Outstanding UK Leaders revealed at 2020 Autocar Awards

Every year, the Autocar Awards names its Outstanding UK Leaders – the people who have mde a big difference to the companies they work for and the cars they sell. This year we have four:

David Peel, Peugeot UK

When David Peel was appointed managing director of Peugeot UK in March 2016, the once proud brand appeared to be drifting in the UK, with a mostly average product line-up further let down by poor residuals and at best average dealership performance.

For Peel, a born car nut, salesman and fighter, the challenge was set. With a full appraisal of the product coming down the line from HQ, he set about changing what he could control, taking himself on the road to get his network on side. He was right about the cars, which are much better, but it is the progress he has overseen that earns him this award.

He does so with a personal touch crafted from experience. “I have never thought I was the best or the smartest. All I ever did was treat people – customers, contacts, clients – properly,” he says. “That guides me today.”

Under his straight-talking guidance, sales and profits have both risen, all underpinned by a relentless focus on enhancing residual values. Retailers have a spring in their step again: suddenly, Peugeot is moving up just about every satisfaction survey there is, be it inward-looking or customer-oriented. Its stated goal of being a Volkswagen rival doesn’t seem quite the leap of imagination it did just four years ago.

There’s more to come, of course. Peel talks today about being two-thirds of the way through what he initially set out to achieve, without a hint of resting on his laurels, and fired by his journey from trainee Ford salesman to where he is today. “I want to be here for the long haul,” he says. “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved – but there is still so much more to come.”

Listen to the Autocar Awards podcast here

Dick Bennetts, West Surrey Racing

“Someone told me I’ve been winning championships for 40 years,” says Dick Bennetts, founder and managing director of West Surrey Racing. “I thought: ‘Sh*t, it’s probably time to retire…’”

Bennetts rarely stops to reflect on his success, because he simply doesn’t have time. The 73-year-old New Zealander is as busy as he has ever been, with WSR running the official BMW entry in the British Touring Car Championship – and out to win a third straight title.

Having come to the UK to engineer a friend’s Formula Ford, Bennetts worked for Ron Dennis’s Project 4 squad (which soon merged with McLaren) before forming WSR to run Jonathan Palmer in British Formula 3. Palmer’s 1981 title was the first of four, with the team running Ayrton Senna and a host of other future Formula 1 stars.

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The past two years have only reinforced that: the brand now has products in over 80% of segments and sales grew by 9.4% in 2019 – a figure very few can emulate, given the difficult market – resulting in a market share of 2.98%.

“The great products have kept coming,” says Harrison. As well as completing its SUV range, Seat has launched Cupra with the Cupra Ateca – “it’s added much-needed spice into the SUV segment” – and the Mii Electric. Next up is the fourth-generation Leon, which will also launch Seat’s plug-in hybrid offering. There have been growing pains: Harrison cites long delivery times, an issue now resolved, and the speed at which retailers have needed to adjust: “Some of our smaller retailers outgrew facilities quicker than we could expand their capacity.”

When he first took up the role in 2015, Harrison said his goal was to reach 3% market share. Now that’s practically achieved, what next? “Once you get to that market share, your cars are everywhere. They are now probably my biggest marketing asset as well as customers spreading the word. I’m not in a big hurry to hit 4% or 5%. We’ll get there when we get there because we have a solid business that we need to nurture.”

While he navigates post-pandemic waters, Harrison is preparing for Seat’s first stand-alone EV, the El-Born, and more Cupra plans: “El-Born will be a game changer. I also see huge potential for Cupra. It’s not about driving huge volumes but offering a genuine alternative to more traditional premium brands.”