WR Phillips recently featured in MTA's Radiator Magazine, with a profile encompassing the more than 70 years of the businesses history.
Neil Phillips (left) with his son Paul.
Written By Karlum Lattimore.
For 70 years, the New Plymouth Phillips family have made a point of dealing fairly with people. Their livelihood has depended upon it and the family-owned dealership WR Phillips Ltd has flourished as a result.
Second generation director, Neil Philips, says “Our product is not unique, so it is important we treat people fairly and look after our relationship with them. It’s the way we treat people that drives loyalty and reduces the need for the customer to ever go elsewhere.”
The company has operated from is central city site since it was founded by WR Phillips in 1946. His sons Neil and Rex, Neil’s son Paul, and now Paul’s son Ryan, have all followed in WR’s footsteps. (William Phillips was always known to his customers, friends and family as ‘WR’).
One of the building blocks for the company’s success has been its 50 year relationship with Todd Motors and later Mitisubishi.
WR started his working life at 16 in 1919 with the Whanganui branch of Adams Ltd, which imported and distributed cars. He did a mechanics apprenticeship before working for Studebaker in the USA for two years. He returned as a Studebaker sales rep and rejoined Adams Ltd in Whanganui.
By 1932 he was the manager of the New Plymouth branch of Dominion Motors when the Depression bit. Sales plummeted, staff took paycuts, cut backs were made, and over the next few years the rm had to re possess about 250 cars.
WR had always wanted his own dealership and in 1946 he and fellow Dominion Motors workshop manager George Clarke set up WR Phillips Ltd. They took with them seven other
staff . Through a franchise agreement with Todd Motors, they started selling Hillman, De Soto, Sunbeam and Talbot cars along with Commer trucks, David Brown and Moline tractors.
Grandson Paul says the family takes great pride in the fact that most of the founding staff and directors spent the rest of their working lives with the company. “Over our history, we have had over 40 staff who have worked with us for more than 20 years and three of our foundation staff still deal with us today.”
The business has expanded and contracted over the years. “In the early 80s we had 94 staff across three sites – largely as a result of the energy boom,” said Paul.
Neil says “Dad always envisaged splitting o the tractor and truck sales and servicing and in 1973 we moved the truck and tractor operations out to our new site at Waiwakaiho Valley on the outskirts of town.”
Neil managed the heavy vehicle operations while his brother Rex took care of cars. Twenty years later, the company sold its heavy vehicle servicing operation and moved its truck sales back to its city site. In 2015 it moved out of truck sales altogether after losing the Mitsibushi Fuso franchise.
This was a bit of a blow to Neil. “I had always been a tractor and truck man - couldn’t be bothered with cars. So it worked well being able to go a different way to my brother Rex.” Neil retired from the operational side in 2013 but at 81 years old he remains a director and was sad to see the closure of the truck operations.
Being a family business has always been important. WR made sure his two daughters, Judith and Valerie held directorships alongside their two brothers. While none of Rex’s o spring have chosen a career in the motor trade, Neil is delighted his son Paul and daughter in law Julia now have the ship’s rudder. Their son Ryan joined the rm after completing a marketing degree and now heads up the VW sales team. Is Jarod joining?
“We have always felt each generation has a responsibility to provide the same opportunities for the next generation that we had – its up to them if they want to take on the business,” said Paul.
The company’s central city site was always tight for space and over the decades more adjoining land has been bought, buildings added or extended and refurbished.
The site is now the only one the company operates from.
A large rebuild project was completed just 18 months ago to take advantage of another small piece of land that had been bought.
Dealerships have a large land footprint. Paul says, “We are still keeping an eye out for land that might be useful to us. We need to be thinking about what we might be doing in the next three to five years.” He believes multi franchise dealerships will find it harder and harder to keep up with all the diagnostic and repair equipment that is needed for each brand.
“Selling a car is easy, the art is in selling for tomorrow, so your customer buys, not just their first car from you, but also their next.”
“The pressure is on to invest in diagnostics and service and that more equipment taking up more space. For example, if a VW windscreen breaks, it a affects the forward-looking laser system and all the lasers have to be recalibrated when the screen’s replaced. That recalibration equipment is just one of the many new pieces of technology that are needed today.”
WR Phillips holds franchises for Mitsubishi, VW, Audi, and Skoda.
Neil Phillips has the final word. “Selling a car is easy, the art is in selling for tomorrow, so your customer buys, not just their first car from you, but also their next.”