Driving to Succeed: John Hughes
Through passion, focus and – of course – drive, John Hughes has built an automotive empire that’s become one of the most trusted brands in Western Australia.
Those in the market for a used car prize one feature above all others: trust. If a seller is trustworthy, then any worries surrounding the quality or history of the vehicle are immediately quelled.
The advent of the private seller’s market via online marketplaces has led to some great deals, but the tradeoff is a greater level of due diligence on the buyer’s part.
Purchase from an authorized and respected used car dealership with an outstanding reputation built up over many years, however, and it’s an entirely different story.
Just ask John Hughes, the man behind Western Australia’s most trusted car dealer group and one of the largest retailers of its kind in the country. Made up of more than 500 staff, the John Hughes Group spreads its commitment to excellence across retail and wholesale sales.
Every month, the Group sells approximately 1,700 cars at retail, with another 450 vehicles sold wholesale to other dealers. That’s made possible by one man’s passion, focus and drive, attributes that have helped the John Hughes Group expand into insurance, financing, tires, batteries, mobile service, roadside assistance and warranty protection.
"I walk my talk and lead by example," Hughes, the Group’s Founder and Managing Director, tells The CEO Magazine. "I never go out for lunch and always eat at my desk. You have to be there, be available to staff and customers, be very hands-on and never lose sight of what keeps you in the business.
"It’s not do as I say – it’s do as I do."
When I left school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be.
In search of a career
All of this almost exclusively from one location, Victoria Park, near the banks of the Swan River in central Perth. All of this the vision of Hughes, whose career came about through chance.
"When I left school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be," he tells The CEO Magazine. "I wanted to be an accountant, but I couldn’t add up very well. I tried to be a school teacher, but I applied four days too late."
Desperate to begin building a life and career for himself, a young Hughes left Perth for Canberra for a public service role, even though he hadn’t yet turned 18.
"Canberra Airport was like a bus stop in the early 1950s," he says. "Nobody to meet me, didn’t know where I was staying, didn’t know where I was working. If I’d had enough money, I’d have been straight back home."
But his resolve held, and 18 months later things were looking very different for Hughes.
Never lose sight of what keeps you in the business.
"I ended up doing national service at Puckapunyal, just outside Melbourne. I went in a boy and came out a man," he says.
Along with his early education at Christian Brothers College in Fremantle, Hughes’ time in the army instilled within the young man a strong sense of discipline.
"I’ve applied that discipline to myself and all of my staff ever since," he says.
He soon returned to Perth for a job as an auto body repairs clerk as part of a motor dealership. "After a few months, they told me, ‘We think you’ve got a bit of potential. How would you like to be a sales cadet?’" Hughes recalls. "I thought I’d be driving around in new cars and wearing suits, so I took it on."
Passion for used cars
The suits and company cars never materialized, but Hughes found himself preparing new cars for sale and explaining their features to customers. At the same time, he was drawn to the used cars on the lot.
"I was absolutely fascinated," he says. "I used to sneak into the used car manager’s office at lunchtime, and I’d sit in the Standard Vanguards, Triumph Mayflowers and the Ford Customlines. I thought they were great."
"I was very keen to get involved in full-time selling and I got offered a job selling new Austins in Fremantle," he says. "I did that for a year. My previous employer, Attwood Motors, opened up Motorama in Fremantle, and knowing me, they took me on as the manager."
I nearly went bankrupt before I even started.
Attwood Motors, distributors of Vauxhall and Bedford cars and trucks from the United Kingdom, soon expanded to include six Motorama used car lots, all run by Hughes. It was the beginning of his ironclad reputation as a trustworthy used car dealer.
And yet managing another’s operations didn’t sit well with Hughes.
"I got married at the age of 32, and after buying a house, we had little money. I used to wake up with a knot in my gut, but the doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with me."
In 1969, Hughes passed a site for auction at Victoria Park. "It was an ex-service station site on Albany Highway," Hughes recalls. "I didn’t go to the auction because I didn’t have the money, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind."
Hughes called the real estate agent the day after the auction; the site hadn’t sold. He bit the bullet. "I made them an offer they couldn’t possibly accept and left it at that, knowing I’d done something," he says. "I slept well that night."
I switch off at six o’ clock at night and that’s my time.
The following day, the agent called back with surprising news. "They said, ‘it’s yours’," Hughes says. "I sweated blood. I had to chase all over Perth trying to borrow 100 percent of what I needed, and fortunately in those days you could."
Finding his purpose
In the wake of what he terms the most overpowering financial decision he’d ever made in his life – "and I’ve made plenty since then," he says – Hughes’ discomfort vanished.
"The knot just went away," he recalls. "That was my body telling me, ‘John, you’re not destined to spend your lifetime working for others. You have to work for yourself’."
The service station was soon replaced by his first car yard, Paramotors. "The builder was slow in getting the yard ready and I had to make the first payment before I’d even sold a car, so I nearly went bankrupt before I started," he says.
Success didn’t take long to find Hughes. Through his accountant, he was put in touch with another dealer looking to offload a used car yard in Inglewood.
"I took the lease," he says. "It was just myself and a salesperson. I personally used to clean all the cars, do all the paperwork, all the buying and all the selling. We put in some long, hard hours and in the first month we sold 92 cars."
I’ve learned from every mistake, and I’ll never make that same mistake again.
The cash flow from Inglewood helped Hughes keep Paramotors running, and before long, both were turning a healthy profit. "I actually originated the term ‘pre-owned cars’," he says. "Most new car dealers at that time weren’t very interested in retailing used cars, so I had no shortage of supply."
Fueled by his love of the game, Hughes proceeded to expand, but tough times were always at his heels. "I went through the period when interest rates went to 20, 21 percent," he says. "I had to lay off staff and cut back all costs, so that was very borderline."
At times, growth was a bit too quick. "Initially, I expanded too quickly and delegated too loosely," he says. "I didn’t get enough good advice early on, and I made a lot of mistakes. I might have been too intent on doing it all by myself."
Whatever mistakes he made were a learning experience, he adds. "I’ve learned from every mistake, and I’ll never make that same mistake again."
Hughes works six-day weeks and two-to-three hours on Sundays. But he insists he’s not a workaholic. "I am very fortunate that I absolutely love what I do," he says. "And when you love what you do, you never have to go to work."
At six sharp every evening, work is over. "I don’t take or make phone calls about business," he explains. "I don’t switch back on until eight in the morning. I live my life with very clearly defined terms, and I find peace and contentment in what I do. I am very pragmatic.
"It’s just family and business. That’s all I do, and I absolutely love it."
In a career so loaded with achievements, Hughes says his greatest is reaching beyond his comfort zone and finding success there.
"Growing up in a family without a lot of money, achieving what I have would have once appeared impossible," he says. "I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. I think it’s important that you’re proud inside and humble, very humble, outside. And that’s what I am."
I’m always on the lookout for opportunities.
By compartmentalizing – or as he calls it, "chunking my time" – Hughes achieves the kind of pace, presence and inner peace that’s helped take him as far as he’s gone, something Hughes advises anyone wishing to emulate his success to pursue.
"The best advice I can give anyone, in two words, if they want to run a successful business, is simply to just ‘be there’," he says. "I take all of my own phone calls directly, I get involved in selling cars and closing deals, and even though I employ over 500 staff I genuinely believe nobody picks up more rubbish than I do."
The first expansion of his business came in 1980, when Hughes took on his first new car dealership, a Mitsubishi franchise.
Then known as the Skipper Bailey Motor Company, Hughes would keep that name on the marquee until 2005, when it became John Hughes Mitsubishi. It has consistently ranked as the carmaker’s top dealership in Western Australia.
Taking a punt on an overseas brand would again pay off for Hughes just a few years later. "I had a knock on my door one day, a chap named Danny Fisher," he recalls. "He’d been offered the Australian distribution for a South Korean car, the name of which I couldn’t pronounce."
For six consecutive years, I was the world’s biggest-selling Hyundai dealer.
The carmaker in question had told Fisher that if he could get a financial backer, he could have the Australian distribution. "Nobody wanted to know him until he reached the office of Alan Bond," Hughes says.
Bond had only one condition Fisher would have to meet before he’d stump up the finances: get John Hughes involved. "So I said yes, the three of us got involved, and we called it Bond Motor Sales," he says. "We were the first Australian importers of Hyundai in 1986."
When Bond’s fortunes soured a few years later, the franchise dealership was sold off, but Hughes remained a Hyundai dealer.
"In fact, I’ve been Australia’s biggest-selling Hyundai dealer ever since that time," he says. "And for six consecutive years, I was the world’s biggest-selling Hyundai dealer."
Continuing to grow
John Hughes Group has close partnerships with other big name car manufacturers. In total, he has Hyundai, Kia, Jeep, Ford, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, LDV and now Chery in his considerable garage. "I’m also Australia’s top-selling MG dealer," he adds.
In the last 12 months, Hughes has opened three new pre-owned car lots in Wangara, Welshpool and Rockingham. He’s also expanded his service and parts departments and built new showrooms for Kia, MG and Chery.
"We’ve got a lot on the go, and I’m always on the lookout for opportunities."
Ambition is continuing, unabated dissatisfaction.
A life in business is a life spent climbing a ladder, he says. "You go step after step after step, but you never reach the top. There’s always one more. You just keep climbing."
Those who don’t keep climbing lack the passion and focus Hughes believes is integral to success: ambition. "My definition of ambition is continuing, unabated dissatisfaction. The big advantage I’ve got is it’s my own business, and I rise or fall 100 percent on the effort that I put in," he adds.
"It’s my passion. It’s all I do. I don’t have a boat, I don’t race horses, I haven’t got a property in the country. I don’t go fishing, I don’t play golf or bridge. I don’t go caravanning. It’s total focus."
As Hughes admits, it’s not a life for everybody, but doing business on his own terms has taken him to a level of success few in his industry have enjoyed.
"I don’t work on my business, I work in my business. Am I heavily involved in my business? Yes. Does it take up a significant amount of my time? Yes. Am I ever likely to change? No."
Hughes spends over US$1.7 million per year on advertising, and features prominently in TV, radio and press campaigns. Slogans such as "I want your business and I’m prepared to pay for it", and "I stand behind every car I sell" have helped build the enormous trust Hughes enjoys today.
When you love what you do, you never have to work.
His high profile means the John Hughes brand is a household name in Western Australia, and a culture of its own in the state’s car business. "My brand stands out and I say to my people, ‘We are not like our competitors. We are special’."
And once again, in the winning hand is total focus.