Sir Arnold Clark, motoring entrepreneur. Born: 27 November, 1927, in Glasgow. Died: 10 April, 2017, in Glasgow, aged 89.
Occasionally one comes across stories of extremely rich people who live simple, quiet lives, the extent of their wealth not becoming apparent until the reading and publishing of their wills. Sir Arnold Clark was emphatically not one of these people. Britain’s first billionaire car dealer started from scratch, made a point of continually reinvesting into his business, and used the profits to live well: he liked fancy cars, sailing, donating generously to charity and he had a big family. He’d worked for his fortune and he was going to enjoy and share it.
Arnold Clark was born in Townhead in Glasgow in 1927, the son of a Clydeside steelworker. He left school at 14 and supplemented the family’s income by going house to house and selling vegetables his father had grown on his allotment. He had a spell working with the Co-op before National Service with the RAF, where he rose to the rank of Corporal and was trained to become a motor mechanics instructor. As well as giving him these practical skills, the RAF taught him the value of leadership and discipline – traits that would become vital in his future commercial exploits – but when he came back to Glasgow he struggled to find a job.
He used his demob money to buy a 1933 Morris Ten Four, the first of many investments that would eventually result in him owning around 200 car dealerships.
He restored that car, sold it on for a profit, and did the same with other vehicles until he had raised enough money to set up his first Arnold Clark showroom in Glasgow’s Park Road in 1954. The following decade marked the first serious period of growth for the company. Its ambitious boss bought some garages – in Bothwell Street, Paisley and Bearsden – and then launched Arnold Clark Finances as a way of helping buyers to fund their acquisitions.
He then expanded into the car rental market, setting up a division that, half a century on, operates a fleet of 5,500 vehicles throughout the UK. And in 1978 he bought Grant, Melrose and Tenant, the company’s first accident repairs centre, in Vincombe Street, Glasgow.
There was no let-up in the empire’s expansion over the 1970s. The growing car dealership portfolio was expanded with the acquisition of a multi-site in Mount Vernon, which brought Austin, Rover, Land Rover, MG, Triumph and Jaguar into the list of franchises, and then Arnold Clark took on the role of underwriting Motability finance.
In 1979 the company took on the Renault franchise, the first Scottish car retailer to do so, and by the following year Arnold Clark was officially Scotland’s largest car dealer, having acquired several more dealerships here. The following decade was a period of steady expansion, and, in 1994, the company moved south of the Border for the first time, opening a retail operation in Liverpool. While other operators felt the sting of that decade’s downturn, his empire continued to grow undeterred, thanks largely to his commitment to reinvesting profits rather than borrowing to expand.
Growth continued steadily, as did the number of accolades amassed by Clark. In 2003 he was given the Insider Elite Businessman of the Year Award and Glasgow Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award, and the following year, his 50th in the business, he received a knighthood in recognition of his services to the motor industry and his contribution to the Scottish community. Master Entrepreneur also named him Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2005 the University of Glasgow awarded him an honorary doctorate.
By the time he died, the business was selling new and used cars from 24 different manufacturers, had 200 dealerships around the UK, 130 service centres, 40 accident repairs centres and 13 parts centres. Last year he was ranked 114th in the Sunday Times Rich List.
Although he was always hands-on with his business, Sir Arnold lived his non-work life to the full and was generous with his money. He donated £200,000 to the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, as well as lending it a 1950 Daimler coupe that had been driven by King George. He was also a trustee of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and a high-profile supporter of the Prince’s Trust, for which he supported a scheme for apprentice mechanics.
Other organisations that benefited from Sir Arnold’s company’s support included Pink Saltire, Lochwinnoch Primary School, Katharine House Hospice, Scottish Disability Golf Partnership, Strathaven Balloon Festival and Kiltwalk.
As Paul Cooney, chief executive of Kiltwalk, put it: “Scotland has lost one of its greatest business figures and somebody who embodied the ethos that business success should be used as a force for good in society. Sir Arnold Clark and the organisation he built have been enormously supportive of Kiltwalk and the growth of the charity has been due in no small measure to the kindness and enthusiasm which they have shown towards us.”
Sir Arnold was a gregarious character, with an infectious sense of humour and that special brand of charm possessed by the best salesmen. He loved socialising, and regularly had his large family over for Sunday lunch. He had a weakness for classic cars, and owned an extensive collection that included a Rolls Royce Park Ward Single Tourer, a Ford Model T Town Car and an Austin Heavy 12.
He loved sailing, and owned Drum, the 78-foot Maxi yacht that formerly belonged to Simon Le Bon and was designed for the Whitbread Round the World Race. Sir Arnold frequently loaned the yacht to charities for fund-raising activities.
He is survived by his second wife, Philomena, four sons from his first marriage and six sons and two daughters from his second. Another son, Norman, died in 1995 at the age of 33. Sir Arnold Clark died peacefully on 10 April, surrounded by his family.