Monday Interview: Brian Gilda, Peoples

Brian Gilda admits to having owned some “really daft” cars over the years, but one particular – and iconic – model remains his all-time favourite.

As boss of Peoples, Brian Gilda is bringing the latest successor to Bullitts Ford Mustang to the UK. Picture: Toby Williams

“When I lived in Montreal I had a green Mustang GT like in the movie Bullitt,” recalls the founder and chairman of Peoples, the UK’s largest independent Ford dealer.

“It was a fantastic car in a straight line, but you needed an anchor to get it round a corner.”

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Glasgow-born Gilda found himself in Canada after a stint selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door in the UK and South Africa, and the well-travelled salesman is now preparing to bring the latest iteration of Ford’s muscle car to these shores.

Falkirk-based Peoples has revamped its site in Liverpool to create a top-end “FordStore”, where it will also sell the US car giant’s luxury Vignale brand, and the firm will be extending the concept to Edinburgh in the coming months.

“I’ve managed to find friends that I misplaced many years ago who have phoned me up to get them on the list to buy the new Mustang,” laughs Gilda.

But he admits: “I haven’t driven the car yet. I’ve seen it though – and it’s lovely.”

Such is the interest in the Mustang, which will start from £28,995 for autumn deliveries, that Ford has seen the highest levels of configuration – customers going online to build their perfect vehicle – of any model it has launched in the UK.

Despite the importance of an online showroom where potential buyers can choose between engines, colours and trims, Gilda doesn’t believe petrol heads are quite ready yet to complete a purchase over the internet without seeing the vehicle in the metal.

“They’re almost there but not quite,” he says. “They’ll look at the Mustang, for example, and get all the information they can, before looking at other opportunities, such as a Nissan Z, and benchmarking them. In truth, some of my customers come in better informed than some of my sales people.”

Gilda acknowledges that the shift from physical to virtual showrooms is partly “and regrettably” down to the fact that many people don’t actually like shopping for their next car.

“We’re not in the Mother Teresa world, and while we’ve won all sorts of awards for customer care and how we look after people, they don’t necessarily enjoy the experience.”

So it may comes as a surprise to find that his e-mail address is available on the Peoples website, where he pledges to respond to customers within 24 hours if they feel let down by the company, which he founded in 1983.

“Usually it’s down to bad communication, so by the time they come to me, they want to choke me rather than talk to me,” he quips.

“But apart from one customer who must remain nameless and who nobody could have sorted, we’ve managed to solve everyone’s complaint. My people know if they’ve got it wrong I’ll come down on the side of the customer. The customer used to be king; now they’re God. It’s that simple.”

But Gilda’s journey to the motor trade seems less straightforward, especially when he admits he doesn’t have gasoline running through his veins.

“I was always interested in people. I’ve had some really daft cars through the years, from a Bentley to the one I had when they made me sales manager in Montreal, which looked like a mobile brothel.”

Selling Pontiacs and Buicks in Canada was a world away from a spell as a solicitor’s clerk for a firm that was prepared to put him through university, but the loss of Gilda’s father forced him to become self-sufficient.

He explains: “My father died when I was 14 and my mother found somebody else relatively quickly, thankfully, and it was a simple case that I couldn’t get on with the guy. So I headed for the hills and ended up selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door for three years in the UK and South Africa.

“There was a big door that said ‘escape’ and I leapt through it. I left with a suitcase and nothing in my pockets and came back three year later with a different suitcase, still with nothing in my pockets but a lot of experience.”

This was in the mid-1960s, when apartheid still gripped South Africa, and although Gilda “loved every minute” of his travels, witnessing the racial segregation made a lasting impression on the entrepreneur, a long-standing friend of social rights activist Desmond Tutu.

He has been a member of Amnesty International for more than three decades and a director of the human rights organisation for the last four years, but will be retiring at its upcoming AGM.

“It’s been part of my DNA for a long time, and they asked me to do another year, but I’ve done my bit,” he says.

But as he prepares to stand down from Amnesty, Gilda insists he has no imminent plans to hang up his keys at Peoples, which saw pre-tax profits rise 7.8 per cent to £4.4 million in the year to 31 July, on turnover more than 10 per cent higher at £205m.

As well as leading a firm that has three sites in Scotland, four in north-west England and employs about 400 people, he is chairman of the European Ford Dealer Council, which represents about 2,500 dealers in 20 different countries.

“I want to make sure the succession for the company is in the right hands,” Gilda says.

“Our business is constantly changing and while I’m going to become a dinosaur, I don’t want me or my business to become extinct.”

30-second CV

Job: Founder, chairman and managing director, Peoples

Born: Glasgow

First job: Trainee solicitor’s clerk on starvation wages, but my first job in sales was selling magazines door-to-door in the UK and South Africa

Car: Second-hand Ford S-Max, because I have three grandsons and need to cart them about from time to time

Can’t live without: My IT paraphernalia

Favourite city: Cape Town

Who inspires you? Desmond Tutu

Best thing about your job: Being the leader of a great team of people

Any regrets? I would have made a good lawyer or advocate

What’s on your bucket list? Vietnam, the Monaco Grand Prix and a parachute jump