Putting people first

WHEN Bill Lilley opened the doors of his car dealership in Crawford Street for the first time on September 1, 1977, he had no idea how long the venture would last.

He'd run service stations and repair shops in Queanbeyan before, but Bill Lilley Chrysler -as the dealership was called then- was his first foray into the world of sales.Nor was he the only new car dealership in town.

"In those days all the major manufacturers were represented here in Queanbeyan. They've all since pulled back and let their Canberra dealerships handle it, and for many years there we became the only new car dealer here in Queanbeyan," he said.

In September this year the Bill Lilley Mitsubishi dealership celebrated 35 years in Queanbeyan, the town Mr Lilley has called home since he moved here from Geelong as a three-year-old. 

The business sells and repairs both new and used cars, and is also the regional dealer for Proton and Mahindra cars as well as Mitsubishi.

35 years is a long time in business by any reckoning, and there were times when Mr Lilley considered following a lot of other dealerships across the border.

"A friend of mine in the industry said it like this: that you've got to make your mind up whether you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond," Mr Lilley said.

"And you get to a certain level where you're catering to the market, and that's what we've done," he said.

What kept him in Queanbeyan, ultimately, was that he liked the town and it's people, and felt he'd be able to offer a more tailored and personal service to his customers as a medium-sized dealer.

"If you want to talk about this dealership compared to some of the bigger Canberra dealers, there's quite a difference," Mr Lilley said. 

"We're smaller and more flexible. We can take care of the customer from go to woe, whereas the bigger shops pass you between departments.

"I don't like the word boutique, but we exist because a lot of people don't like the bigger stores all that much. It's more personal here and you get to know people over the long term. Customers get comfortable with us and know what to expect," he said.

Some customers have been buying their cars at Bill Lilley Mitsubishi for as long as it's been open, which is one of the great rewards of the business, Mr Lilley said.

"I had a fellow come in to pick up a Pajero the other day, and I said 'this must be your sixth [car] now from us.' It was his seventh. That's a thirty-year relationship.

"That's the customer for life if you like, and that's the big reward. But this game is very competitive and tough. You can't get those multiple sales if you're not getting it right the first time. Loyalty cuts both ways," he said.

As for the secret of his business longevity, he said the right staff and attitude was just as important as the accounting and cash flow side of the business. 

"You've got to have the right people and you've got to have the right attitude, which means you've got to be in it for the long run, and look after your customers. Those are the critical factors in any business. The rest is just mechanics. You can have the best systems available, but if you're not getting the customer things rights, it's all for nothing," he said.

When he's not at his Crawford St dealership, Mr Lilley likes to get out to his Urila property, just south of Googong, where his first-cross wagyu beef cattle are currently calving. 

But he says he'll still be based out of Queanbeyan in the years ahead. 

"Queanbeyan has been very good to me, and you can't get a better place to live with all the facilities we enjoy here. It's a nice town," Mr Lilley said.

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