Whatever happened to Big John Zupp?

 

SHIFTING down a gear or two is not part of the DNA of doing business for John Zupp, one of Queensland's greatest deal-makers.

Fast deals in the car yard were his bread and butter for almost 60 years.

He was so good at it he became a household name as "Big John" Zupp, the man who would trade in "any old iron".

But after sealing the biggest deal of his life, selling his Zupps dealership empire to Automotive Holdings Group (AHG) for $117 million, and detouring into the property industry, the significantly slower pace of the sales process took some getting used to.

ADVERTORIAL USE ONLY - John Zupp - headshot alone logo logos headshot alone Zupps archived
ADVERTORIAL USE ONLY - John Zupp - headshot alone logo logos headshot alone Zupps archived

Slightly more than a decade on, it's clearly still somewhat exasperating for the sharp-minded octogenarian. 

"The thrill is much the same as doing a good motor vehicle deal - it just takes so much longer. and I'm not a very patient man," Zupp says.

Nevertheless, the Gold Coast-based Zupp Property Group, with Zupp as its chairman, has become a major player in the southeast Queensland property game.

It holds an ever-expanding and diversified portfolio of office, industrial and retail assets as well as occasionally dabbling in some commercial property development.

Zupps dealership.
Zupps dealership.

Zupp says the shift into property was a natural progression for the family business, which had its beginnings in Ipswich 70 years ago.

"Part of owning successful dealerships is to buy good quality properties," he says. 

"There was no reason for me to sell the properties to AHG so I kept them. 

"They gave us a great head start in the property business. Also, we like property because it's a lot less volatile than the share market, it doesn't keep you awake at night and it has been very kind to us over the years."

John Zupp from Zupp Property Group. Picture: Luke Marsden
John Zupp from Zupp Property Group. Picture: Luke Marsden

Zupp grew up on the Darling Downs and attended Toowoomba State School and Toowoomba Grammar.

"My favourite subject was certainly mathematics. Mathematics and common sense are the keys to solving most of the problems you will encounter in business.

"I always wanted to go into the car business to follow my dad Percy, who was a motor mechanic. Although at one stage, I did have half an idea to be a sugar scientist."

 

Instead, he trusted his first instinct and went on to become Queensland's king of the car dealers by offering customers sweet deals and along the way revolutionised car retailing.

After Zupp left school he went to work with his dad, who had a job with AP Eagers in Toowoomba but then moved to Ipswich, where he purchased a service station in 1948.

"I operated a small dealership on the adjoining lot," he says.

"Dad looked after the mechanical side of the business and I looked after sales.

"We both worked hard and formed a good team. The dealership supported the garage operations and it taught me that you can't have a good dealership without a great service operation. They support each other and the customer.

"Our first franchise was Rover and Land Rover and then I got Volkswagen."

By the time the numbers were being crunched on its sale to AHG in 2007, Zupps was a chain of 32 franchises operating from 18 sites around Queensland, employing almost 800 staff and selling more than 18,000 vehicles a year.

Although the Zupp family is a relatively private and publicity-shy clan, a key factor in its business success was becoming a household name.

Zupps famous elephant logo.
Zupps famous elephant logo.

The Zupps' elephant logo adopted for its car dealerships is an iconic Queensland brand and its inspiration is local folklore. It came from an elephant race on Ipswich Show Day in 1960.

Zupps sponsored one of the animals in the event, used a big yellow rug with "Zupps" painted on it for a saddle and talked a local young policeman into being its jockey. His name was Bill Hayden, who became the 21st governor-general of Australia.

"We were looking for an animal to be our logo, the circus was in town, they had an elephant race, our marketing people loved the idea and Bill was a nice local cop," Zupp recounts.

But it was a series of TV commercials starring "Big John" Zupp himself - complete with catchy "Any Old Iron" jingle - that catapulted the business to a new level of consumer recognition.

John Zupp, left, and Neil Ferguson from Zupp Property Group. Picture: Luke Marsden
John Zupp, left, and Neil Ferguson from Zupp Property Group. Picture: Luke Marsden

Zupp Property Group chief executive officer Neil Ferguson says Zupp was a pioneer not only in how he did business, such as introducing cashbacks on cars, but also in his use of electronic media to sell cars with professionally produced ads for both radio and TV.

"Anyone who knows John will tell you he's not an overly outgoing guy in his regular life, but he really put himself out there to promote and personalise the brand and people loved it."

Scene from a Zupp's advertisement.
Scene from a Zupp's advertisement.

Zupp says he also enjoyed making the ads.

"We had helicopters, cash, guys in gorilla suits trading in bananas, you name it … sometimes the TV stations used to ring up and say they didn't have enough ads for Sunday night and would we mind if they played ours - for free!"

The property incarnation of the family business has kept the innovative branding and advertising tradition alive. Trademark colour-changing Zupp signs adorn its flagship buildings.

Asked if he could do it all again would he do anything differently, Zupp says:

"Of course I'd do things differently - lots of little things. We've never been perfect but we always try very, very hard''.

Technology continues to be a big game-changer, particularly in retailing, but Zupp says the fundamentals of how to succeed in business are still the same.

"Respect your customers - they're the ones who pay your bills," he says.

"Have good products. Employ good people. Work harder than your hardest-working employee. Experiment and be entertaining. Do things that others don't do. Always think about what's best for the business, not necessarily what's best for yourself. And a little bit of luck never hurts!"



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