The world might be powered by the internet, but the head of one of WA’s largest private businesses won’t have a bar of it.

Car dealer John Hughes has a website as flashy as any car dealer in the world, but the man himself shuns technology.

For him it’s like a grinding clutch, his face winces at the mention of it. It’s screwed margins.

He tells The Guide in an interview leading up to his appearance as a CCI Lighthouse Leader on February 21, that the computer sitting on his desk has been there for a year but he’s never turned it on.

“I’m not bragging about that,” he clarifies, then continues: “You outa see my phone. I pulled it out in public the other day and they laughed at me. It’s one of these little black Nokia things. I mean a phone, you take a call, you make a call, that’s all I want a phone for.”

It’s a threat to the old school ways of doing business.

“Competition is everywhere and the internet is to blame. Margins are shorter, it doesn’t matter what it is, everything has been cut to the bone,” he says.

“People under 40 today just bloody get this thing and push buttons. It’s come down to the lowest common denominator. Where’s 49 years of trust and integrity. Stuff you Mr Hughes, what’s your best price?”

“I read somewhere that people today know the price of everything and value of nothing. It’s true you know.”

Leading by example

It’s almost unusual in the digital age that the head of large company can be so accessible. If you phone him – on the landline no less – chances are he’ll pick up. He leads by example.

“When people start to move their way up an establishment they start to shield themselves away from the very people who put them there and continue to keep them in business,” he says.

“Why would you not want to talk to people? There are only two reasons: they might be trying to sell you something, shock horror aren’t we all in the selling business; or they might have a complaint. How could you not want to know about the complaint?”

Hughes says when you have 550 staff ‘who are human beings, not robots’ in the business of selling products, they are not going to work 100 per cent of the time.

“You can’t be out there promoting yourself and then not being available when people want to talk to you with a complaint. The first thing I do is apologise and tell them that if I was in the same position I’d feel the same way so I take the sting out of it.

“While it’s very important for me to find out what we’re doing right, it’s far more important for me to find out what we’re not doing right, so I thank them for telling me. You find out the issue and bang you fix it.”

That “thorny” question

Hughes’ availability is undoubtedly what makes the company so successful, a key marketing strategy that has etched John Hughes into the Perth landscape.

At 82, he’s the face of the company, still working full-time and with no plans for retirement. He takes personal responsibility for its reputation. But there’s the “thorny” question, what’s the succession plan?

“I’ve got a board. I’ve got no member of the family that wants to or can run this business but I have a family board to keep them in the picture,” he says.

“I’ve got a team of very, very good people. I own the business but I’ve got three directors and they are terrific guys and I’ve got a good team of executors when I move on.

“Will the business run as well without John Hughes? No, it won’t. Will it still be very successful? Yes, it will,” he says.

Success will continue because reputation has been his life’s work. To prove the point, he pulls out the latest pile of customer surveys that show most people bought from him because they’ve been there before, reputation or recommendation.

“Have grown up with John Hughes’ advertising,” he says reading out one of the handwritten comments.

“You can’t beat that,” he laughs.

He’s a rarity in an industry that often tops the list of least trusted professions.

►Don’t miss your chance to hear leadership lessons from one of WA’s most iconic businessmen. Book your tickets to CCI’s Lighthouse Leadership Series featuring John Hughes today.