Currently reading: Industry analysis: HR Owen backs the luxury car market
Top-end dealer group will open £30m multi-brand ‘statement site’ in Hertfordshire
Steve Cropley Autocar
News
5 mins read
8 March 2021

HR Owen, one of the UK’s oldest and best-known top-end car dealers, is backing its belief in the underlying strength of the luxury car market by adding a new, £30 million cross-brand “statement site” in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, to its rapidly expanding portfolio of outlets.

Built on a 5.4-acre site, newly acquired for £10m and close to prosperous St Albans, the complex is intended to complement the company’s central London headquarters by providing space, easy parking and an ambience not easily available in Mayfair.

Under current plans, it will bring together the Bentley, Lamborghini and Maserati marques plus at least one other still to be confirmed, and it’s expected to open in autumn 2022. Ferrari looks like a strong candidate but is not confirmed.

“We want to add a special experience to what we offer customers who know us at Berkeley Square,” said CEO Ken Choo, a confirmed car enthusiast who has led an impressive expansion of HR Owen’s business since 2013.

“Our customers will have easy access to driving roads, fresh air, space, greenery, a fine view – all things that are quite different from inner London. That doesn’t mean we’re giving up our focus on London – far from it. Our customers love that place. But soon they will have the option of something different, 40 minutes out of the city in the countryside.”

Choo seems very sure of the long-term strength of UK luxury car demand, despite the recent interruptions of Brexit and Covid-19. He readily acknowledges the difficulties (“at times we’ve had to burn our own cash reserves”) but is still impressed by the way luxury car demand is staying strong and durable in the most difficult circumstances.

“We recently rang a number of clients who had ordered a £1.6m Ferrari Monza,” said Choo. “We were fully expecting some to say times had turned a bit tough and they weren’t going to be able to take the new car for a while. But not one of them wanted to give up their order. They all said ‘no way’.”

Even so, Choo expects the wider UK economy to take up to five years to recover completely and admits that HR Owen’s own super-luxury new car sales were down about 25% last year compared with pre-Brexit, pre-pandemic levels. And that was despite an acceleration of demand from a new breed of customers with businesses in transport, medical supplies and logistics, who have been doing very well during the pandemic.

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Choo attributes about 10% of the reverse to the influence of regular model cycles (such as the fact that the super-successful Lamborghini Urus SUV has passed its mid- life phase) and puts the rest down to a straight-forward weakening of demand. “Not everything is hunky-dory,” he said succinctly.

“Still, the signs of a potential recovery have been there all along. After the first lockdown last year, in July, August and September, we had a significant upturn and our bottom line reached £5m for six months – a stunning result. Add to that the fact that used car demand stayed pretty flat all the way through and you can see why the potential for recovery is there. It’s not all doom and gloom.”

On Brexit and its effects on the importation of luxury cars such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis, Choo said the manufacturers – and his own company – have all been well prepared with capable clearing agents standing by. “We were ready for trouble,” he said. “We’ve all read the horror stories, but so far we’re not experiencing many hiccups.”

HR Owen’s planned new Hatfield complex, its biggest dealership so far, will bring the firm’s UK luxury dealership portfolio to 17. It currently sells cars from 10 different brands: Aston Martin, BAC, Bentley, Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Puritalia, Rimac and Rolls-Royce.

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The buildings were designed by architects at Luton-based consultancy Louis de Soissons, which doubtless won admirers in 2018 when it completed a sensitive refurbishment of the Jack Barclay Bentley showroom in Mayfair, occupied continuously since 1927. The Hatfield building will be so modern and glassy, with separate wings for different marques, that Choo has christened it the Starship Enterprise.

Apart from the independent dealers and their associated service centres, HR Owen Hatfield will also offer storage for up to 500 customer cars over three floors. The firm has a large body of long-standing international clients; Choo deals with many personally, and he wants to cater better for their needs when they arrive at Heathrow airport requiring ready access to the cars that they keep here.

“Global clients love London,” said Choo, briskly dismissing recent pessimistic tabloid talk. “We have lots of customers abroad. Those from the Far East love it because they believe the UK is a very stable country and they can speak English here. Russians love it because they see it as a safe haven. Americans have always loved London. They ring me and say they can’t wait to get back here, so we want to give them what they will enjoy: space, greenery, fresh air, a nice view and good service. That’s the most important part of all.”

Since HR Owen was acquired in 2013 by Malaysian entrepreneur Vincent Tan, it has consistently invested in improving existing dealerships and new premises in five counties circling the capital.

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Last year, it opened a new Bentley dealership in Ripley, Surrey, and it will soon complete what it describes as a Rolls-Royce “global flagship” dealership in Berkeley Street, Mayfair, just up the road from Berkeley Square. Choo’s company will operate this premises – twice the size of HR Owen’s former West End Rolls-Royce showroom – on behalf of the Goodwood- based manufacturer.

However, it’s Hatfield that looks like being the pinnacle of HR Owen’s expansion so far. And Choo said, rather mysteriously, that there will be more new facilities to announce once its full complement of marques is announced.

“Who knows,” he said. “Maybe the quality of coffee at Hatfield will be even better than in Berkeley Square.”

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