“Despite the global trends towards an influx of larger PLCS, I think there’s a good future for independent businesses who can more closely look after the requirements of their local customer base and give greater attention to detail,” says Enniskillen business man Peter Little.
Involved in the family-owned business for 42 years, Mr. Little remains positive in the face of increased pressures from global conglomerates.
For over 30 years, the business has been a franchised dealer for Land Rover. However, as is the case for many local businesses, decisions made in board rooms far from rural Fermanagh are having a direct impact. Jaguar Land Rover, which has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Tata Motors – an Indian multinational automotive manufacturing company – since 2008, is restructuring its global dealer network and are requiring “very large” investments in larger showrooms; criteria that a rural dealership cannot realistically meet.
“Land Rover acknowledge that such an investment could not be justified in many rural locations and their new appointees are almost exclusively large dealer groups. There are virtually no independents left. [We are now] an officially appointed Land Rover Service Centre and will have access to the very same aftersales facilities and expertise, including our daily parts supply, along with full technical support and factory training,” states Mr. Little.
He reflects: “We’ve been very fortunate to be one of the original Land Rover dealers (since 1977). Unfortunately for us they are now insisting on very large investments in enlarged showroom facilities which could not be justified. Land Rover dealerships tend to be located in urban centres with a population of between half a million and 1 million inhabitants.”
The deal that sees T.P. Topping become an official Land Rover Service Centre was negotiated for the following reasons: “A, to keep a Land Rover showroom in this part of the world and, B, to offer an after care service to our local and cross border customers.” Mr. Little continues: “The drawback is that there will no longer be any new cars in stock but the local showroom will still be able to supply local customers with the new vehicle they want by ordering it from the manufacturers.
“In today’s world, if someone is buying a £50,000 car, they don’t want the one off the shelf. People who are buying a luxury vehicle want an individual, bespoke specification, rather than the stock vehicle and we are able to offer that.”
Mr. Little admits that the new requirements from Land Rover “initially wasn’t the news we wanted”, adding: “It’s simply impossible [for us] to meet their global requirements.”
The good news, Mr. Little continues, is that T.P. Topping “will be able to care for your present vehicle as before and we have made arrangements to ensure that we will also be able to supply customers with the vehicles of their choice in the future.”
There were fewer global pressures when the company started 85 years ago (in 1931), when Mr. Little’s grandfather purchased a garage on the current site and worked alongside Tommy Topping. It was 1951 when T.P. Topping Ltd was established as a franchised dealer of Austin Rover and Ferguson tractors, with three principal Directors: Tommy Topping, Crawford Little (Mr. Little’s father) and George Hurst. Following an Engineering degree in Queen’s University, Belfast and completing a service commission in the Royal Air Force, Peter Little returned to Enniskillen and joined the family business in 1974. In 1979, George Hurst’s son Ronald came on board. Peter and Ronald took over as directors when their fathers retired in 2000.
“I was always involved in the business but the decision to come back was an evolution of ideas,” Mr. Little says.“In 1977 we rebuilt the premises to essentially what they are now. At that stage we had the Austin and British Leyland franchises, which included Land Rover. We acquired the Ford franchise in 1993 following the closure of Erne Engineering. After the demise of Austin Rover in 2005 we concentrated on the Land Rover and Ford franchises.”
Previous challenges faced by the business included the 2008 economic crash which resulted in “a significant effect on new vehicle sales”. In order for the business to survive there were a number of “natural redundancies” and they “learned to improve our productivity”. “Thankfully once 2008 was over we haven’t looked back,” said Mr. Little. “In 2015, sales were the highest ever and were up 40 per cent on the previous year,” he added. “That trend is continuing, with the first quarter of 2016 showing further increases,” he comments.
“What’s striking about Enniskillen is that it has managed to maintain a strong presence of family owned businesses,” he observes. Whilst three generations of the Little family have overseen the business to date, Mr. Little is aware that his adult children have their own careers. He explains that he and Ronald “have made preparations for the future”, including the appointment of Adrian Devitt as sales manager and Leroy Carleton as sales executive. Hamish Logan will lead the company’s reorganised service team. Mr. Little comments: “Whilst there’s no immediate next generation family involvement, we believe the business is in good hands.”
Ford is also an important part of T.P. Topping’s business. The dichotomy of selling luxury Land Rovers on one end of the scale and operating the Ford motability scheme for recipients of Disability Living Allowance at the other end of the scale is not lost on Mr. Little, who says: “I’m just happy to provide a service for each market.”
Asked what is his best piece of business advice, he replies: “It helps to be a born optimist; as long as you are prepared to work hard, you will achieve success.”
Who does he admire in business? “I’ve never had a personal icon but I do admire those entrepreneurs who build a successful business from the ground up,” he says.
Mr. Little is critical of the banks, which, in his opinion, have taken an “overly cautious approach to doing future business.” He comments: “It is disappointing to find that they now appear to have an overly cautious approach to doing future business – all on the basis of its own mistakes. It’s the only industry that can punish their own customer for it’s own mistakes.”
His message to the new Executive is: “It’s highly important that the government get the economy stimulated, reduce the national debt, encourage a sense of entrepreneurship.”
His outlook for the short-term future of the business is: “On the back of our most successful sales year last year we can be very optimistic.”
Looking ahead, Mr. Little concludes: “The long term business future of Fermanagh is bright as long as the government can get the economy in control.”
Article derived from 'The Impartial Reporter'