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Spotlight Special: Paul Stephenson and Robert Straw After 50 Years at Ron Brooks Ilkeston

Two of our longest-ever serving members of staff are celebrating an incredible 50 years at Ron Brooks Limited. Paul Stephenson, and Robert (Bob) Straw are heading into retirement having given a combined 100 years of loyal service to the company. We caught up with them to find out what it’s been like to commit themselves to Ron Brooks for such a long time, and ask them about their experiences since they first started at the company way back in 1966.


Paul’s Story


Paul Stephenson with Kevin Slack


Paul started on the 21st of July 1966 – 9 days before England famously won the world cup. Working in the banking industry originally as Chief Cashier at TSB in Ilkeston, Paul would sometimes help out now and again with the cashing up and accounting side of the business, for which Ron would treat him to a couple of gallons of petrol. After Mrs Brooks had fallen pregnant, Ron asked Paul if he would come on board full time as Office Manager. Aged 30 at the time, and with no apparent further prospects at TSB, Paul decided he would take a chance and join Ron Brooks, and with help from his wife, Brenda, his immediate responsibilities were Sales Ledgers, Purchase Ledgers, Pay as you Earn, MOT returns and much more.


“We multitasked, all of us did. Looking back I suppose it’s amazing what we did do. There were 7 people here when I started, and Robert joined us on August the 15th as a 15 year old apprentice lad, so we’re two of a kind really” says Paul.


“The first time Robert spoke to me I could tell he was a cheeky devil. He said to me “you’re new here aren’t you?” “Yeah, why?” I replied. He said “how many holidays do you get then?” That’s gone down in history that has! And he’s still here 50 years later”.


So how did Paul go from Office Manager to selling cars? His chance came around when Mr and Mrs Brooks were away one weekend.


“One day a dear old lady from Ilkeston came in looking around and I suddenly realised I was showing her this car, a Simca 1300. She bought it and when Ron came back and heard what happened, he thought that with my expertise with numbers would be a big asset to the sales side of the business”.


Coming out of the banking industry Paul had a good understanding of the increasingly important car finance aspect, something which regular salesman didn’t like to deal with.


When Paul joined the business, Ron Brooks was a main agent for the now defunct Simca brand, selling just over 100 units a year. Simca eventually moved to another company in the area, leaving Ron, Paul and Alan Bates (who retired in 2012 after 50 years service) to go to the national motor show to see if they could take another franchise. BMC and Ford weren’t really interested as the firm wasn’t big enough at that time, so they “changed up to Toyota”.


“It was difficult to begin with, with the war not long gone, but people followed us because of who we were.” Paul says. “When the Corolla came over it was a revelation. 5 speed ‘box, heated rear window, a radio, all the gadgets and gizmos were fitted as standard. I had a job to convince people that there were no hidden catches or costs!”


Paul does not underestimate the role his wife, Brenda, played in the making Ron Brooks Ltd a success. “She travelled up and down the country doing dealer swaps. If there was a pink car up in Scotland, and a customer wanted it, she’d go and fetch it.”


“There was this one time I bought a brown Toyota Crown, unseen, in Dundee. Brenda caught a mail flight from Manchester Airport to Dundee to drive the 350 miles back.”


Robert adds: “I don’t know if it was the same one, though I don’t suppose there are that many brown Toyota Crowns on the road, but up until a few years ago it still came in for servicing”.


Paul recalls some of the famous names he’s sold cars to over the years. “We sold Robert Lindsay his first ever new car, a black Toyota Supra. Edwina Currie said if Toyota built the Derbyshire plant she would buy a Toyota. I sent her a letter after it was announced and she came to see us in the showroom. She bought a red Corolla GT. Later on she bought a new Carina E which was built at the new Derby factory”.


“Myself, Alan Bates and Robert have worked together for 40 years. We never fell out – the job was always one. When I joined there were only 7 members of staff and we were selling Simca cars. After more than 40 years of being with Toyota and now Suzuki, we have grown to almost 100 staff working out of 3 state-of-the-art dealerships. I put that down to the way Ron Brooks treats customers – selling a car is great, but it’s the aftersales that have kept customers coming back year after year. It’s what the business was built on and it’s still true now. We’ve been very successful and we’ve worked very hard, but we’re really proud of what we’ve achieved.”


Robert’s Story


Robert Straw with Kevin Slack


Robert Straw (Bob) joined Ron Brooks on August 15th 1966, aged 15 as an apprentice, before becoming an apprentice and then a full time mechanic for 30 years and eventually Workshop controller around 15 years ago. “My father used to come here and he got me a Saturday job, working on the petrol forecourt cleaning windows and wiping headlights down, that’s how it was in those days”.


“The business and the cars have changed so much over the years, it’s phenomenal really. The times you are allocated to do a particular job are a lot shorter, but there are a lot fewer jobs to do because the internal parts of an engine almost look after themselves. If something is broken, in the old days it was repair or replace, but now it’s just replace. It’s a reflection of society in a way, where things are becoming obsolete quicker and quicker because of technology.”


“Years ago if we needed a part for a job we would have to order it and fetch it ourselves several days or weeks later. Now if we order before 12pm it’s here at 2pm the same afternoon. There were no parts deliveries in those days.”


“Joining Toyota was the best thing we ever did. They last forever and they never rust like the other brands that we sold. Datsun got recognised before Toyota but they didn’t last. Today if somebody’s car doesn’t start it’s like world war 3! But back then people used to expect it. It’s brands like Toyota that have continually raised both standards and expectations over the years.”


“The business is always changing and that’s why it has remained interesting. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but we’ve always come through it by pulling together and working for each other. The foundations that the company was built on remain true to this day. If somebody has an issue or a problem we ask ourselves “would I be happy with that?” and if the answer is no then we would fix it.”


The pair both had kind words for the man himself, Ron Brooks:
“He was a super guy, he built the business on his charisma alone in the early days” says Paul. Robert adds “you could talk to him about anything – but he’d always keep you on your toes!”


Managing Director Kevin Slack, could not praise the two high enough for their loyalty over the years:


“It is a rare occasion for staff to remain with one business for this length of time but to have two (Making it now four in total) is a fantastic accolade to both Paul and Robert.


Both have given absolute dedication and commitment to the business and have been instrumental in developing and maintaining the DNA of the business of putting the customer first.”


Everybody at Ron Brooks would like to wish Paul and Bob all the best in their retirement and thank both of them for their incredible 50 years of service to the company.