Sir Tom Farmer is holding a piece of white paper in his hand. The voice of the man who founded iconic car repair firm Kwik-Fit in 1971 and sold it for over £1billion nearly 30 years later, begins to break slightly as he reads the contents. It is an email sent to his office that morning: “Dear Sir Tom, My husband is retiring after 30 years in the Ministry and he would like you to pen a few words in his leaving book. Our daughter who used to come into your office in a Moses basket…”
Farmer puts the paper down and says: “That’s a guy who worked for us and left 30 years ago but it was such an important part of his life. I think we must have got an awful lot of things right.”
It is indicative of what Farmer believes was the main secret behind the remarkable rise of the group from a single depot in Edinburgh to centres in 14 countries around the world employing 12,500 staff. And it is one he urges aspiring British businesses of today to grab and power their own expansion on to the international stage.
“People, people, people,” Farmer says emphatically. “We had the same Michelin and Dunlop tyres as everyone else and the same exhausts and the same buildings but where we excelled was that our people were better than anybody else. If you were a Kwik-Fit employee you were something special.”
Farmer, relaxing in his Edinburgh office as the morning sun glints off photos of him with his family, says he was always an “energetic” person.
In his hugely enjoyable childhood in the Leith docklands area of Edinburgh he painted bikes for his friends after school and cleaned cookers.
“I’m often asked about the main elements which helped me succeed in business and I have to go back to my boyhood. I had a feeling of tremendous security, of knowing that you were surrounded by people who cared. And that’s something that’s stayed with me my whole life,” he says. “In my very first job as a stores boy for a tyres firm when I was 15, I also experienced that security because it was run by people who knew how to manage people. They were always setting you challenges, always encouraging you to try that little bit harder.”
He tells the story of putting in the hours to pass his driving test in anticipation of getting a van driver’s job at the group. “The managers brought me in for a wee chat. They told me I wasn’t going to be a van driver. I nearly burst into tears telling them that they had promised me it would be my job if I passed,” he laughs. “They said you won’t be a van driver, you will be a company representative driving the van and how I got on with customers and developed interpersonal relationships would be reflective of me and the company. I felt so proud I turned up the next day in a jacket and tie – the best dressed driver there!”