UK
30/11/2012 02:05 GMT | Updated 30/11/2012 07:30 GMT

Paul Gibbons Reveals How He Launched Auto Trader, And Why He's Now Moved Onto Golf Resorts

Paul Gibbons is one of the founding fathers of Auto Trader, the iconic second hand car sales magazine – and latterly, website.

Nowadays however, he can be found on a golf course – not relaxing as he trundles around 18 holes, but running a vibrant hotel and golf resort business.

Here, he tells Huff Post UK what inspired him to move away from publishing and into running the Leaderboard Golf Group.

Tell me how you got started at Auto Trader

I started my sales career at the Evening Post in Reading as a 21-year-old classified ads salesman. Thomsons, the publisher that owned it at the time, had a tremendous reputation for sales training. Before that I'd had a few retail jobs but I liked selling.

I became the top salesman on the paper, and soon became the top salesman across Thomsons. I stayed there for three years and was eventually sent to Wales to head up a newspaper group there.

I had an interview for a TV advertising job, but was told I was 'too slick' for TV advertising.

At the same time, John Madejski was a friend of mine at the time and went to California on his holiday and came back with a Trader type proposition with pictures and a heavy lead type underneath and the Thames Valley Trader was born.

What did the first Trader publication look like?

In 1977 it was just a leaflet! Eventually it was A4, about 24 pages and in competition with the Reading Chronicle and the Reading Post. Initially we delivered leaflets to 250,000 homes. We took two months to get the first one off the ground, but we only had a week to work on issue two.

I worked all hours; I'd get be out by 8am and travel around all the local garages and then I'd meet John back at 6:30pm, and we'd catch up with each other and look at the local newspapers.

We had no funding other than advertising, so we used John and my savings initially – I think I put in about £500.

You'd have still been very young at this point…

If someone had told me that in a couple of years, I'd be responsible for accounting, sales, statistics, distribution and everything else I'd have said 'I can't possibly do that'. I was only 26 then, it would've completely scared me off.

I've learned that some people are very good at growing business at a certain point in time, but unless they grow as a person at the same rate they can easily get left behind. That means you can't get too close to people at work.

john madejski

John Madejski worked with Gibbons on Auto Trader before becoming chairman of Reading FC

Did working with friends become hard then?

Personally, I wouldn’t advise anyone to go into business with friends. John and I are so different that it worked though, we brought different things to the business.

The key is being able to totally trust your business partner – there can't be any individual point scoring, and the minute the trust has been broken, that's it, the partnership finished.

How did your initial Trader title become Auto Trader?

The Guardian newspaper group saw us as a threat to regular local newspapers and starting launching titles where we launched. Eventually, we agreed to share publications to save both of us some money, so our Trader titles and its Auto Marts were merged into Auto Trader.

At that point, John decided he wanted to sell up and it eventually all ended up with the Guardian Media Group by 1999.

What did you do next?

Well, after that I was restricted to working around my son's school hours so I decided to take up golf lessons at 35 years old. My instructor happened to mention one day that the course we were on was up for sale so I went home and spoke to my accountant.

He told me if I bought it there would be capital gains tax advantages, so I bought it with my wife, who was also keen. That was Sandford Springs on the Hampshire/Berkshire borders.

How difficult are golf courses to look after?

Well, I don't know if I'm just a perfectionist, but for me it has to be just right. Golf courses are living things that change all the time.

I've got good people skills and can get people to do what I want and believe in the dream, but even with good people they can fall behind.

The business was moving quickly and we needed people to go along with it. I know you can get people to do more than (they’re contracted) to and get the company to succeed – it's what I spend most of my time doing now.

the oxfordshire range_players_small

The Oxfordshire golf course, part of Leaderboard Golf's offering

You're one of the most practical entrepreneurs I've ever interviewed – were there ever any emotional purchases?

Yes, the Chart Hills golf course in Kent. My accountant said I should look again at it but it was my first emotional purchase.

It's expensive to run; it's got good membership figures but it’s a little out of the way. We're building hotels on the site to help with that – but it's a necessary step these days.

How've the past few years treated you and the business?

2012 was a really challenging year for us with the Jubilee Weekend, the Olympics and Paralympics, not to mention the horrendous weather, but our Oxfordshire site has seen booking rise this year.

Membership's down – and the recession is to blame – but the hotel’s running at 84% capacity between June and September and 72% across the year.

We've had a few weddings on Saturdays and lots of conferences, which take up the rooms during the week.

Golf has been added to the 2016 Olympics and over the past three to four years I've seen a rise in the number of all-women groups. We also offer kids aged 8-18 to play for free at all of our clubs, and we’ve now got a healthy kids section.

We sponsored Craig Hinton in the 2011 open and he’s a great example (of how our programme works) – he almost left the club because of financial problems but we kept him playing – it's just a way of us giving something back.

We're also offering charities use of the course for free if they book between 1 October and 30 March.

How else have you encouraged business?

We've got a programme called Leaderboard Tee Time Golf where you pay green fees based on what time you want to play – if you want to play at 10 am for example, the normal fees apply, but if you wanted to turn up at 2pm, you get a discount.

It's been designed to counter the increasing dominance of third party web sites that skim 20%-30% commission from each round of golf they sell, which in turn damages individual clubs as they lose out on profit.

Golf courses across the UK can register with the service and pay a nominal fee to receive a dedicated page within the site through which its green fees can be promoted and sold.

The early signs have been good, we’ve had verbal backing from a lot of the big players in the industry, but we don't want to grow too fast and break it all.

We've also launched two apps, which are both free to download, but you can only get them from our site.

leaderboard golf chart hills the 9th

The 9th hole at Chart Hills course. Would you give up a career in publishing for this?

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

It's easier to bring in experts when you need them and then let them go afterwards than to become one. And I'd definitely advise anyone thinking about starting a new business to wait until the funding is there – I was lucky and had the funding available.

And you need to recognise you cantt force something to happen – if you try, it'’ll just break. Business is just like life, there's always going to be problems and issues; it’s about how you deal with them.

And don't expect success immediately – I learned that very early, with the first Trader magazine we delivered the leaflets and then waited for two weeks for everything to happen – the world is not waiting for your idea, it's up to you to educate them.