In a trade not known for its integrity, the chairman of Kwik-Fit has sincerity stamped all the way through like a stick of Edinburgh rock. Which means, says Andrew Davidson, that there are more than a few waiting to see him fail in his latest venture.
Walk into Tom Farmer's top-floor, west Edinburgh office and the first thing that hits you is the view. To the right, over the river, the undulating roof of the newly rebuilt Murrayfield rugby stadium coils snake-like over the neighbouring streets. Straight ahead, over houses and trees, the blue-green sward of the steeply rising Pentland Hills cuts across the skyline. It is simply beautiful. 'Oh aye,' says Farmer, his grey features set in a look of ruminative determination, 'but it was a bit better before they built that.' He gestures at the stadium. Not a great rugby fan, you would guess. Nor one who would let the beauty of his environment get between him and his work.
Farmer, chairman and founder of Kwik-Fit, the household-name automotive repair chain which now boasts 726 centres, is a renowned workaholic, rising early to get to his desk at 7am, often jetting round Britain to see his 'people' (employees are never 'staff' at Kwik-Fit), or giving up his nights to lecture on service and motivation. Everyone recognises him in Scotland, where his penchant for appearing in his own ads have made him the country's best-known businessman, and soon, no doubt, everyone will know him in the rest of Britain, as the television commercials for his latest venture, Kwik-Fit Insurance, filter south.
Yet there is more to him than just work. He is also one of the more intriguing businessmen in Britain, a man who has made not just one fortune but two - he retired at 28 after selling his first tyre business, then got bored and set up Kwik-Fit - and who uses his estimated £25 million wealth to work tirelessly for good causes. Along the way he has given himself and his medium-size company (Kwik-Fit has a £300 million turnover and 5,000 employees) a curiously high profile for such an unglamorous trade as the garage business. For what he markets is his own integrity. Trust me, his ads seem to say, it's my company, I'm straight, I'll make sure it's OK.
That, of course, has led many to suspect that he must be something of an ego-maniac; maybe, say his friends, but he is also a devout Catholic from a working-class background - the docks in Leith on the edge of Edinburgh - who genuinely means all those homilies he spouts about caring for customers, looking after his 'people', and always putting back into the community. He is just sharp enough to realise that an unloved business (no one really loves the garage trade) needs a human face. At 55, Farmer, they say, has sincerity stamped all the way through him like a stick of Edinburgh rock. Which is a pretty weighty accolade to bear, and one which means that more than a few are waiting to see if he falls flat on his face with his late entry into the car insurance market. The move is typical Farmer, say colleagues. He was approached by a number of insurance companies to see if he would license the Kwik-Fit name to front a new direct insurance outfit. He liked the idea so much he said he would do it himself. 'I don't think they quite bargained for who they were dealing with,' laughs an old colleague.
'It's not a big diversification,' says Farmer, with his brisk Scottish accent. 'You know, we are already the marketing arm for Dunlop and Pirelli. They make it, we sell it, the commission is just the difference between what we pay for it and what we get from the customer. Insurance is the same thing. They make the policies, we sell them.' Yet isn't the market too crowded already? He gives a wry smile. 'Och, people always say that. I was told it was too competitive when I entered the tyre market. You tell me, how many direct insurance companies can you name? One, that's right. I tell you what, in six month's time you'll know another one.' He doesn't laugh, he just slaps the sofa he's sitting on in affirmation. An indication, perhaps, of the famous Farmer determination.
He is a short man, wiry with sandy-grey hair and a pallor that is peculiar to some Scots. He also has that stern Scottish reserve, which always seems to involve a careful sizing up of strangers before anything so wholehearted as an open dialogue is established. Yet once he is at ease, discussing his much-documented success, for instance, or the 'hiccups' in Kwik-Fit's expansion in the '80s, the conversation flows. He is now a much more polished speaker than in his early days, say colleagues, no doubt the result of his many evenings on the business-lecture circuit.
He has always had energy, he says, the one advantage he was born with, along with a tight family bond that many believe directly influences the unique patriarchal style with which he runs his business. His early success is the stuff of business legend in Scotland: born the seventh child of a ship's agent (a job that involved restocking ships with provisions) in the then-bustling dock area of Leith, Farmer under-achieved at school, left at 15, joined a tyre company at his mother's suggestion, moved to another one at 21, left that 36e after a row to set up on his own at 24, selling tyres at a hefty discount from an old greengrocer's shop in Edinburgh.
Tyre reps told him that it would never work, and that he should ask for his old job back. But he persevered, built the business up to a chain of four shops, and lo and behold, one day two men from Albany Tyres in London appeared and offered him nearly half a million pounds for the lot, and asked him to stay on and run their new northern arm. He did for a bit, before finally deciding he couldn't work for other people. He retired at 28, and left for San Francisco.
Rags to riches? Hardly, he says. 'There was not an abundance of material things at home but there was a tremendous feeling of security, that people were looking after you.' Being the youngest, he says, was also a good position to be in, with eight people to spoil him, including three big brothers to stop anyone taking advantage of him. Those brothers became, respectively, a master in the merchant navy, an accountant, and a lecturer, so high achievement was clearly a family goal. But he was the one with the organisational ability, something he thinks he got from his mother. 'She never seemed to sleep. She was there when we got up and there when we went to bed. We all used to go home for lunch so she had to cook three large meals a day, and sort out everything else. I guess she was just a fantastic manager, but you never appreciated it then.' It was tyres that got him going. He still talks nostalgically about building up that first business - as he does so, he fondly taps the picture above the sofa, a watercolour of his first shop in Buccleugh Street - working with his friends in the streets, stopping only for the dances at the Palais on a Friday night. He married, settled down, but lived his life for the business, even dreaming of building tunnels between his home and the main garage so he could flit to and fro without disturbance. His friends were amazed when, after letting Albany buy in, he decided to retire and emigrate. 'We were absolutely gobsmacked,' remembers Greg Dolan, one of his old friends and now Kwik-Fit customer services director. 'We said to him: "For goodness sake, Tom, what about the lads?"' ut Farmer had made up his mind. He just didn't enjoy working for a big company. He moved to California, where one of his sisters was living, and used it as a base to travel the world. It was, he says now, a bit of a sabbatical, although at the time he thought he would never work again. But he couldn't face having nothing to do. 'It's like Hoagy Carmichael said, the only problem with retirement is you can't take a day off. I'd wake up every morning and not know what I was going to do.' So he brought his wife, daughter and son back to Scotland, and took his old mates out for a beer. He had given his word to Albany that he wouldn't compete in the tyre market so, he said, how about an exhaust business? 'I'd seen some companies in America do it, so we bought a place and started Kwik-Fit in 1971. We bought three places very quickly after that so all the lads could join us. The rest is well-documented but it is still a business I get tremendous enjoyment out of.' The Kwik-Fit name, he says, came out of a moment of inspiration when he was lying in bed one day. A decade later, as the company was expanding, it garnered further fame with an innovative ad campaign featuring dancing fitters and the famous tag-line 'You can't get better than a Kwik-Fit fitter', still to be seen on the back of every fitter's overall. 'That really gave us profile,' he acknowledges. In a market with plenty of fragmented competition, it also gave him that crucial, branded edge.
There have been ups and downs. After a period of over-expansion in the early '80s, when the threat of an American rival moving in tempted Farmer to push Kwik-Fit from 50 to 200 depots - 'it was a bit of a hiccup and we found we had expanded faster than the abilities of our managers' - he has focused on steady growth with low debt, getting geographical spread in Britain, and dipping his toe into Belgium and Holland. As it has grown, he has continually broken it up into smaller units because, he says, big businesses are dumb businesses.
Last year he emerged from a tough recession to spend £21.5 million acquiring 125 tyre and exhaust Superdrive motoring centres from Shell, some of which he leased to Apple service centres in the north of the England, but keeping much-needed sites in the south for Kwik-Fit. He could push further into Europe, but is loath to do so. An attempt to run sites in France in the '80s was not a success. He says the cultural values of 'Latin' countries make it difficult for Kwik-Fit to succeed. When I push him on exactly what he means, he cites the French tendency to close for lunch - 'it's unheard of here!' - and the managers' dislike of Farmer's famous 'all-lads-together' technique of corporate bonding. It turns out they didn't appreciate being taken out for a beer with their own employees.
So in a sense, the move into insurance answers the question a lot of observers have been asking: where Farmer would take Kwik-Fit from here. He has expanded the company's areas of interest from just fitting exhausts to selling tyres and replacing brakes as well, and has long eyed the car spares market. Insurance, he says, is just another step. 'It is not going to be a major profit earner,' he acknowledges, 'but it does give us an ability to build stronger customer loyalty programmes.' Kwik-Fit is already famed for its customer service - you only have to walk near a branch to be plied with coffee and nearly overwhelmed by the staff charm offensive - and he would like to build on that, he says, to develop an all-encompassing business that handles everything to do with cars. In other words: you have a problem, you ring Kwik-Fit, they sort it out, a bit like the extra services that many credit card companies are now offering.
So what does he mean? Selling cars? Vehicle recovery? On-road repairs? How wide can he spread it? Should the AA and the RAC be quaking in their boots? 'No, no,' says Farmer cautiously, 'but there are 23 million cars on the road. We might use their services, for instance.' He won't give further details but clearly plans are afoot.
Back to his management style: some might say there are contradictions going on here. Farmer has a strong bond to his own roots - he constantly refers to 'the lads', the boyhood friends who helped him with his first business and then moved swiftly into his second, and despite the burden of a £475,000 salary and a £23 million stake in Kwik-Fit, he says he sees the 38e whole of his company as a team, and he puts his 'people' even before his customers. Hence all Kwik-Fit workers are on profit-share incentive schemes, and nearly half are share-owners in the company. If the customer is king, he likes to say, the staff are emperors ...
'I was at a talk somewhere the other night,' he adds, 'and someone brought up the subject of "motivating the shop-floor workers" and I couldn't believe it, we are still talking in those terms. It's like saying (he puts on a weasly voice) "Oh great, here am I down here working and you are going to come out from on high, thank you, thank you." Here everyone gets up in the morning and does a job, we are all part of one team. Hence this isn't a head office, this is a support office; we don't have senior management, we have support management. The only reason we have these jobs is to support the guys out there.' And yet in Kwik-Fit, a cynic might say, some are clearly more equal than others. Many in the motor trade will tell you that Kwik-Fit 'people' are actually rather frightened of Farmer who by reputation is a demanding man to work for. And later in the interview Farmer says he will not answer any questions about his lifestyle, the big house in the posh Edinburgh suburb of Barnton, the corporate jet and helicopter that friends say he has, all the things he has worked hard for and needs to get around his business, but which undoubtedly set him apart. 'Do I have an airplane? I have various means of transport,' he says, rather defensively.
Oh come on. For a start, the sideboard by his desk seems to have a fair number of model planes on it. A bit of an interest? 'I am not going to go into that. I don't think people have a right to know.' Others might think there is some image massaging going on.
Yet obviously there is a method to the massage. The garage trade has, in the past, been a rough one, notorious for its sharp practices, not just perpetrated against customers but as often against garage owners themselves. Any instilling of a sense of vigorous loyalty is going to be doubly important - discouraging employees from running their own scams, for instance - especially if combined with a sharp sense of watchfulness. Farmer himself confirms it. In the early days he succeeded because he was a good 'operator': he got round the garages, and he had a nose for trouble. 'I can see from 100 yards if something is wrong, if piles of tyres are in the wrong place, meaning someone is selling off old ones when they shouldn't, if there is some kind of customer trouble ...' But this whole approach is also bound in with his religious beliefs, a sort of ethical toughness that some would more readily associate with the Protestant than the Catholic church. All sound businesses, he says, are built on good Christian ethics: don't steal, don't exploit your customers or your people, always use your profits for the benefit of your people and the community. But isn't the Bible rather more ambivalent about money and profit? No, says Farmer. 'As I said to you at the beginning, we are in business to make a profit and should not be ashamed of that, provided we stick to sound principles, and at the end of the day do proper things with that profit.' Such as? Well, the company is heavily involved in Scottish Business in the Community, which Farmer chairs, and Investors In People Scotland. There are various community projects too, and Farmer's own philanthropic interests. It is not just the week he spends each year at Lourdes, but also the slightly more ambitious schemes he gets talked into. One of his recent bits of philanthropy, for example - which completely startled his friends - was to rescue Hibs, the Leith-based football club with a loyal Catholic following which was in danger of being swallowed by its great rival Hearts. Farmer had never been to a football match in his life, but thought the working man in Leith was getting a raw deal out of the likely takeover. The fact that Hearts was run by Edinburgh's second best-known entrepreneur, Wallace Mercer, may also have had something to do with it, say his friends with a laugh.
Whatever, no one can accuse him of being on an ego trip because he does everything possible to distance himself from the club. He may be de facto owner - though he has signed a lot of shares over to supporters - but he still doesn't go to matches, doesn't chair the club, doesn't even sit on the board and is happy simply to let others run it. Likewise, he owns a 65-acre island in the Firth of Forth, Inchkeith, which he bought to stop a Dutch company developing it. He doesn't do anything with it. You have to say, it is all very curious and rather admirable.
Yet there must be some ego there, otherwise he would never spend so much time appearing in his own ads, would he? 'I have a high profile because we needed to give the business a face,' he shrugs. 'It can be fun, at other times it can be annoying.' Another who knows him well says that of course it is ego-driven, but it is never arrogant. 'Tom's always been a well-known figure around Edinburgh since his first business. He enjoys the recognition, but he comes across quite subtly. It's not "look at me, I'm the great Tom Farmer".' And intriguingly, adds John Moorhouse, director of Scottish Business in the Community and a firm Farmer fan, it is only business rivals who carp at the Kwik-Fit boss's success. No-one else begrudges it him.
What are Farmer's politics? No one really knows, but anyone expecting him to be riding on the coat-tails of the Scottish Labour mafia would be disappointed. He knows most of the politicians in Scotland and is careful to talk to all sides, he says. Kwik-Fit does not give donations, and if he did personally, he certainly wouldn't tell me, he laughs. Does he support Scottish devolution? He pauses, then answers carefully. 'I would support anything that helps to improve the quality of life in Scotland, but we already have a level of devolution, our own laws, our own education system. Things operate differently here.' He would support it, he says, if it both benefited Scotland and was not to the detriment of the United Kingdom. He hasn't seen anything yet, he adds, that convinces him that that is the way to go.
'Have you got enough?' he demands after 90 minutes, clearly keen to get back to business. He ushers me out to the staircase and when I ask for a contact number to check the details of his cv, he hastily tears a sheet off his secretary's pad, and scrawls out her direct line number. Giving it to me he grins and chuckles, 'Och, we can't afford fancy things like business cards around here.' Then he bustles back into his office.
1940 Born 10 July, Leith, Scotland
Educated Holy Cross Academy, Edinburgh
1964 Opens first tyre shop, Tyres & Accessories Supplies
1968 Sells out to Albany Tyres for £450,000
1970 Retires to California
1971 Returns to set up Kwik-Fit 1980 Rapidly expands company from 50 to 200 depots
1988 Launches £35million rights issue to fund further expansion
1990 Awarded CBE, becomes chairman of Scottish Business in the Community 1994 Buys 125 Superdrive Motoring Centres from Shell
1995 Launches Kwik-Fit Insurance
Tom Farmer is also a board member of Scottish Enterprise and Investors in People UK.
WHAT PEOPLE SAY
'He's an absolute enthusiast with incredible energy who drives himself very hard and delivers magnificently.
I have never heard his success begrudged by people, only by some of his business rivals.'
John Moorhouse, director, Scottish Business In The Community '
He hasn't changed much. He is the same guy I knew when we started.
He still enjoys that pint of beer with the lads down the pub.'
Greg Dolan, old friend and Kwik-Fit customer services director '
Tom is always extremely well prepared for a negotiation. If you do a deal with him he always sticks to it. But if he does not like it, he tells you.'
John Hible, Michelin UK chief executive, 1993
'Farmer is not particularly brilliant with figures - you don't want to ask him a financial question, he relies on his finance director for that - but he has a great feel for the business and, remember, he has carved something completely new out of a moribund market.'
An Analyst, 1995
'If somebody is not up to the job he will find a suitable place for them in the company rather than fire them.'
Ervin Landau, Kwik-Fit director on Farmer's closeness to his staff, 1993.