Robert Forrester is not the person you want going undercover to rumble your bad business practices.
The millionaire is the chief executive of Bristol Street Motors, one of the largest car dealership groups in the UK, which sells new and used cars from all major brands.
Robert is the CEO of Vertu Motors, which acquired the 100-year-old Bristol Street Motors in 2007 for £40m when it had just 33 dealerships, but now they have 149 going from Glasgow down to Devon.
With over 6,000 employees, it’s been transformed it into a £3billion business which sells one car to us Brits every four minutes – and Robert rules with absolute precision.
“My relationship style is harsh but fair,” admits Robert on tonight’s Undercover Big Boss, then when asked if he has high standards replies: “I think most people would say I’m completely unreasonable.”
Somewhat surprisingly, because Robert didn’t start from ground level he has never actually sold car in his life.
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“I’ve been in the business 20 years but I have never done a customer facing role. Some people would probably say I have no idea what it’s like on the shop floor.”
As an Oxford University graduate he likes to do things by the book and believes employees need to be influenced rather than forced.
When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, Robert was forced to close 139 UK dealerships, furlough 5,000 members of the workforce and lost £20million from the business in just two months.
However, he decided to mount the fightback by taking a massive gamble to become the biggest and best automotive dealer in the UK.
Whilst other businesses were downsizing, he saw an opportunity and went on a shopping spree, purchasing 30 new dealerships and investing millions of pounds of shareholders’ money.
As a “temperature check” to see if the business is in the right place to expand, Robert is going undercover to make sure his company is in the right position to expand.
Wife Helen says the self-confessed ‘date geek’ trusts the numbers over his own feelings and intuition, so he may be in for a shock.
For his undercover journey, Robert adopts the persona of history lecturer called Tom Gough who is looking for a career change amid the pandemic.
His stunned family actually think he looks younger after his drastic transformation – and his son compares him to Harry Potter’s best pal Ron Weasley.
Robert wants to find out if customers are coming back to his dealerships so starts off by spending time with the most crucial part of his business – sales.
With the average family car now costing £20,000 it hasn’t been easy to convince customers to part with their cash.
They have league tables with high performing salespeople in green and those not hitting their targets in red to single them out.
“If someone is successively not hitting their targets then there is a problem then we need to understand it and potentially take action. Harsh but fair,” says Robert.
In Nottingham, Robert starts working with salesman Gervan, who is told he is taking part in a documentary about people changing career after losing their job in the pandemic.
Hilariously, Gervan has absolutely no idea who ‘Tom’ really is and even mentions Robert by name, saying he wears a tie identical to the one he has on and shows him a photo of his CEO.
Robert is impressed by Gervan’s sales technique, how he builds up a relationship with the customer and makes sure they get the right car.
But Robert flounders when given the opportunity to make a sale and is criticised for not being up beat enough and loses customers.
Gervan admits it’s a high pressure job and that on paper it’s good to have targets, but in reality it “feels like the world is coming down on you” when you are struggling.
He also explains that the managers are under pressure and admits they can take it out on the staff as he gets very emotional.
Gervan reveals he didn’t sell a car for nine days while having personal issues at home, but instead of getting support he was given harsh verbal abuse.
“Instead of asking me if everything was alright it was, ‘What are you doing you haven’t sold a car for nine days, you might as well go home. Shall I do your job for you?”
Gervan explains it’s actually his last month at the company as he handed his notice in and walks out of the room in tears.
“He’s clearly very upset and has the right to be as it’s distressing. He’s been very honest with me and I haven’t been honest,” says Robert.
Deciding now is the time to reveal who he is, Robert tells Gervan that what he said really upset him and explains he is in fact Robert Forrester.
“I wanted to give you somer comfort I’ve heard what you said, it has registered and clearly I can’t ignore it,” says Robert, who admits he would be disappointed to lose him from the group.
“No one can sit and listen to that conversation and not be upset. He’s got real talent, he works hard, he’s exactly the sort of person we should be encouraging but clearly something is going wrong somewhere.”
Next up he meets confident salesman Lee, also known as ‘The Van Man’, who gives Robert a crash course in online sales videos.
He tells Robert to have a “flash bang entry”, throw in a couple of specification gags in the middle then give the viewers all the information they need.
“He’s not a born salesman but if you left him with me for long enough I think he’d be less s***,” claims Lee.
Robert is impressed with Lee’s ability to innovate and drive sales with his enthusiasm and passion while creating his own personal brand.
Although he does admit the “unacceptable” sexual innuendos need to be curtailed in his business videos because they have to create the right environment.
Lee admits he struggles with the work/life balance and looking after his nine-year-old daughter and explains he doesn’t want to go into management through fear of being “burnt” from the top.
In the final leg of his journey in Newcastle, Robert meets Terry, one of the companies longest-standing valets, spending the day washing cars.
It’s “physically relentless” work and Terry admits he wouldn’t give Robert a job because “it doesn’t look like he’s done a hard day’s work in his life”.
Single dad Terry reveals the past year has been extremely difficult and he had to get financial help off his parents when the dealership shut amid the pandemic.
His son’s mother passed away two years ago, so now he works twice as hard to make sure he has the best of everything.
Terry says he has little job security as he works for a contractor who could cancel his work at any moment because he is employed week by week.
“I don’t feel I’m appreciated for what I do. The salesmen get targets and bonuses. I don’t get any bonus if I hit my targets,” says Terry.
Robert confesses it’s difficult to listen to someone who gives his all to the business and goes the extra mile but doesn’t feel valued.
After a week in disguise, Robert invites his employees to head office to reveal his real identity.
He tells stunned Lee that there were some aspects he was disappointed with, such as the inappropriate language and “laddish culture” in the show room.
However, Robert tells Lee he’s a “born salesman” and his videos are the best he’s seen in the whole group, so asks him to be the face of van social media marketing.
Next up is Gervan, who has been reflecting on whether he wants to stay with the company.
Robert says targets should not be used as a “punishment camp” and there should be more support, encouragement and training.
Gervan reveals he wants to stay in the company to progress – and delighted Robert offers him a 5-star all inclusive holiday for him to have a good break after a tough time.
Finally, Robert actually goes to visit Terry personally and praises him for going above and beyond.
He offers Terry a job at Bristol Street Motors as the Vehicle Progressor for Newcastle Vauxhall as well as £15,000 towards a house deposit.
“Understanding the people behind the data is how we’re going to create a much better business,” says Robert.
“It’s been a tough 12 months for people but it’s good to see the business and people’s lives bouncing back.”
*Undercover Big Boss airs Thursdays on ITV at 9pm
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