LEAVING A SIGNIFICANT LEGACY
Ray Smith Roberts, who recently announced his retirement from the AMA Group and AAAA’s 4WD Council, has left his mark on the Australian automotive aftermarket
Ray Smith-Roberts became known as a kind of ‘Mr Fix It’ for his ability to right sinking ships in business. Through his uncanny ability to turn things around with simple philosophies and hard work, he will leave a significant legacy in the aftermarket sector thanks to the results he achieved as both a leader in the industry and via his role as long-time Chairman of the AAAA’s 4WD Council.
The likeable businessman was one of those types who was always going to end up working in the automotive industry.
His parents ran a number of petrol stations and automotive service centres in the Australian Capital Territory, so Ray often found himself helping out in the family business from a very early age.
“We still did driveway service and we had mechanics in the workshop and we didn’t make money out of Coke and ice creams and cigarettes; it was more about petrol and fixing cars back in those days, and I went through school working at the service stations on the weekends and after school,” Ray says.
After learning how to keep cars on the road in the family business, Ray’s first job out of school was working with the ACT Health Department where he helped to oversee the maintenance on a fleet of vehicles that included the Territory’s ambulances.
He began his automotive mechanical apprenticeship with the Health Department before moving onto the dealership scene with National Capital Motors, where he stayed for the next seven years.
It was at National Capital Motors that a trend began that would continue to occur in Ray’s life for the next few decades. He was tasked with the job of ‘fixing’ a Mitsubishi dealership that had sat dormant for 12 months.
After easily achieving this challenge, some of his family had moved from Canberra to Brisbane and Ray decided he wanted to do the same, so he applied for a job with East Coast Bullbars (ECB) as a Sales and Marketing Manager.
However, he quickly found himself being promoted to General Manager.
“When I joined it, it had 18 staff and was turning over about three million dollars a year, so it was quite small. I had come from a dealership where I was looking after multiple sites and I had 86 workshop staff and 45 parts staff; I was used to running a bigger business, so within about 12 months, I’d taken on the role as General Manager, then within another four years, I bought in as a shareholder,” Ray explains.
It wasn’t long after that a businessman that he describes as “a Silicon Valley sort of guy” approached Ray. He wanted to purchase a number of smaller aftermarket businesses and put them together under the one umbrella. At the time the majority of the aftermarket sector was made up of smaller ‘mum and pop’ businesses mostly owned by Baby Boomers who were looking to move on.
ECB was soon sold to what was to become AMA Group Ltd and Ray took a shareholding in the new parent company and signed up to run the ECB business for the group.
The foundation companies of the group were ECB, Dyno Dynamics, FluidDrive and Autolac.
On the surface things appeared to be going well with the new public company as it grew from four businesses to 12 in a short space of time, but Ray sensed something wasn’t quite right.
“I was busy getting on with running ECB and focusing on the great plans that I had for that… but it became pretty clear to me that what we were telling the world and what was real in terms of the underlying reality of the parent business were two different things,” Ray explains.
“This was 2009, the GFC was in full force and the tide went out a bit and the business had a lot of debt. The underlying companies were okay, but there’d been a lot of bad decisions made at a board and corporate level.”
Ray and another manager of one of the parent group’s businesses, Ray Malone of the Mr Gloss Group, called an emergency meeting of the parent company’s shareholders and demanded some facts.
They very quickly discovered that the parent company was effectively broke. Ray declared that they had two options – put the parent company into voluntary administration and make all of the subsidiary companies separate entities again, or fix the parent company. The latter option was selected, so Ray Smith-Roberts – who by now had developed a bit of a reputation as a ‘Mr Fix It’ for automotive businesses – and Ray Malone were given the task of leading the group’s revival. Malone was appointed the Chairman while Smith-Roberts eventually became the CEO.
“We had to spend the first two or three years really just running it on the smell of an oily rag; we had a lot of debt,” Ray explains.
“There were 10 businesses, but we had to consolidate; we sold a couple of the businesses, we had to VA [put into voluntary administration] a couple of the businesses because they were that bad, so we went back to six companies.”
The six remaining companies were ECB, FluidDrive, Mr Gloss Group, KT Cables, Alanco and Perth Brake Parts.
“We moved forward with those six companies for the first few years and that’s what we built the foundation on and sort of kept growing and paid some debt down and got back to a stable operating situation,” Ray says.
A few years earlier Ray had joined the AAAA’s 4WD Industry Council and after being approached by one of the foundation members he was elected Chairman, a position he held until he resigned late last year.
Ray’s capabilities as ‘Mr Fix It’ have served the 4WD Industry Council well. An example of this was when the Council fought the introduction of a global regulation that could of seen bullbars completely banned under the guise of pedestrian safety. Had this regulation been passed it could have decimated the bullbar aftermarket industry overnight.
“We were moments away from a policy that would’ve seen protection bars effectively banned in Australia,” Ray states.
He says the respect that the AAAA and the 4WD Council in particular now has with regulators and authorities is his proudest legacy of his time serving the industry.
“We’re respected as a group of companies and we’re respected as an Association, so we now have dialogue with all of these stakeholders, whether they be state regulators, federal regulators or whether they be other industry stakeholders like the ANCAP,” Ray says.
So what is ‘Mr Fix It’s’ key philosophy to turn bad situations around?
“One thing I found is clear, really clear, and that is try to make things as specialised and as focused and as simple as possible, yet solve complex problems for people,” Ray says.
He holds up ECB as a classic case in point.
“ECB as a business is 50 years old next year, and for 50 years it’s been focused on manufacturing aluminium bullbars and today, that’s still what it does. The key of getting that business right was maintaining that specialisation. That is what has enabled me to keep profitable businesses that remain relevant and do not get lost in bad decisions – just focus on what you do really well and don’t lose sight of it.”
As well as stepping down from his role with the 4WD Council, Ray has also recently stepped down from the positions of CEO of the AMA Component and Accessories Division and Executive Director of the AMA Group.
Ray met his now wife 33 years ago and they have two children, a daughter (14) and a son (10).
He is extremely proud of his family and is keen to encourage them to have the same work ethic that his father instilled into him.
“Everything that I’ve achieved has been self learnt, so for me, it’s getting my children to understand that value set and getting them to appreciate what opportunities they have got. They’ve got an incredible opportunity, far more than I ever had,” Ray says.
So now that he has moved on from AMA and the 4WD Council, what does the future hold for Ray?
“It’s been a 25 year journey and it was just time for a change; I’m only 50 and I’m too connected with this great industry to not be involved in it going forward,” Ray says.
“But first I’m going to have a few months off; just going to have a bit of a rest and spend a little bit of time with my family.”
An avid motorsport fan, Ray is super keen to help out with the Australian Super Utes category. It’s a category that has been struggling to gain a foothold in the motorsport scene since the demise of the Australian manufactured Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore utes and a move by the category to diesel-powered imported utes, so right now it could certainly do with Ray’s ‘Mr Fix It’ abilities.
“I’m philanthropically helping those guys… I’ve taken on a role as a volunteer category manager for this year, just to help keep these guys on the track and we’re transitioning that from a diesel platform to a V8 platform,” Ray says.
“There’s a little bit of disappointment in that because it was nice to keep the production focus of it, but the reality is commercial diesel engines were never designed to be a motorsport race engine and the cost of making them motorsport ready is too prohibitive.
“Moving it to a V8-based category will liven up the action a bit; it will give it a bit more of a traditional flavour to the fan base and be a good combination of old and new.”
So what does ‘Mr Fix It’ think of the future of the automotive industry?
“There’s no doubt it will continue to change and evolve,” he believes.
“But the reality is, especially in Australia with the diversity of our landscape and the kilometres we have to cover, vehicles are still going to be the primary mode of transport.
“A large part of my career has been around equipping vehicles to make them fit to purpose; whatever we choose to propel them with, they’re still going to need to be made fit for purpose, so I think there is still a large opportunity and a future in accessorising vehicles and customising vehicles.
“We’ve been working with a petrol engine for well over a hundred years and we still haven’t got it right, I don’t think the electric propulsion is going to be perfect either and there’ll be a need for the aftermarket to continue to service, repair, improve, upgrade, and make fit for purpose; there’s plenty of opportunity. It may look a bit different, but it’s not going to go away.”