This interview originally appeared in CAT in April 2019
If you have been in the aftermarket fifteen years or more, the chances are that you know about Finelist. If you’ve been in this industry for any longer than that, there is a good chance that you were affected by it.
Despite having read about him hundreds of times, and heard him spoken about hundreds more, I had never personally spoken to the man. I was aware of the collapse of Finalist and the circumstances around it, but I knew little about Swan’s early business life or what drew him to build a business empire through continuous expansion.
Chris Swan’s first ‘business’ was set up at the age of seven. “I went to the bridleway through the woods, I filled carrier bags with horse manure and sold them to the posh houses in Kenilworth” he recalled. “That was my first business, it didn’t cost anything and as my wife pointed out, I have been giving everyone shit ever since!”
Swan’s early years were filled with various money-making schemes, including buying old push bikes and parts, putting them together and selling them for a profit. It was the lure of discount bike parts that led him to take a Saturday job in Halfords (then still under the ownership of the Rushbrook family). After leaving school, he became a Trainee Manager and participated in the various training courses offered by the firm.
At the age of just 19, Swan was delighted to be offered his first Branch Manager role at the firm’s Aston branch. However, his enthusiasm must have been short lived. “I found out that I got the job because the previous Manager got stabbed on the way to the bank!”
Times were changing though: “My future wife and I decided that there was no money in being a retail manager and we needed a company car, so I became a paint salesman for Brown Brothers. This was in Leicester and the paint mixing room had years of spilling paint and putting cardboard to try and absorb it, then covering that with more paint… they gave me a small shovel… and it took a whole week to chip it off” Swan recalled. After doing that, he was allowed to go out and sell paint…
Presumably Swan managed to shift a reasonable amount of paint, as in due course he was appointed to be Manager of the Aldridge branch. Never one to miss an opportunity, and aged just 22 he was appointed DSM for Southampton, Portsmouth and surrounding areas.
The time spent at Brown Brothers were crucial for Swan to transition from simply a young man with a drive to get on into a businessman that understood how running a tight ship was more than simply yelling at the crew. “The principles were very simple: speed of delivery, amount of availability, competitive price and getting paid through good service” he said.
Putting these principles in place took work though. “I can’t remember the numbers, but when I got there, they were losing about £100,000 per year, which in 1983 was a big load of money. We had about 100 people whining and saying ‘we can’t do this because the market’s tough’ and ‘so and so’s cheaper than us’. So I sat everybody down and gave them the chance to change and approach things positively. Those that were not prepared to do that I replaced them with people that understood the culture”.
This might not sound like the secret for a happy workplace, but Swan insists that once the best people are in the right role for them, problems will work themselves out. “You can’t be a victim, you have to be positive” he said. “As soon as you have the right people in place, which is the secret to everything you can begin to turn it around”.
Partco came knocking with an offer of another DSM job with a larger patch of about 15 branches. This was a fine job, but in 1986 Partco underwent an MBO. “I was a level below [the required seniority to join the buy-out] and there was no equity available, so I thought ‘bugger this’ – and took the high-risk strategy of moving to Autela”.
Swan became Operations Manager at Autela, which at the time was a major force in the UK aftermarket and owned by BBA. When Swan joined, the company was turning over around £15m from 20 sites, but it was losing £4m per year ‘which took some doing’ according to Swan. One of the problems was that as a sister company of Automotive Products, the firm was used as a ‘dumping ground’. The previous management had got to the end of the financial year, how do get you figures up for the group? ‘Oh I know, put £2m of stock into Autela’ and you have a paper profit, but in reality it is still sitting on your shelf” explained Swan.
“That causes immense difficulties, because you have to run the business on a certain amount of working capital and it precluded us being able to stock other products”.
After Swan had been with the company for three years, the owner decided to sell and the management, including Swan, put together an MBO offer of £2m which was accepted. Without the stock being loaded onto the balance sheet, the company became profitable to the tune of a couple of hundred thousand per year, but after about a year the opportunity arose for Swan to buy his partners out.
Swan was then left to raise his share of the capital through investment partners as well as his own cash and even borrowing on credit cards. The move to Autella, as he correctly predicted was a very high risk strategy indeed. However, the investment vehicle set up to incorporate Autella was to shape the UK aftermarket for the decade to come: It was called ‘Finelist’.
One problem that Swan had been mulling over during his time at Autela was the firm’s ‘innovative but shambolic’ franchise system. Firms could pay to licence Autela branding and get access to branded stock, but unlike joining a buying group, there was little incentive to keep them in once a certain scale had been achieved. “The trouble was that after a few years, they would think ‘ah, why do I need that’, Franchising was a short term gain, but I was never a fan of it long term”.
The was forward was, in Swan’s eye’s, quite clear: “We needed to grow on our own terms” he said.
The way in which growth through acquisition was implemented might sound clinical, but it was effective. Based on a model set out by Williams Holdings (a highly acquisitive conglomerate of the day) a set pattern was followed. “We put team together, so we would go in on Friday night and buy the business and pay no more than asset value. We’d go in over the weekend and reassure all the front room staff, but rid of all the back room staff and apply our purchasing synergies, rebrand it and on Monday morning we’d be open for business again”.
This method was applied through the acquisition of multiple companies. “As our terms were generally 10 percent better, we were able to take out. huge chunks of administration overheads and put the income from that branch onto the bottom line, which was how we were able to grow from a £200k profit to making an operating profit before interest to £43m over eight years” said Swan. At this point Finelist employed 8000 people, it was awarded ‘Europe’s Top Job Creator’ and Chris Swan picked up the gong for Financial Times Entrepreneur of the Year.
It should be mentioned that the company went public in 1994. It had always been Swan’s intention to float the company when conditions were right and as it happened, the share offer coincided with rival Partco also going public, which helped generate interest in the city in both companies.
Acquisitions got larger and more high profile. Motor World is bought for £48.1m, FPS for £52m and Maccess for £23m. Other big names follow, including Maccess, Silencer Distributors and Wheels follow.
What happened next is something that has been talked about endlessly in the industry, and filled column inches in this magazine for years to come. Exactly what happened depended on who you ask, but what isn’t in doubt is that the market changed and Finelist, now a vertically and horizontally integrated organisation with businesses everywhere, was exposed. Maccess was sold, but the other companies were transferred to French conglomerate Autodis, which then loaded the UK company with debt. Swan left, but the whole operation collapsed leaving creditors with a huge amount owing, administrators with an almighty mess to sort out and thousands of employees facing an uncertain future.
Years after the event, the affected businesses were either bought out in MBOs, as was the case with First Line and FPS nd continue to this day, or else the were absorbed into another company. Chris Swan had a difficult few years after the debacle, but came back to form a number of companies building property, both at home and abroad. He also helps mentor school leavers keen to start in business through the ‘Young Cygnets’ charity.
However, it is clear that he misses the days of the aftermarket. “I love the industry – I can remember my first sale at Halfords for tappet adjusters, which you don’t have anymore. I can remember the paint sales… People knock it, but it’s a lovely industry. People will always try to cut each other’s throats, but at the end of the day we are all on the same side” he concluded.