Viv Biggs, a former manager in the car trade, still refers to himself as “a used car salesman” despite having been retired from the McCarthy Group longer than most sales execs have been alive. He offers his “two bits” for people setting out in the trade.
“Many things have changed totally since I started selling Morris, Dodge and Packard cars all over the Midlands from the 1950s onwards. But two things haven’t — you still have to deal with people and you still have to diversify your income sources,” says the twinkly-eyed octogenarian, who turns 86 this year.
Recalling the heydays of selling cars in the 1970s, he points out everything has cycles and for every down, there will be an up. “It’s up to you to be prepared — and that starts with getting involved with people. The main problem today is that nobody sees anybody face to face anymore. Digital doesn’t build the same relationships,” he says.
To illustrate what he means, he tells of a Mazda 323 that he sold to a woman 30 years ago. “I saw her recently and asked: “What if I give you the money back you paid for it?’ And I did, just over R21 000! Then of course I sold it for a bit of a profit.”
He admits it is much harder to become a vehicle salesman these days. When he started, he still delivered bills to clients on a back-pedal bicycle. All he needed to apply for work was a tie and a clean jacket. These days, you can’t even apply for the job without first paying for a smartphone.
But he assures that making the effort to meet people face to face will deliver results. “Become involved in your business and social communities. We all know it’s not what you know, but who you know, but you first have to get to know them!”
A keen cricketer, he joined the local cricket club. “I was a useful all-rounder, you know, master of none,” says Biggs. But playing was not the point, spending time with like-minded people was, which is why he joined the club’s expensive tour to play against counties in the UK.
He was also part of a unique group of dealer representatives who met monthly to discuss mutual issues, like apprentice training and finance, but crime was always high on the list. “The good old days weren’t that good. Vehicle thefts were rampant in the 1980s,” recalls Biggs.
In 1987 and 1988, Biggs did what no one has been able to do since — he got dealer principals to run the 600 km between Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg in relays to collect money for charity. “We had to raise R5 000 each and managed to donate R45 000 to the Community Chest. Back then, it was a sizeable sum,” he says.
On his second point, diversified income, Biggs says if his 80 years taught him anything, it’s that it takes determination and foresight to create sustainable income streams. He tells how he came back from that cricket trip with a plan to build one of SA’s first sectional title schemes. To turn developer, he had to borrow R80 000. It was difficult to get the loan and when he finally did, the amount he owed kept him awake at night until he sold the first unit. Ironically, it was to the same woman who bought that Mazda 323.
If there is a recipe to turn a career selling cars into an enjoyable life, Biggs shows it may be to meet many people in the short term, to watch and profit from trends in the medium term, and to make friends with an eye on the long term.
“But trust me, when it comes to meeting people, do it face to face,” says Biggs.