When I stared the Porsche business in Hertfordshire in the mid 80’s for Tom Walkinshaw, one of the basics for marketing the new business, which we agreed upon, was to have some sort of involvement in motor sport. Porsche’s reputation for making sports cars, which set the bench mark in their respective classes, had been forged in endurance sports car events around the world, and certainly at that time, many customers were also enthusiasts who were drawn to the brand by its successes and domination over the decades in events, such as the Le Mans 24 hour race.
Initially, as we didn’t have a budget on a scale of Rothmans or Shell, we got involved in Porsche Club racing, sponsoring drivers like Caroline Lucas, David Saunders and his son, in the various Club Championships. Because it was “Club” racing we could get a lot of exposure for very little money. The fact that Caroline and the Saunders team were also quite successful was a bonus for us – everyone likes to be associated with success. We also gave a bit of support to some other customers who raced by helping them on parts pricing – useful if you were on a tight budget as many of them were. Again, we could demand high exposure on their cars because ‘every little counts’ when you are a privateer in Club racing.
In the mid 90’s, however, a local driver who had raced quite a few times at Le Mans, Robin Donovan, called in to see if we could help sponsor his efforts in a Porsche at the Le Mans 24-hour race the following year.
Part of the deal, if we were interested, could include a package for us to bring along a group of 20 customers and staff to support the car and enjoy special privileges, such as access to the teams pits during the race, access to the grid before the start of the race, meeting the drivers, and excellent accommodation close to the circuit.
The decision was a no brainer.
The problem for me was this – out of a database of 6000 Porsche customers, how do I select a group of 20 customers to join me for a long weekend at Le Mans?
Questions for me to consider: Do I just mail the database and offer a first come first serve selection process? Do we offer the places to our longest serving customers? Should we get Porsche Cars GB involved in the organisation?
The more I thought about it the more I realized that if I was inviting 20 odd people “away for the weekend”. I needed to make sure that I could live with them, and that they could live with me also, as we would be in fairly close company for three or four days. I decided, therefore, there and then that this decision would be mine, and mine alone.
So, after due consideration I drew up my essential requirements for selection:
The customer must / should:
Be interested in motor sport.
Like to enjoy themselves and be sociable
Like a drink (optional)
Allow a bit of “bit of give and take” on such an event, as inevitably, things could go pear shaped from time to time
Knowing most of the enthusiastic owners already, the actual process was then quite simple. I wrote or phoned everyone whom I felt fell into all the essential categories above, and we soon had assembled a group of customers who would form the basis for this, and many other Le Mans trips to come. Needless to say, on these trips, I would unwittingly become the butt of many old and new ‘Irish jokes’. I actually had no bloody option – these guys loved taking the piss out of me…. e.g. – “What do you call the man from Belfast who wears a suit?”…. Answer – ” The plaintiff “, or – “Oh yes, Perry is from Belfast – European City of Commerce – for the balaclava industry!”
As a member of a minority community in this country, I am always amazed at how other minority groups don’t just enjoy this repartee and craic aimed at them – other than sighting discrimination at every turn…. where’s my lawyer?
Anyways, back to France. We would celebrate our Friday night’s safe arrival by visiting Le Mans town centre, taking over the main restaurant in the square, where we watched the procession of old cars, whilst enjoying the excellent food (the seafood platter was superb), and drinking a little red wine. It was here at this restaurant, that I really got to appreciate my Porsche customers as a strong group of likeminded people.
We had had a late “cry off” on this trip as a long-standing customer was taken ill and was unable to attend, so I hastily asked my managers and sales guys if they knew anyone suitable who could slot in at short notice. Paddy Patel suggested one of his customers – “Hugh Hopkins- Jones. “Now, I did know this customer, although not that well, but was assured by both Paddy and Jon Day the sales manager that he was a great guy and would slot into the group very easily.
How wrong this proved to be.
From the start of the trip he was moaning and complaining about almost everything, dominating the conversations within the group and winding me up by asking stupid questions like “Why can’t I lead the convoy of cars all the time? ” ; “Let’s all drive faster on the French roads – my car can do 170!”; “Can we stop en route at Michelin starred restaurants for lunch instead of eating at autoroute cafes?”
Needless to say, all his niggling comments were all directed at me and I would I handle them as best I could without actually telling him to eff off and start to enjoy himself. But I was concerned that this constant bickering from this arse hole would affect the enjoyment of the weekend for the rest of the guys , and was unsure of the best way to solve the problem – other than getting someone to knee cap him!
However, I needn’t have worried. Later on in that first evening his comments and criticisms became louder and more arrogant as he dived into the free wine with gay abandon.
My other guests/ customers could see by the expression on my face no doubt,that he was getting to me, and decided enough was enough.
In mid meal about five of them stood up and addressed him directly ;
“What the eff do you think you are doing? You are behaving like a complete prat, and are an embarrassment to everyone else in the party. We are all here for a bit of fun and don’t want it spoilt by you being a complete idiot !”, “Shut up, get off Perry’s case or eff off home. We don’t want you in our company if you continue to behave like this!”
The poor bloke didn’t know what had hit him. His mouth dropped open and he stammered an apology of sorts to the group, and then , when things had cooled down a little, he asked me what I thought of these comments. I said that I agreed completely with them and would understand if he decided to go home the following morning, and that I would refund the cost of the trip to him if he did decide to do this. He didn’t go home, but stayed with us for the weekend, stopped speaking the bilge which spewed out of his mouth thus far , and joined in the craic like everyone else.
To have this sort of rapport with my customers was a special privilege for me. Not just with the guys who went to Le Mans, but also with many others who both appreciated the superb product which Porsche was ( and is ), and demanded the type of excellent service which you should expect when owning such a vehicle. Many were loyal Porsche buyers for over 25 years, becoming friends as well as good customers. How could I not have enjoyed my 26 years at Porsche with this sort of relationship with so many customers. They knew they could trust me and the rest of the team at Porsche Centre Hatfield, and they knew we would look after them in a fair manner.
Business is a two way event and to enjoy it you have to engage.
By the way, as luck would have it , the bold “Hugh Hopkins – Jones “never did receive another Le Mans invitation.