This month we had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Learmonth, Managing Director for BMW Park Lane. Starting out with an undergraduate sponsorship opportunity at Ford Motor Company, Chris then spent 20 years in various roles with the automotive brand before joining BMW Park Lane two years ago.
HOW DOES PARK LANE WORK WITH BMW HQ?
In essence we operate the same way as all of the other retailers in the network where we have to deliver a combination of brand responsibility, customer experience and a volume and profitability target. It’s a very competitive and enjoyable retailer network to be part of and we operate as a separate business to BMW HQ. We do however work closely with them around pilot initiatives across our business, and we can often support with the launch of new models or events being held by the brands in London to assist where needed. Given our location in central London in an area which attracts visitors from around the world, we do aim to achieve a brand store feel so that we can showcase the very best and latest products that are currently available.
YOU'VE ALWAYS WORKED IN THE AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY, WHAT FIRST ATTRACTED YOU TO THIS INDUSTRY AND WHAT'S KEPT YOU INVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?
Initially it was a passion for cars and a keen interest in business, but I quickly understood and appreciated how exciting a day it is for a customer to collect their new car. My focus then turned towards how we really succeed in giving customers that enjoyable experience from start-to-finish in the purchase process. What keeps me involved is the pace of the industry – no two days are ever the same. As an industry we are seeing a significant and fast paced shift as we transition more towards digital customer-focused retailing in both sales, aftersales and parts. As my roles have become more senior I have gained a keen interest in coaching and leadership and how I can invest my time today in tomorrow’s leaders within my business. This is a hugely rewarding part of what I do.
WHAT ARE YOUR MAIN RESPONSIBILITIES AS MANAGING DIRECTOR OF A LARGE RETAILER?
My main responsibilities revolve around running a controlled, compliant, stable and progressive business. We have a lot of regulatory requirements that we have to fulfil and meet. Our next priorities focus on employee engagement, customer experience and professionally representing the BMW, MINI and BMW Motorrad brands and products, in both sales and aftersales, to deliver a commercial result for the business.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY AT PARK LANE INCLUDE?
Due to the size and breadth of the business, no two days are ever the same. On the days that I am in the business I like to arrive at 7:30am and clear my morning’s admin whilst the teams are getting in across the business. From 9am I like to spend time around the business and locations with the teams. It’s a great way to get direct feedback on what we are doing well and where can we fine-tune things. A lot of the day can then be based around meetings (either internal, with BMW UK or with clients or suppliers) so I use the remaining time to speak with my management team to catch up on any on-going topic and business performance. A normal day tends to finish around 6:30 in the evening, so it’s normally a long but rewarding week. Additionally, I can either have time with the team at BMW UK or evening events or meetings where I work to represent the brand and business.
HOW HAS THE MARKET CHANGED IN THE LAST YEAR AND WHERE DO YOU SEE IT GOING?
The market is now changing faster than ever before. We have seen a general trend of customers choosing petrol and hybrid models on their new vehicle orders, however demand is still very high for our approved used diesel models. There is currently a lot of discussion around wider economic and political factors which will have an impact not just on our industry, but across many and most industries. Our focus is to continue to operate in a nimble and positive manner as customers and businesses will always need to buy or service their vehicles, regardless of the wider factors we are all experiencing.
HOW HAS THE WAY YOU INTERACT WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS CHANGED?
We are seeing an increased shift from our customers towards digital engagement. Much of the research completed by a customer is online and the way they choose to interact with us is increasingly in a digital format whether by email, social media or live chat – often at times outside of our traditional opening hours. Historically, the main focus for a customer was all about the car, but we are seeing an increased trend where as part of the new or used car purchase customers are seeking a level of ongoing interaction and engagement. A feeling of being associated with our business through regular informal – but professional – interaction as people share more of their lives and associations digitally.
WHO IS THE MOST INTERESTING CELEBRITY VISITOR YOU HAVE HAD AT PARK LANE?
We see many famous faces in the business so it's hard to pick a favourite. Some of our celebrities like to come and spend time with us, whereas others like to purchase their car discreetly and have the car delivered to them. Because of our location in London and having amazing products, we are often seen as a real ‘go-to’ place if you are a high profile individual. To accommodate this we have a dedicated VIP team to support and work with this customer base to help them find and choose their perfect car. What we are seeing is that celebrities today are not just musicians, athletes or from a TV / radio background, many have a large fan following because of their social media presence. They are entrepreneurs and business owners and create their celebrity status through other means.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BMW VEHICLE?
My current favourite is the recently launched BMW M2 Competition. This is a driver’s car on every level and looks stunning. The car really is so much more than the sum of its parts and is harder, keener and sharper than the M2 on which it is based. From the moment you start the car to the moment you park it up, it never ceases to make you smile and enjoy every mile and reminds us of what they joy of motoring and driving should always be about. I think this car is destined to become a future classic.
AT PARK LANCE YOU RUN A TRAINEE PROGRAMME, WHAT DOES THIS ENTAIL AND HOW DOES IT REPRESENT CHANGES IN THE BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT?
We see our Trainee programme as a key part of our business. It is a two-year scheme with a focus towards marketing, digital and social media and customer interaction. It is always exciting for me to see individuals join us in this way as they bring a whole new perspective to what we do through fresh ideas, vibrant thinking, new skills and styles of working. Our trainees have a tremendous capacity to see things in a different way, work across multiple platforms and projects at the same time and understand the dynamics of our latest customers – the millennials – and how they want to do business with us. We are very proud of our trainee intake into the business as we watch them deliver in these roles before moving on within our organisations. Supporting progression and opportunity is always important. In fact, two of our current board members started their careers off as Park Lane trainees, so this method of joining our business is very much an integral part of our culture.
HOW DOES PARK LANE UTILISE SOCIAL MEDIA?
We see social media very much as an extension to our physical bricks and mortar environment. It is a great place to showcase the latest products, offers and news in a format which is relevant to our customers. We also use our social media to let customers see that whilst we are a professional and focused business wanting to deliver for them at the highest level, we are also vibrant, fun, enthusiastic and passionate about what we all do. We ensure our content is relevant, on topic and engaging for our customers to view. We blend high-quality images and film clips – all of which we produce in-house – to ensure it is authentic. Our ethos is that our customers should feel we are their destination of choice to buy a car or have it maintained by us and they are spending their money with good people, in a reputable well run organisation that we encourage our customers to be part of. Our ‘always on’ approach means customers can connect and be part of our world whenever it works best for them and communicate with us in a style that suits them.