Driving force in region's motor trade

After more than half a century in the motor trade, Jack Tordoff has built a business with an enviable reputation. He talked to Business Editor David Parkin about his career.

WHEN Jack Tordoff was named Business Leader of the Year at the Yorkshire Post Business Awards on Friday, he was later followed to the stage by Sir Ken Morrison, who also collected an award.

The two know each other well. Both have built national businesses in their home town of Bradford, and both have taken the decision to step down from the day-to-day running of their companies.

Tordoff, who is 71, became chairman of motor group JCT600 four years ago, his son, John, becoming chief executive. Tordoff still visits the office daily and has a secretary there. He admits that it was a difficult transition, and warns that his friend, Sir Ken, will find it so too.

"I'm very pleased to be receiving this award. When you get to my age the recognition is all you can get! I have loved work. The worst day of my life was retiring when I was 67.

"It's difficult. All of a sudden you wake up one morning and you've got nothing to do – and you daren't poke your nose in."

Tordoff began his career as a car mechanic in 1950. His father, who had a part share in a Bradford garage – which was on a site across the road from JCT600's present Sticker Lane headquarters – had died the year before from a heart attack. He was 47.

"My dad wanted me to be a draughtsman as I was quite good at drawing."

But the priority was to get a job after his father died.

"I left school on the Friday night and started work the following Monday. You didn't have a gap year then!"

At 21, he went off to do two years National Service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. "I liked the forces. I was based at Catterick camp and they told me I would get an officership if I stayed on."

That period gave him plenty of time to ponder his future.

"My dad's two partners were not good businessmen. I decided there was no future repairing cars. I thought I would have to learn to buy and sell cars. My mother lent me 1,000 and I bought two or three second-hand cars.

"If you are thrown in at the deep end, then you learn quickly. It was a big success and my accountant said I should be buying them out (the other two partners]. That happened in 1964.

"I bought their shares for next to nothing. I gave my mother the 1,000 back and bought her a black and white television.

"I'm a very competitive person and I used to look at Appleyards and think what a fantastic firm they were. I just got stuck in and got bigger than Appleyards.

"Business is all about making profit, and you can expand if you make a profit. We always offered good customer service – I was the first to have clean garages. I adopted the Army attitude and it became the culture of JCT600. We were always spotless, the salesmen couldn't leave their coats on the back of chairs and coffee cups on desks. If there was paper in the yard I used to shout at them to pick it up."

You sense that despite Tordoff's more hands-off role as chairman, he still observes this culture.

"Yes, we did run a tough ship, but we are tough and fair and very loyal to people.

"We've never grown turnover for the sake of it. It's not just a matter of getting big quickly, it's about being selective, we're very strong on staff training.

"We have a very balanced portfolio of top-end and bread-and-butter cars. Our Leeds showroom will be the biggest Porsche centre in Europe when it is completed – a three-and-a-half acre site with hundreds of cars."

Tordoff has held a Porsche franchise since 1967. "I think the first one we sold was a Porsche 912 for 1,800. We now sell 1,600 new Porsches a year.

"We opened the Bentley franchise in Yorkshire – I bought it from Peter Fletcher."

Other top marques followed.

"We are the largest used Aston Martin dealer in the world. When I started, all these franchises were with garages that had been there years but they never grew with the business. They didn't really sell cars; people just put their name on a waiting list.

"It's different now, the manufacturers are tougher than ever."

JCT600 will soon move its headquarters from Sticker Lane in the city to Apperley Manor, on the border of Leeds and Bradford.

Tordoff has been involved with Bradford City for many years – his firm was shirt sponsor for nine years – and a supporter of rugby league team Bradford Bulls.

He is a great advocate of his home city. "People keep saying that Bradford is not like it used to be, but it's 100 times better. I can remember it being smog and smoke and cobbled streets, a real dowdy place. We get an enormous lot of help from Bradford and Leeds councils. They have bent over backwards for us."

One of the lasting images of the Bradford riots of 2001 was the burnt-out shell of JCT600's Lister Park BMW and Mini showroom. That would be enough to dampen most people's spirits – but not those of Tordoff. He was out the next morning scouting for new sites, and the dealership re-opened within a week.

"It was a big shock when it happened. But the staff worked day and night, got stuck in and after 10 days we were up and away.

"I have had a lot of luck in business, you do make your own luck in life. I used to be tough but I'm more mellow now...

"It's a good business, we own our own property and we've got good accounts. We've only got a 2m overdraft, that's all, it's nowt."

Tordoff reaches into his desk drawer to pull out a pile of papers bearing the weekly sales figures. They add up quite nicely, JCT600 made pre-tax profits of 18m on turnover of 498m in the last financial year.

"We have never lost money since 1958 – that is better than Morrisons! We're not interested in going public –they (the advisers] don't call us now because we'd be too expensive."

There was a time when JCT600 did consider going public. Tordoff says it came close in 1988 when he discussed it with Leeds corporate lawyer Martin Shaw.

"One of the advisers asked what car I would drive after we floated and I said the same as now, a Porsche. And he said: 'The shareholders won't like you driving around in that, you will have to get a Vauxhall'. So we didn't float. When I saw Martin after, he said the best thing we ever did was not floating."

Tordoff's other son, Ian, is the director in charge of used cars.

Tordoff has plenty of interests outside work to keep him busy, including seven grandchildren. He lives at Rawdon and has just bought an apartment in Port St Charles in Barbados.

He has been flying for 28 years and keeps a Cessna at Leeds Bradford Airport. He often flies himself to Guernsey where he has another boat, and used to fly to meetings around the country.

Tordoff has a keen interest in cars, he now drives a Bentley GT Continental and spent many years rallying, coming second and third in the British Championship. "I had a number of crashes but never hurt myself. I had a belting crash in Spain over the top of a mountain," he recalls with relish.

Asked what has changed most about an industry in which he has spent more than half a century, he says: "The motor traders used to be the Arthur Daleys of this world, but we have lost that to the estate agents!"


That name – on a plate

Jack Tordoff has an amazing memory for names and details of many of the characters he has met during 56 years in business.

When asked how his firm got its name, he recalls: "In 1961, I bought a Mercedes 600 from a car dealer called Dougie Marlton, at Laisterdyke.

"He was an old-fashioned motor dealer: he always wore a Crombie overcoat, winkle-picker shoes, a trilby, and he had a dealer's pocket in the front of his trousers to keep his wedge in.

"He had half-a-dozen watches up his arm, if he didn't sell you a car, he'd sell you a watch!

"The Mercedes had the numberplate JCT600 which was my initials, and he didn't know that.

"It got to be a very well-known number, and when I bought Isaac Swires garage, at Rawdon in 1968, from Chippy Stross for 75,000, my accountant said, 'Why don't you call it JCT600 and you could put a big yellow sign on the front like a numberplate.

"So that's what we called it."