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Family motor business Holden Group celebrates 90 years of service, satisfaction and teamwork

PUBLISHED: 11:43 18 November 2018 | UPDATED: 11:43 18 November 2018

Reliance Service Station in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the 1960s when it still sold petrol. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Reliance Service Station in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the 1960s when it still sold petrol. Picture supplied by Holden Group

supplied by Holden Group

Holden is a name associated with the motor trade in Norfolk for 90 years. Motoring editor Andy Russell chats to current CEO Tim Holden, third generation in the family motor group, about how it has become a nationally-recognised driving force.

The Holden Chrysler Jeep site in Barker Street, Norwich, in 1996 - it now forms part of Holden Honda. Picture supplied by Holden GroupThe Holden Chrysler Jeep site in Barker Street, Norwich, in 1996 - it now forms part of Holden Honda. Picture supplied by Holden Group

It’s 90 years since Ernest Holden, youngest of 13 children, realised his future would not be on the family’s 60-acre farm at Sisland, near Loddon, got on his bike and headed to Norwich in search of a better life.

Finding work at Reliance Garage, then at St Stephen’s Square, in 1928 he didn’t want to point out to his employers he had never sat in a car, let alone driven one, when asked to drive across the city centre so taught himself as he went.

It was the start of his love affair with vehicles and his automotive career as he became an apprentice mechanic.

The accounts are still on the wall for 1928-29, Ernest’s first year at Reliance Garage, when it had an income of £6,764 7s 11d and a profit if £1,000 9s 4d – a far cry from Holden Group’s £50m annual turnover.

Tony Holden. Picture supplied by Holden GroupTony Holden. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Ernest was good at mechanical stuff and became workshop manager. With skilled mechanics in short supply during the Second World War, he was spared fighting overseas and found himself virtually running the business, going on to buy it in 1943.

Reliance Garage had moved to Haymarket in Norwich city centre – where Next store is now – 10 years earlier but the council did not think it a suitable site for the noisy, dirty work of maintaining trucks and tractors.

So, in 1946, Ernest buys a bomb-damaged site in Heigham Street – still home to Holden Group.

Grandson Tim Holden, CEO and third generation in the family business, said: “Moving out here in the late 1940s, people thought he was mad because no one would come out here to get work done and, now, we are probably one of the most central city garages again.

Reliance Garage in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the 1960s. Picture supplied by Holden GroupReliance Garage in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the 1960s. Picture supplied by Holden Group

“In grandad’s era the whole thing was about self-sufficiency,” he explained.

The war meant shortages of both labour and materials. He would buy old US Army Jeeps and break them for parts to be used elsewhere.

“Everything was about make do and mend. He had a sawmill and metal fabrication at Heigham Street so he could do everything he needed to do from this site. There weren’t franchises – you were trading whatever you could get.”

Ernest’s son, Tony, was a fully-trained mechanic and joined the business in 1960.

Eaton Rise Service Station. Picture supplied by Holden GroupEaton Rise Service Station. Picture supplied by Holden Group

“At that point the business needed to move to another level,” Tim explained. “Dad had to make it more professional and, at that point, started to take up franchises so it began to be recognisable in the way it is today.”

A major boost was the Volvo franchise in 1969, its first global automotive brand, followed by Renault four years later. The Holden Group was formed in 1970, becoming nationally recognised within the motor industry as a company that values its customers.

“The bias was swinging from trucks to cars and the truck franchises went by the end of dad’s era. Trucks had been the big part of the business in grandad’s time.”

Tim joined the business in 2001 as a sales executive, taking over as CEO in 2007 when his father finished working full time and a year after Ernest had died. With the 2008 recession hitting the motor industry, it was a baptism of fire.

Sabers Saab in Ber Street, Norwich, was also part of the Holden Group. Picture supplied by Holden GroupSabers Saab in Ber Street, Norwich, was also part of the Holden Group. Picture supplied by Holden Group

“The big thing for me was getting through the first couple of years because we had that very big recession. We changed the management team and it was a very bumpy start. I learned in two years what most people would learn in 10,” he recalled.

While Tony’s ethos was building Holden Group dealerships’ customer service, his son is striving to come up with new initiatives to further modernise the business with innovations that are bringing it to the attention of the automotive industry and winning national recognition and awards.

Among the highlights under his watch are:

Holden’s Home Test Drive – an iniative to take a demonstrator of the customer’s choice to their home to drive on roads they know, make sure it meets their family needs and even fits the garage.

Reliance Garage Renault in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the early 1980s. Picture supplied by Holden GroupReliance Garage Renault in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the early 1980s. Picture supplied by Holden Group

After the 2008 recession, winning most improved business at the 2010 Motor Trader industry awards.

Regaining the Volvo franchise in 2011, after a 10-year absence, and winning the Motor Trader best new business award the following year.

Launching the MyChoice approved used car brand – a big growth area for the business.

“The future for us now will be about growth with our partners and new cars, and increasing our used car business, and our employees are at the absolute heart of that,” he said.

The Reliance Garage Renault dealership in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the late 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden GroupThe Reliance Garage Renault dealership in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the late 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Employees at the heart of driving business forward

Holden Group is awarded Investors in People in 1995. Picture supplied by Holden GroupHolden Group is awarded Investors in People in 1995. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Holden Group’s employees are very much at the heart of its future.

In 1995, it was awarded the coveted Investors in People accolade recognising its efforts towards creating better leadership and workplace. CEO Tim Holden’s mission is looking after the staff and give them a clear vision of where the business is going.

“What has stayed the same is our values. It has all been about looking after people. It started as make do and mend, then customer service and now employee and customer engagement.

“The greatest gift this business has given me is what I have learned,” he said.

The former Holden Mitsubishi dealership in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the mid 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden GroupThe former Holden Mitsubishi dealership in Heigham Street, Norwich, in the mid 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Learning is a key part of its latest initiative to help employees ‘create the lives they want’ which has seen Holden Group win Motor Trader’s Employer of the Year Award.

The family-run motor business, with Volvo, Honda, Renault and Dacia franchises and employing 111 people, set out in 2016 to operate in a more progressive and people-centric way, putting employees at the heart of everything it does and boosting employee retention.

As a result of a staff survey feedback, all sales employees now work a five-day week to address work-lift balance, employees have a personal development budget of £150 a year for anything related to learning and growth, a choice between pay awards and extra annual leave, an employee intranet, in-house management development scheme, a scheme to encourage peer-to-peer recognition and replaced the annual performance appraisal with employees setting personal goals and action plans.

The Holden Motors Volvo dealership in Westwick Street, Norwich, in the early 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden GroupThe Holden Motors Volvo dealership in Westwick Street, Norwich, in the early 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Volvos being serviced in the workshop when Holden Motors held the franchise originally. Picture supplied by Holden GroupVolvos being serviced in the workshop when Holden Motors held the franchise originally. Picture supplied by Holden Group

The Holden Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep franchise in Whiffler Road, Norwich, in 2007. Picture supplied by Holden GroupThe Holden Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep franchise in Whiffler Road, Norwich, in 2007. Picture supplied by Holden Group

An aerial picture of the Holden Group site in Whiffler Road, Norwich. Picture supplied by Holden GroupAn aerial picture of the Holden Group site in Whiffler Road, Norwich. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Holden Honda in Barker Street, Norwich, in the mid 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden GroupHolden Honda in Barker Street, Norwich, in the mid 1990s. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Maureen and Tony Holden, Tim's parents, with their horse Mr Vee, centre, which won national and internation accolades. Picture supplied by Holden GroupMaureen and Tony Holden, Tim's parents, with their horse Mr Vee, centre, which won national and internation accolades. Picture supplied by Holden Group

The Holden Motors Volvo showroom when it held the franchise the first time. Picture supplied by Holden GroupThe Holden Motors Volvo showroom when it held the franchise the first time. Picture supplied by Holden Group

After losing Volvo in 2001, Holden Motors became an MG and Rover franchise in Whiffler Road, Norwich. Picture supplied by Holden GroupAfter losing Volvo in 2001, Holden Motors became an MG and Rover franchise in Whiffler Road, Norwich. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Holden Group also used to do trucks. Picture supplied by Holden GroupHolden Group also used to do trucks. Picture supplied by Holden Group

Three generations of Holden family who work for the business; Holden Motor Group in Heigham Street, Norwich. From left;  Ernest, Tony and Tim.
<Photo by Natasha Lyster, Copy by Ken Hurst>Three generations of Holden family who work for the business; Holden Motor Group in Heigham Street, Norwich. From left; Ernest, Tony and Tim.

Holden Group 90th anniversary timeline. Picture supplied by Holden GroupHolden Group 90th anniversary timeline. Picture supplied by Holden Group

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