Making his marque in business

Southern Motor Group managing director Ken Cummings in the new Volkswagen showroom. Photo:...
Southern Motor Group managing director Ken Cummings in the new Volkswagen showroom. Photo: Christine O'Connor
Southern Motor Group recently celebrated the official opening of its Volkswagen showroom in Dunedin. Sally Rae talks to managing director Ken Cummings about the growth of the business which had very humble beginnings.

Ken Cummings still has the paperwork for the very first car he sold more than 40 years ago.

It was a 1966 Cortina Mk1 which Mr Cummings sold to a Balclutha woman for the princely sum of $1325.

Back then, the young rookie salesman was based on a small, gravelled site in King Edward St funded by the proceeds of working various jobs in Australia.

More than four decades on and Southern Motor Group is a large and busy operation on Andersons Bay Rd, with dealerships  in Queenstown and Invercargill, employing a total of 120 staff.

At 66, Mr Cummings has no plans for retirement, saying he was still up every morning at 6am and enjoyed coming to work and being part of the team.

Despite the fact that his father had been a car dealer, he died prematurely and it was a coincidence that Mr Cummings also got into the motor vehicle trade, he said.

Brought up in Dunedin, he thought he would become a wool classer, but he found that boring, so he worked as a wool presser and in other casual jobs.

Returning home to Dunedin from working in Australia at 21, he obtained a motor vehicle dealer licence in December 1973.

He worked for someone else for three months and then started his own yard with the $10,000 he had saved funding the yard and a few cars.

After about 12 months, he moved to adjoining sites in Kaikorai Valley Rd, expanding the business, before shifting to Andersons Bay Rd in 1997.

Back in the early days, the hardest part of the job was sourcing the cars.

"You didn’t have the internet and the imports. Trying to get listings was extremely hard and you had to be pretty active in sourcing cars," he said.

Many cars were advertised privately in the newspaper and he scoured those advertisements for listings.

"Everyone was in the same boat. The competition to source motor vehicles in those early days was quite fierce and very competitive," he said.

Today’s franchise business was different from what Mr Cummings started off in. Recalling those early days as simple and fun, he believed the way forward now was certainly a franchise business.

The quality of vehicles and their specifications were also much  improved  and better value, he said.

A milestone for him was being able to end up with a good stable of brands and he was thrilled with the new Volkswagen showroom, which has access off Timaru St.

It had been overdue for a revamp and and it was decided to upgrade the rest of the operation as well.

But the business was not about the building — it was the people who were most important, he said.

"About 35% of my staff have been with me for over 10 years. We have had two staff members who have clicked over the 40 years.

"If you work on the theory surround yourself with good people, you’ll be successful," he said.

Being surrounded by loyal, dedicated staff was crucial and working hard was also a key factor in what was a very competitive industry.

"I think the public don’t understand how competitive this business is. There’s this perception there’s huge margins and things like that. In the real world, this is highly competitive and there’s huge competition out there," he said.

The New Zealand public also had a "huge" choice of motor vehicles, possibly an over-supply of choice, he believed.

The biggest challenge for a business such as Southern Motor Group was recruiting young people to come through, who had "old-fashioned work ethics", he said.

During his many years in business, there had been economic downturns and it was a matter of riding them through, he said.

Like any true salesman, he loved the busy times and, during his work day, said that there was a "fair amount to keep your finger on".

Dunedin’s economy was stable — "we don’t see the highs and lows we might see further north" — although he was keen to see more growth in the city.

An example was the Dunedin Hospital rebuild which would be a stimulant to the city’s economy, he said.

He also felt many people probably did not realise how important Central Otago was from a business point of view.

Having the district on Dunedin’s "back doorstep" provided a lot of business for many in business in Dunedin, he said.

Outside  work, Mr Cummings enjoyed visiting Central Otago and also travelling.

"Probably without sounding boring, this takes up a fair amount of my day-to-day," he said, indicating the operation.

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