As Australia suffers manufacturing, retailing and employment crises, Port Macquarie shares the challenges. Toyota/Lexus dealer Warren Plowright grew up humbly, then earned success over 30 years in his own business.
Port Macquarie’s gleaming car dealerships lining Hastings River Drive are flash for a country town. Spanking new vehicles, sparkling showrooms resembling city-style prestige lots. Port’s been good to the dealers,” Warren Plowright admits in his direct, no bulldust way. It’s 25 years since he set up here, joining the pioneers: “Andrew Miedecke, Bob Todd and John McGuigan were already established when I arrived; I was the new kid on the block. The population was 12,000; there wasn’t even an RTA here.” Plowright had already begun, as the saying goes, to “make his own success”. A mechanic’s son who tinkered with cars as a kid, he left school in the ’60s to become a copyboy at Radio 2GB, head station of a then glamorous national network. “I’d grown up in Sydney’s western suburbs; it was an opportunity in the Big Smoke.” Eschewing announcing – “You had to go bush to train, the pay was peanuts” – he “went into sales, taking ad agency bookings. I was pretty successful at it and earned a lot of money.” At just 18, already dogged and driven, Plowright had discovered his talent for salesmanship.
Over 10 years he worked his way up to sales manager. Then: “Radio was changing radically, talkback arrived, they moved the goalposts in terms of dollars. I was raising a young family” – eldest child Andrew had arrived, followed by Graham and Jacquelin – “and we’d moved to the Central Coast to buy a home. I’d always had other part-time jobs to put extra money in my pocket, carried trays in pubs at nights, keen to improve myself financially. ”While still with 2GB he tried his skills in some casual shifts at a friend’s dealership on Parramatta Road. “I sold a few new cars. In some ways it was easier selling something tangible. I was commuting daily from the Coast, [plus] you need to do a lot of socialising in advertising … so I quit radio and went selling cars.” Two years later “disenchanted with jumping on a train at 6 in the mornings” he joined a Gosford Toyota dealership. “By the early ’80s we had a nice home over Terrigal Beach, my older son was 12 and into surfing, but I got itchy feet, wanted to start my own business.” Over the following four years he established himself in a dealership in Leeton, before selling it and buying here in ’87.
Plowright would’ve made an ideal radio presenter: maintaining a relentless dialogue for two hours over our lunch of Blue Eye cod and Asian salad, his dexterous vocabulary, detailed recall, news interest and torrent of opinions reveal a nimble mind. We cover a history of the post-war motor industry, the rise of Toyota (in January, No. 1 in passenger cars, SUVs and light-commercials, 55% over its nearest rival) and other Japanese brands, and the Thai, then Chinese, emergence. Plowright prizes the Toyota brand, singles out the HiLux for mention: “No. 1 individual imported vehicle for years, super-duper popular!” Son Andrew worked for Toyota after uni, including spending two years in Japan with the company. He married a Japanese girl, Hiroko, and the couple settled here; their son Felix, Plowright’s first grandson (joining three granddaughters) turns one on April 1. “Andrew’s the upcoming GM of the business but we’ve a flat management structure; the department people, managers, we’re all as important as one another. We run a pretty good business” – 38 employees – “it’s been good to me over the years.” But: “Last year was one of the toughest years, definitely. Businesses that can generate income from other markets, make something that’s sold in Sydney, [have flexibility]. Businesses that find it toughest are those depending on income from the local community.”
Our talk turns to manufacturing, retailing, IR, productivity, employment, the high A$, trade and tariffs … “The future’s in our young people; they need to step up, see where the country’s got to, get it further up the ladder. Buying local? – We can encourage people to think about the overall impact of buying out of town. I can’t tell anyone not to buy on the net; big companies advertise on the net; there’s lots of things you can’t buy locally; consumers are entitled to choice and the right price. But it’s a fine line; commerce is a complex exercise. You have to show respect for the local trader. The big boys with massive buying power come to town; they employ locals but … to the same extent and on the same terms? Do you get the service? Or: serve it up, hand it over, [you] hand the money over [like] the McDonalds model? It’s disheartening to spend time talking to someone about your product or service and all [the overheads] involved yet quite often it doesn’t translate into a local purchase. We need to be able to offer the product, at the right price. But it’s one thing to consider price: the community needs to think seriously about – I employ apprentices, plumbers, electricians, not only salespeople – what it wants the town to be. We need to think: before I spend this money out of town do I want it to go to the local supplier? How will we buy carpet if there’s no carpet showroom?” Food for thought, I ponder, as just one who’d like a big local entity to patronise my own family’s business instead of the Sydneysider they pay.
My guest declines the last of the chocolates that arrive with coffee. Not impartial to red wine, I learn, or slicing sand at the annual barefoot beach ball, Plowright’s nevertheless an apparently disciplined man, immaculately dressed, whose recreations include water skiing. He’s practising for proficiency in slalom. That’s when you use a single ski, placing one foot in front of the other, so picking up speed dramatically. Slick-looking in presentation; actually very skilful and smart, requiring diligence, persistence, sure-footedness.
It could be an allegory of Plowright’s career. No doubt he’ll ace it.
The Out To Lunch series is hosted
by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet