Henry Williams: How to overcome financial difficulties to thrive as a small business

Hi Henry, so where did it all start? 

It’s hard to know where to start! The full history of the business is probably a few pages in itself. But in a nutshell I am the fourth generation owner of the family business, Williams Automobiles, which was started by my great grandfather Harry Williams. Harry was a true entrepreneurial spirit, running a successful cart business in the early 1900’s he made a decision that would be the start of our business as we know it today. 

In 1911 he bought a car - a Belsize, which he quickly sold for a profit. His friends however thought he was mad, horses being much cheaper and more reliable and automobiles unlikely to catch on. 

Fortunately like all good entrepreneurs Harry stuck to his guns and followed his intuition. By the 1930’s he was running a very successful business. After the 2nd world war, his son Cliff took over the business and built it up to its former success as the economy recovered, selling mostly Austin Morris & British Leyland. The business was once again thriving when in the late 1960’s my father, Richard Williams, took the reins. 

Surviving major changes in the car industry & two recessions by 2005 the business employed 100 staff across seven premises and was one of the largest Saab dealers in the UK.

How did your business journey begin?

After leaving school at 18 with three A levels I was quite heavily in to music, even writing and producing two music albums. Despite music being a passion, unfortunately the financial returns are not enough to live on! 

So I set up a company importing musical instruments from China, it was an invaluable experience to set something up of my own from scratch but I found the quality of product was very variable so I decided to call it a day. 

Obviously I grew up around the family business, absorbing it day in day out, but at 23 I finally joined the company officially, tasked with marketing and special projects. Basically a lot of compliance work my father didn’t want to do himself! Plus marketing & internet work which I was keen to get stuck in to. After finding my feet, in 2011 I took over the full operational running of the company.

Before I took over, in 2010, dad wanted to sell up and retire. The business was in decline with heavy losses forecast, largely due to circumstances beyond our control. Saab was heading for liquidation and the overheads of running such a large site with energy & business rates rocketing was becoming a heavy burden. 

However, I wanted the business to keep going by looking at other ways we could continue. After some heated debates we decided to sell the main operation and lease out property but I was left with a small stock of Morgan cars and would rebuild Williams Automobiles once again. 

What is the biggest barrier you've overcome?

Most definitely starting a business with six cars and some derelict farm buildings from a field in the middle of South Gloucestershire. To top that we had no internet, no landline, intermittent mobile reception and no planning permission!

However I was determined to make a go of it – if my grandfather Cliff could do it at the end of the Second World War with even bigger constraints then so could I.

So how did you turn Williams Automobiles around?

We (me plus a team of five) basically got stuck in and worked our socks off. As well as selling the cars we rolled up our sleeves and helped convert the buildings and by night I would go home and build the website. 

By the end of 2011 we had a showroom and a small parts & service operation, plus a landline, (very slow) internet and planning permission. By winter 2012 we had our second showroom and a proper office space and by 2013 we were seeing a healthy profit level return, which I guess is the ultimate proof of the pudding as it were.

What was the breakthrough?

Being bold and taking the risk of doing this in the first place rather than just selling up the whole business. 

Naturally, like all business owners you worry if you’ve done the right thing or if it’s going to work but I guess the day we found out we’d been named ‘Morgan Dealer of the Year’ at the end of 2011, I felt like we were really making a go of it.

How have you grown the brand?

I think to grow a brand successfully you need to have a clear vision from day one. Obviously you need to adapt to the marketplace as it changes but remaining true to what you set out to do and keeping your focus is really important. 

I knew I wanted to create something different, a destination dealership where people could come and see our Morgan’s in a comfortable, friendly environment. The Cotswold country feel of the showrooms with the leather sofas and open fire place, the way we treat our customers and place a really high value on these relationships. All a million miles away from the typical image of the car salesman and traditional showroom.

In a practical sense, getting our name out there and marketing, the internet has become a huge part of this. It’s been particularly useful for us in building the brand overseas as 22% of our turnover now comes from China.

What are the benefits of running a green business?

There are the obvious financial benefits; our energy costs in 2013 were just over £3,000, compared to the £40,000 plus when the business operated from large premises in 2010. Over and above this though, it’s a genuine commitment on our part and one that saw us win the Green Motor Retailer of 2013 for being the most environmentally aware car retailer in the UK. 

As a business that sells cars, some people might think this is at odds with what we do. However, Morgan cars, our main focus, are probably some of the most eco-friendly cars in the world. They are hand made in a small factory in Malvern using wood and aluminium and mainly locally sourced parts. Plus as a leisure vehicle they usually travel relatively short distances so emissions are low.

How would you describe your experience as a business owner? 

You’ll probably get a different answer from me depending which day you ask me! But many things ranging from exciting, fulfilling, never a dull moment, to exhausting and a juggling act. Above all though if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it, life is too short do to something you don’t enjoy, whether it makes you money or not. 

Also, I know it’s a cliché but you really are only as good as your team. If you empower people to feel they can and should give their input and surround yourself with a team you value and trust and that share your vision, you can’t go far wrong.

You can find out more about Henry's business by checking out Williams Autombile's website, following them on Twitter or giving their Facebook page a like 

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