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In Focus: Aston Barclay

Date: 02 October 2020   |   Author: Simon Harris

With most car dealers closed during lockdown, you would be forgiven for thinking the vehicle remarketing industry ground to a halt. Not so for Aston Barclay. Simon Harris talks to Martin Potter, managing director - customer.

Many automotive businesses had to adapt quickly during the lockdown in spring 2020, either to conduct a limited amount of trade or pause activities until restrictions were relaxed.

Essential workers needed to continue to work - to staff and run supermarkets and other key suppliers, health services and public sector organisations. And as public transport was scaled back, if any of those workers were in an unreliable car, or one that needed replacement for some other reason, they would have been keen to get back on the road.

For Aston Barclay, the UK's third-largest remarketing organisation, it took a few days to realise there was still a level of demand that needed to be served, and it planned to continue online sales with remote bidding.

Martin Potter, managing director - customer, at Aston Barclay, says: "Everyone was locked down from 23 March and we spent the next four or five days making sure we completed our transport links to get people's cars back to site, and allowed buyers who had purchased cars to come and collect them under strict Covid precautions.

"Within a week we started to offer vehicles for sale online remotely - our first sale was on 3 April. The technology that we built, that enables us to run a sale from anywhere in the world, served us well.

"We could have an auctioneer at a laptop at home and a block clerk in Billericay [Essex] about 200 miles away. Although normally they would both be sitting together the technology worked and enabled us to conduct a fully sequentially lotted auction, with audio and video streaming of the auctioneer along with all the inspections and imagery as well.

"We managed to sell about 12,000 cars over that seven or eight weeks where everything was locked down completely, while some of our competitors were shut completely."

Aston Barclay says it continually invests in personnel, facilities, and particularly IT infrastructure, and that has given it a number of platforms that placed it in a strong position during lockdown.

"We went by what the customers wanted to do," says Potter. "We had a number of leasing customers and finance houses that wanted to keep liquidating assets, and as each week went on we found a number of retailers with online selling capability who wanted to replenish stock.

"As we had the vendors and buyers still wanting to do business in a very difficult market, we put on sales for them.

"It started slowly in the first few weeks, but began to escalate, so I think from the last week of April to the end of May we were probably holding a minimum of two sales a day, five days a week.

"A lot of our customers were pleased we were still able to trade in that way to keep the cash flow going. We were mildly surprised, despite many dealers being closed, by how many wanted to replace stock. It also gave us the opportunity to test the technology in difficult times."

Post lockdown, Potter predicts a number of shifts in buying trends, with customers becoming more used to buying vehicles online, with around four in 10 purchases through Aston Barclay on its Buyer app by the end
of lockdown.

Since June, the company has moved to a limited number of buyers inspecting cars before sale, but still with no physical buyers allowed on site, and this is likely to remain the situation for the foreseeable future.

"We review it weekly, but it's our corporate responsibility not to create unnecessary gatherings to help keep the risk of transferring the virus down," says Potter. "And I think it's been a great opportunity for buyers to embrace online purchasing."

Inspections are carried out and images are captured at the auctions, which Potter says  play a vital role in representing the used vehicles accurately when buyers view online before they bid.

"Speaking to some leasing company customers recently, we were all of the opinion that there's no need to return to a physical sale, with cars running through in front of people, anytime soon," he adds.

The company has also won some new business over recent months including from Zenith, Vantage and VWFS.

The lockdown also led to a review of the management structure of Aston Barclay, and after three years as CEO, Neil Hodson decided to take a step back from the business, but remain associated with Aston Barclay in a consultative role.

"It gave us a good opportunity to review our structure and establish the best set-up beyond Covid," says Potter. "It was a natural move when Neil decided he wanted to take a step back, but remain involved as a consultant. We wanted to refocus, and my role as MD - customer gives us the opportunity to have everything customer-related under one structure, whether buyers or vendors.

"We have marketing people within that to promote products and services to current and potential new customers, as well as ensuring we're marketing ourselves to as many buyers as we can.

"We do talk to our customers a lot and find out what they need or what they think they need in the future, so when we innovate or introduce a new service it's a result of feedback from customers and there is demand for it."

Potter adds: "I would like to thank Neil for the leadership he has provided to Aston Barclay over the last three years. 

"During lockdown, the business has been focused on the future and we have made significant investments in both our people and infrastructure."

Alongside its focus on making the digital side of the remarketing business work in harmony with physical auctions the company has acquired a disruptive influence within the industry.

Potter says: "We were very lucky because we've always been more of a speedboat than an oil tanker, and we have been able to act more flexibly. As a business, back in 2015 we decided to build our own auction management system underpinned by new technology, and that allowed us to integrate more easily with other companies than if we had a legacy system.

"It has maybe enabled us to bring innovations to market more quickly than perhaps some others. We're not resting on our laurels: we want to keep innovating and thinking of ways to improve our imagery and deliver better services for customers.

"While there's still a need for a physical presence - such as when cars are defleeted and need to be stored before they have buyers - we will continue to do that, but we're reaching the stage now where parts of what we're doing will become more digital as time goes on.

"We're quite excited about how the business will look in the years ahead."