How to run a car company in the current economic climate

Employment & Skills | How To | Transport & Distribution

Written by Lawrence Whittaker, CEO of Lister Cars

My business career started in property but, while this was in a period when the market was booming, to succeed you needed awareness, savviness and the ability to give a buyer something different in a saturated market. After leaving the property game, I joined Warrantywise, a company started by my father, taking sole responsibility for the business in 2008. Under my leadership Warrantywise is now the fastest growing warranty business, has no debt, is profitable and leads the way in innovative cover for individuals and businesses alike. The reason for this is similar to the methods used in property – give the customer what they want, with unique elements, an easy route to purchase and deliver way above expectations.

I’ve always been passionate about cars, in fact the entire Whittaker family has always had an interest in cars of all types, but it was my father and I who had the bug more than most. Back in 2011 my father was seeking parts for a Lister Knobbly he had recently purchased, and we ended up at the Lister factory in Cambridge. The story of what happened next is long but, without it being our initial intention, we bought Lister Motor Company a few years later and our passion for cars turned into a business. The Whittaker-era of Lister started in 2013 and, as newcomers to the industry, we were keen to be different to the rest.

The car market, today, can be a volatile business and we have recently seen reports of falling sales, redundancy and closure from all sectors. I often say that you need to run a car business out of passion, and certainly not as a get rich quick scheme, however, if you apply business acumen to the process it certainly helps. As with any new venture, or acquisition, you have to find your USP, there is no point in doing what others are doing by following the herd, instead it’s a matter of knowing what your clients want and having the commitment, budget and workforce to see that through. You need to find your own sector within a sector, ensure the market has appetite for it and remember, at every stage, that building a car takes time and is subject to many levels of legislation and rules.

When we bought Lister Motor Company it was, quite literally, little more than a few registered company names and an (admittedly large) box of bits. The value was in what couldn’t be seen, well over 60 years of racing and sports car history and heritage came with the brand all of which gives something to build upon. While Lister has a history of car production, both race and road, no cars were being produced at the time we purchased the company but there was thousands of Lister owners, fans and enthusiasts all over the world. We knew it was our mission to create cars that appealed not only to the existing owners but to a new audience too and, in the same breath, they had to have passion, excitement and Lister DNA to maintain the interest of Lister fans and enthusiasts, too. As with any business, creating innovative new products is a challenge, but when you have brand history that contains names such as Sir Stirling Moss and a global audience who loves your brand with real passion, that is a heavy responsibility to carry when creating new cars from scratch.

The first question I challenged myself with was what product we could offer that would make an immediate impact on the market, what car that would create instant desire and herald a return to form for Lister. It was also important to show the world that we were serious about our ownership of Lister and that we had empathy and understanding for what the name represented. Lister needed to make a car that was unique enough to attract interest from buyers, offered ultimate performance at a price that was realistic and could be produced in the UK using parts from a chosen network of UK-based specialists.

UK-based suppliers were important to us for a number of reasons, not least because Lister has always been based in the UK, under UK ownership but also because of the patriotic nature of the cars they produced, the drivers who raced them and the races they won. It is a true British brand. UK supply also allows a fast supply chain with the ability to visit suppliers for quality control and allows us to react swiftly to bespoke client requirements at the time of ordering.

Running a car company isn’t easy, and certainly isn’t something you would do for fun, but Lister compete in the luxury and supercar sector where volume sales and a national sales network are not needed. This means we can concentrate on low volume, highly bespoke vehicles that are built to order with an almost unlimited choice of options enabling buyers to create a car that is personal to them. In addition, all cars are produced in very limited numbers which helps to maintain the exclusivity of Lister, ensures strong used values and further reinforces the exclusivity to any prospective purchaser. Take our LFT-C as an example. It offers performance over 200mph, stunning looks, phenomenal handling and a handmade luxury interior for under £150,000. We could sell plenty but will make only 10 examples for distribution around the world. Ultimate exclusivity creates demand.

Another point of difference with a Lister is our optional 7-year warranty, something more often seen with family hatchbacks, and not on 200mph supercars. So confident are we in what we create that Warrantywise was able to write a unique policy that offers comprehensive cover for a long period of ownership. This offering adds another layer of reasons to buy, knowing you can use the car as regularly as you like without worry of fragility or running costs helps to convince a potential customer to buy but, most importantly it also shows the brand has confidence in the product.

All new Listers are based on current production Jaguar models. Lister replaces body-panels with bespoke carbon fibre items, upgrades chassis, brakes and suspension, tunes and improves engine power and performance and completely re-trims interiors to provide an unsurpassed level of luxury. This method of car creation has been a part of Lister history for many years, especially using Jaguar sports cars and, like brands such as Alpina, allows us to create bespoke vehicles without the expense of ground-up design.

In the future we plan to create new Listers that will be unlike anything on the market. The new-era Listers will offer modern technology and the latest methods of construction but with styling and characteristics taken from our past. We remain in concept stage but, with thought and collaboration, a brand new car is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Lister is a British success story and has remained in continuous operation since the doors opened in the 1950s, but it is my aim to protect the legacy and safeguard its future for many years to come. It may be the beginning of a new chapter for Lister, but the book is far from finished…in fact, I feel it is only just the start.

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