to me, which is why the chemistry is so right. She’s the brake when I’m the accelerator.”
Cross Roads was owned by Andrew and Eileen Findon when they employed Jon in September 1985. They’d had Subaru since 1980. “ I worked in the parts department and with my personality – I loved the customers – all I wanted to do was sell, sell, sell. I think Andrew could see the potential in me and I soon got us into the top three parts dealerships in the country. At the weekends, when Andrew wasn’t on site, I started talking to customers and selling cars – all without permission! But Andrew took a gamble and put me into sales, sending me to the old MOTEC industry training centre at Telford."
“I did long hours, but it was a lovely style of business and [I discovered] if you loved your customers you could get more business from them. It turned out that I was good at selling cars. In my best year I sold 387. For a small dealership that was a lot and Andrew promoted me. He was a fantastic boss and while I was putting 110% into my career he was helping me with my motor racing career in Escorts and then, when I started racing jet-skis for Team GB, he supported me again.”
In 1997 Jon had competed in the World and the European jet-ski finals, and returned to find he was flat broke. “I was maxed-out on my credit cards and Andrew said: ‘One of us is going to retire from this business… Ideally, it’ll be me.’ It was a real wake-up call for me. I told him I wanted to buy him out but that it would take me three or four years to get things together. That’s when we started to work in earnest and we became well-known as the place for performance parts for the Impreza. We’re still renowned for performance parts.”
As well as working full-time at Cross Roads, Jon, with the help of Victoria, renovated a couple of houses and ran a jet-ski sales and service business that helped earn the collateral for his planned acquisition of Cross Roads. This happened in 2003, when Andrew retired aged 55.
At that time, being located in the middle of nowhere at Tredington, 18 miles from Stratford upon Avon, 17 from Banbury, 35 from Coventry and 32 from Oxford, didn’t particularly fit anyone’s image or profile of a Subaru dealership. Inevitably, a large Midlands-based car group was putting pressure on IM to open a modern new Subaru dealership in Stratford, which would have meant the end for Cross Roads and Jon’s dream. But the economy suffered a slight downturn and the predators got cold feet allowing Jon to level with IM. He met Sam Burton said he’d put in the new brand standards, change the way Cross Roads operated, lead the business with a more modern approach and put in place everything IM wanted. But there was one condition: it would all have to happen at Tredington because he couldn’t afford expensive Stratford upon Avon.
“Sam backed me – and IM, with the help of their funding partner. They took a gamble on this kid…”
So in 2004 with the help of my co workers Ben Shimmin and Kevin Smith we started something which would grow into Unity Automotive.
In return, there were demands on Jon and significant targets – including selling 25 new Isuzu pick-ups in three months – which he proceeded to smash, selling 26 TF pick-ups! Indeed, he met his all his targets and Sam and IM continued to lend support as well as Sam setting more targets: “He was very good at that!” says Jon. “I remember when the WR1 Petter Solberg limited edition came out asking Sam how many would be available. He said: ‘You just sell them and I’ll make them available.’ We were at the 2004 Autosports Show and I sold 17 WR1s – everyone at full list price! Over the four days we cleared £60,000 profit. That’s what it was like in the mid-2000s. If you worked hard, you could achieve…"
“We got to a point where we’d got a lovely business. Then I met Paul Hunt, and learned about Insights training. I thought crikey, what can that do for my business. As a result we focused on getting the right people into the right areas of the business because we know that if we align customers with the right people we get the maximum result. I’d implemented Insights in 2005 and, by 2009, the business could almost run on auto-pilot. All I had to do was check and control and make sure everyone was working to the Jon Mathers ethos, which is ‘love your customers, love your customers, love your customers."
“I’d had offers to do other things, such as running a motor racing circuit, which interested me. My wife and I were developing the biggest building project that we’d ever done and she was also running a successful digital printing business. However, I got a call from Chris Graham who said there was a dealership in Peterborough that was going to be sold. Was I interested? That was another tipping point in my career because, for all the right or wrong reasons, we bought the business. And this took us to the next stage where people started to treat us differently… Not just in IM, but with two dealerships your buying power is a bit better and people take you a bit more seriously."
“IM put us in for different management awards and we were very proud to win the Automotive Management award at the first attempt. I admit I’ve got a big ego, but I control it a bit better at my age now… I try to use it for its strengths rather than its weaknesses. So we went for the Motor Trader award too. And we won again at the first attempt. I never thought in my wildest dreams that we could win a national award."
“That took us to another level where we know our model is okay, but we really need three or five dealerships. My father had told me that many years earlier. So we started looking in earnest and, in 2012 – another stellar year for us when we won Best Dealership in the UK, Best Training in the UK and were highly commended for turning round Peterborough – we bought Carstins at Balsall Common."
“The reason we bought Carstins is interesting. I’d had a number of conversations with Fred Heritage about buying his business in Leicester. But the conversations were going nowhere. I wasn’t prepared to pay what he wanted and he wouldn’t drop. In the end, Fred sent me an e-mail asking me what I could afford to pay. If he was trying to wind me up it worked so I called Martin Clark at Carstins and asked him if he’d like to sell me his business. Within seven days we’d agreed a price, he’d told his family and we’d shaken hands. Martin is a real gentleman. We went from that point to completion with nothing but admiration for each other. Martin guided us as to what needed doing and the business has gone straight back into profitability."
“Buying Carstins gave Fred a big wake-up call. I think this was his wake up call because he didn’t talk to me for six months. However, in January 2013 I contacted him again, offered him a final chance and did the deal. We opened Leicester on 1st November 2013."
As of today Unity Automotive hold the following franchises:
- Subaru, Isuzu and Great Wall at the original garage Cross Roads at Tredington
- Subaru, Isuzu , Jeep , Chrysler and Ssangyong at Carstins Garage , Balsall Common
- Mitsubishi, Isuzu and SsangYong at Unity Automotive Peterborough
- Chrysler, Jeep and Subaru at Unity Automotive Leicester
- Jeep and Alfa Romeo at our newest addition Unity Automotive Oxford
There are some people who none of this would have been possible without:
- Kevin Smith, Ben Shimmin, Elliott Cartwright and Paul Hunt
- All of the Unity Group employees for their undying love of anything automotive
- All of our manufacturers for their incredible support in our continued growth but especially International Motors
- And finally Black Horse our major funding partners for having the belief and faith