The reluctant motorist

Image of Greg Duncan

Credit: Sydney Business School Alumni Magazine

Alumnus Greg Duncan (BEc '71) talks to Chris Rodley about how his career focus changed from accounting to automobiles.

Greg Duncan (BEc ’71) has every car lover’s dream job. As executive chairman of Trivett Group, Australia’s largest prestige motor dealership, he controls an inventory of some of the world’s most desired automobiles from the Rolls-Royce Phantom to the McLaren Spider. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Greg doesn’t particularly like driving. “I think that is not a bad attribute for being in the car business,” he explains. “It takes the emotions out of
buying inventory.”

Running a major automotive group is not what Greg thought he would be doing for a living when he arrived at the University on a Teacher’s College scholarship in 1968. At the time, Greg says, he had few plans for the future; he had taken up the teaching scholarship because it was the only way he could afford to study full-time. As his degree went on, he began to take an interest in accounting and was inspired by lecturers such as Professor Ray Chambers, an expert in financial statement interpretation.

After graduating, Greg joined the tax accounting firm Greenwood Challoner where he was made partner by the age of 26. One of his lasting accomplishments there was to help found Greenwoods & Freehills, Australia’s first joint venture between an accounting and a legal firm. But it was a friendship he made with one of his clients, John Trivett, that would have the biggest impact on Greg’s future.

When the automotive industry entrepreneur bought a car dealership at Parramatta in 1984, he invited Greg to become a 25 percent partner in the business. After some initial hesitation, Greg agreed and jumped headlong into an industry he knew little about.

For the next 15 years, he split his time between managing the finances of the car business one day a week and continuing to work as an M&A advisor. It was not until after the death of John Trivett in 1997 that Greg began to contemplate becoming “a full-time car dealer”. After initially working with a number of equity-owning partners and executives, in 2001 Greg purchased the Trivett Group outright and took over the reins of the firm. His first task was to deal with the previous rapid growth in the size of the business, which was employing 850 staff across Sydney and Melbourne. “It was almost out of control,” he recalls. “If we’d continued to grow at that rate we wouldn’t have managed it in human and financial resource terms.”

"By the time of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007, Trivett was in stronger shape and weathered the downturn unscathed, despite being highly dependent on an apprehensive finance sector."

He reduced the automotive workforce to 350, and also divested non-core businesses such as two restaurants, a guest house and a charter boat. By the time of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007, Trivett was in stronger shape and weathered the downturn unscathed, despite being highly dependent on an apprehensive finance sector. Since that time, he has built up the company again. Trivett Group now has an annual turnover of more than $500 million and a workforce numbering 650. It is regarded as an industry leader due to its customer service philosophy – which includes a strong commitment to recruiting female staff – and its opulent showrooms.

Looking back, Greg says his decision to mortgage his family home and enter the automotive sector “was the best investment I ever made, not only in making a quid but in lifestyle”. It lets him work alongside his son and daughter, fellow alumni Matthew Duncan (BCom ’00) and Kirsty Dahdah (BCom ’01); Matthew is the firm’s CEO while Kirsty was its General Manager of Human Resources until she recently took maternity leave.

A thriving business also allows Greg to play a meaningful role as a philanthropist. This year, he and his wife Glenda will host their 20th annual reception for the Curran Foundation, which supports medical research at St Vincent’s Hospital. Trivett Group also sponsors the Sydney University Football Club, despite the fact Greg had no interest in rugby during his student days (his main extracurricular hobby was playing the card game “500”).

When asked to share the secrets of success in the car business, Greg offers five pieces of advice: build long-term relationships with key suppliers; never forget the importance of cash flow; always put in a good day’s effort; spend time “walking around your business”; and focus on what is important, not what is urgent. “That last one is a constant challenge for me,” he acknowledges.