'TOPSY TURVY’ Liam Rochford believes the pandemic has created a ‘different way of working’ for the motor industry.
THERE was a time not so long ago when celebrating 40 years in business would be a great excuse to throw a huge party for half the town.
Liam Rochford was thinking along those lines too before Covid-19 restrictions put paid to any ideas he might have had about a big day out.
Rochford Motors in Ballyhaunis was founded by Liam’s late father, Billy, in 1981 and now employs 15 people. It will hit the significant milestone at the end of May, at a time when the country is still in the midst of a pandemic.
Public health guidelines and travel restrictions means that customers can’t visit Rochford’s showroom to see cars for themselves and take them for a test-drive. Tried-and-trusted traditions like ‘tyre kicking’, ‘haggling’, writing cheques for the lucky sales rep and shaking hands on the deal are currently a thing of the past!
But Liam Rochford is determined to stay positive and keep things in perspective.
“It’s been challenging, trying to keep things going while adhering to all the restrictions,” the 45 year-old father-of-two told The Mayo News last week. “But we’ve adapted and we’re ticking over.
“We’ve invested a lot more time into training and processes that allow us to do a lot more selling online. We’ve set ourselves up so that people can appraise a car by watching videos, looking at photos, and talking to us over the phone or on Zoom.
“To look at it from a positive point of view, we’ve been open for most of the last year, with the exception of eight weeks last spring. Our workshop and our commercial test centre is open, and while customers aren’t allowed to visit the showroom under Level 5 restrictions, we have been able to work remotely with them.
“A lot of business people haven’t been able to open, so things could be a lot worse.”
Rochford describes the last 12 months as being ‘topsy-turvy’ for the motor industry and the official figures back that up. New car sales were down by 25 percent last year (‘down to recession era levels’) and up by 5 percent last month compared to the same time-period last year.
The first quarter of 2021 is showing a national decline of ‘10 percent to 12 percent’ year-on-year.
Understandably, lockdowns hit the industry hard but the experts are predicting ‘a big bounce’ when restrictions ease and vaccinations start to kick in later this year.
You wonder what Liam Rochford has learned about his industry since last March.
“That the industry as a whole is durable and can adapt,” he replied.
“The pandemic has created a different way of working for us, and I do think a lot of people will have more robust businesses after all of this. We’ve all had to adapt the way we do things and we’ve had to add more strings to our bow in terms of how we run our businesses.
“A lot of what we’ve been doing for the last 12 months has become second-nature now; being Covid-safe, sanitising, wearing masks, washing hands, how we service cars, and interact with each other,” he added. “I think the level of cleanliness and sanitisation will remain into the future, and that’s a positive.
“We’re trying to make it as as easy as possible for people and we’d allow them to change their mind if they weren’t happy for any reason. It’s not like buying a TV off the internet; a car is a more emotional and a more expensive purchase, and we have to make sure that the customer is 100 percent happy.”
Large swathes of the general public are anything but ‘100 percent happy’ with the Government these days, but the way Liam Rochford sees it, ‘they’ve got a difficult job to do’ and ‘are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’.
“I don’t have political allegiances, and I wouldn’t agree with everything they’ve done, but they have a very difficult task. I know it’s different for different sectors, but there’s been help for this industry in terms of wage subsidies and rates being paused.
“I certainly wouldn’t like to be Micheál Martin right now, pressurised and all as it is trying to run a business at the moment!”