Vardy, Sir Peter
Sir Peter Vardy is a businessman who from a modest start in 1976 became the doyen of UK automotive retailing with dealerships for prestige marques like Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Land Rover and Jaguar as well as major volume brands. He was born in the mining village of Houghton-le-Spring near Sunderland, the second of five children. His father, Reg Vardy, ran the family business, which combined a haulage contracting business with a Ford dealership. When his father died in 1976 Peter took charge of the dealership and his elder brother the haulage business. His younger brother followed him into the dealership. The two arms of the business had little in common, and in 1981 haulage division was split off and Peter bought out his brothers from the firm. This suited all parties. His elder brother was focused on haulage and his younger brother had decided to leave the UK for Australia. Under Peter Vardy’s leadership, Reg Vardy went from being a single dealer operation in 1976 to having 100 dealerships and 6,000 employees in 2005, when it was sold to Pendragon for £506 million.
Two main factors account for Peter Vardy’s success in business. The first is the acuteness of his business mind. He had struggled academically as a boarder at the Durham Chorister School and then at Durham School, leaving with a single qualification in music. But on joining the family business he flourished, working his way up from sweeping floors and serving petrol, to becoming an accomplished car salesman, which he took to with relish because he “felt comfortable” selling. His creativity led him to imagine a new future running a growing enterprise founded on innovation and business ethics. Peter’s first bold move was to secure a dealership for Aston Martin, which at the time had no representation north of Leeds. It’s a story best told in his own words:
“So, the long and short of it I was the top Aston Martin dealer in the world for the next five years because I came up with a leasing scheme. I studied car buying, what really encouraged people to buy a car, and how you could fund a car, what finance arrangements were available and how could I get the maximum tax relief for somebody buying a car. I came up with a scheme that was approved [by the tax authorities]. We became [Aston Martin] retailer of the world, and on the back of that I got the Ferrari franchise, the Rolls Royce franchise, I had Lotus; I had all these franchises in a mining village in Houghton-le-Spring.”
The leasing scheme was ended by the tax authorities in 1981, but by then the company had broken out of its initial confines, physical and mental, and now responded by coming up with fresh ways of making life easier and more economical for its customers. Its reputation grew, it spread its wings by opening up new dealerships, and in 1989 became a public company with its shares tradeable on the London Stock Exchange. It now had the financial capacity needed to create a large national company.
The second factor explaining Peter Vardy’s success as an entrepreneur is business ethics. Peter had the advantage of “a great upbringing, very strong father, very supportive mother, sound Christian parents [who were] part of the church community in Houghton-le-Spring.” His Christian beliefs have served as a moral compass, shaping his approach to life and business, and he “set about trying to improve the image of motor retailing by treating the customer well, not charging them too much, give them cheap finance so that they could get in and out of a car without being stitched up as they were used to being.” Again, in his own words:
“By treating the customer fairly and by having a set of values, that I instilled into all of the staff, we were able to give the customer the right sort of treatment so they would come back time and time again and the referrals and recommendations; you know, once we sold the car to one member of the family we ended up with the whole family.”
Remarkably, although no longer directly involved in the automotive trade, his philosophy has lived on through his son Peter, who, like his father, has built a big automotive retail operation in Scotland based on similar ethical principles of care for customers and staff.
Ethics is also at the heart of his philanthropy. His philanthropic journey began in 1989 when Reg Vardy was floated on the London stock exchange for £28 million. He began The Vardy Foundation at this time so that he could use part of his realised wealth to help others in need. He became the principal sponsor of one of the first City Technical Colleges (a forerunner of Academy Schools), Emmanuel College in Gateshead, with the intention of improving standards by raising aspirations and standards. This proved a great success, especially through the addition of a sixth form, which helped in raising pupil aspirations. In each of its four major OFSTED inspections, Emmanuel College has been rated as an “outstanding school”. Success in Gateshead led to the establishment of the Emmanuel Schools Foundation and the opening of other schools in Middlesbrough, Doncaster, and Blyth. Peter invested £2 million in each school. He looks back fondly now at what he regards as a first-class investment of his time and money, “I knew what I was building, I knew it was going to benefit 5,500 children at [any one] time… we had almost 100% stay on rate to sixth form, great A-Level results and great folks going on to University.” In 2010, Peter stepped back from direct involvement in schools to focus on other philanthropic projects, the Emmanuel Schools Foundation continuing as a subsidiary of the United Learning Trust, a larger group with similar “sense of moral purpose and commitment to doing what is right for children and young people.”
The next big step in Peter Vardy’s philanthropic journey was the launch in 2013 of the charity Safe Families for Children. He had long been involved with trying to help former prisoners to lead better lives on leaving prison and prevent reoffending. What became increasingly apparent to him, however, was that the incidence of offending and reoffending was particularly high amongst people taken from their families and placed in care as children. The solution, he reasoned, must lie not simply in improving the care system but in better supporting families at times of crisis to prevent children from being taken into care in the first place. He found a charity in Chicago that understood this and had used volunteers to help families in practical ways to prevent their break up. He brought the model back to the UK and tailored it to local circumstances. This involves working closely alongside local authorities, who refer families to the service, and providing the training needed by volunteers. It also involves carrying out the necessary checks to ensure that volunteers are fit to serve. Many volunteers but not all come from local churches and are motivated as “compassionate Christians” by the desire of one family to help another in times of need. By 2018, the Safe Families for Children network had spread to seven UK regions and had helped 6,000 families.
Peter Vardy was knighted in 2001 for service to education as a result of his philanthropic work with the Emmanuel Schools Foundation. He was awarded the Freedom of the City of Sunderland in 2011.
Dorsey, K. (2016). The Big Interview: Scottish car dealership chief Peter Vardy, The Scotsman, Available here (Accessed: 05/09/2018).
Emmanuel College (2018). Website. Available here (Accessed: 26/09/2018).
Harvey, C. (2017). Interview with Sit Peter Vardy conducted on 9 May 2017.
Safe Families for Children (2018). Website. Available here (Accessed: 26/09/2018).
United Learning Trust (2018). Website. Available here (Accessed: 26/09/2018).
Vardy, Peter. (2018). Our History, Available here (Accessed: 05/09/2018).
Wikipedia. (2018). Peter Vardy, Available here (Accessed: 05/09/2018).