Roebuck's tough lesson


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By Lucinda Schmidt

Greg Roebuck learned a tough lesson when Carsales.com chairman Wal Pisciotta critiqued one of his presentations a few years ago. Pisciotta had little to say about the content, but his CEO’s delivery bothered him.

“He told me he’d counted 23 ums and ahs,” Roebuck says, adding that he and Pisciotta (who has recently stepped down) still laugh about it. “He’ll say ‘Greg, it’s just like the ums and ahs, I’m not doing this to piss you off’.”

Roebuck credits this as the best piece of advice he’s received. Not so much as an elocution lesson, but as a demonstration of effective feedback.

“I don’t mind being told the hard truth if it’s coming from a place designed to make things better,” he explains over a coffee at Carsales.com’s headquarters, appropriately located on one of Melbourne’s busiest highways, Punt Road. 

“Blunt and honest is better than sugar coated and unclear.” 

Roebuck credits Pisciotta’s “constant but supportive” pushing with getting him and the company to where they are today. Carsales.com.au is Australia’s biggest classified advertising website for cars, listing used cars from more than 2000 dealers and tens of thousands of private sellers - and selling one car on average every 45 seconds. It’s also expanded into related categories, owning more than 20 websites advertising motorcycles, caravans, bikes, boats, trucks and the like.

Carsales.com is one of the troika of online players (along with SEEK and Realestate.com) that have decimated classified advertising in traditional newspapers for cars, jobs and property. For 2014-15, it earned net profit of $103 million, on revenue of $312 million. Its shares are trading around $10, after listing at $3.50 in 2009. 

In recent years, the company’s dominance in the Australian market has fostered international expansion, into South Korea, Mexico, Brazil and South-East Asia. “As a business, we need to see ourselves as best in world, not just best in Australia,” says Roebuck, adding that he’s not too fussed about similar competitors. 

“In terms of what keeps me awake at night, it’s not a Me 2 or a Me 3 because we’re probably going to be better,” he says. “But what could someone like Google, eBay, Amazon or Facebook do - anything with an enormous online audience? We need to be better than Google in terms of searching for a car to buy.”

Roebuck, 55, is fortunate to have had an early taste of IT, attending a Melbourne high school that owned a DEC-PDP-8/F computer in the 1970s. But his headstart backfired when he went to RMIT University and switched from science into computer science. He was bored because his classmates were behind him. “I didn’t pay attention and they went past me,” he confesses. 

He dropped out after a couple of years, but had enough knowledge to land various jobs as a software developer. “In those days, the hardware guys were the elite, the software guys less so,” he says.

His pivotal move – marrying his passion for technology and cars - came in 1983, when he joined a company supplying computer systems to car dealers. Nine years later came what Roebuck describes as his biggest career break, when he and other senior executives bought a majority share of the company from its US parent. 

“It was a big step for me, I’d never had equity in a business before and I needed to take out a second mortgage,” he says, adding that at that point the business had 18 staff and was still losing money. “When it’s your money on the line, things change. That was the eye-opening moment.”

Carsales.com was set up inside that business (now known as Pentana Solutions) a few years later, then in 2002 it split from its parent and Roebuck became CEO of what’s now a $2.3 billion company, employing more than 700 people. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Roebuck doesn’t see that as his biggest achievement. “I like that my daughters [aged 24 and 26] are proud of what I do, that I’m in a business they think is cool.”

Now that Carsales.com is a major listed company, Roebuck says growth will come from international expansion as well as domestic initiatives such as launching a model car website so customers can buy a mini version of their real car, selling tyres online and moving into services such as pre-purchase vehicle inspections. 

But he’s also an advocate for what he describes as “the 1% process” – making many incremental changes rather than big ones, to improve customers’ experiences. For example, noting on a listing whether a car conforms to P-plate driver restrictions or showing what a manufacturer’s description of a colour actually is. 

“These are lots of little ideas, all 1% things, but it creates a good culture of continuous improvement,” he says. Some of the ideas come from the four hackathons Carsales.com holds each year, open not just to tech staff but to employees from finance, legal and elsewhere. A recent idea was an ap that tracks a learner driver’s compulsory hours, capturing time driven, road conditions and other details that presently must be tediously filled in by hand into a logbook. 

So what sort of car does the CEO of Australia’s biggest car advertiser drive? His favourite is a 1967 Shelby GT500 (Ford Mustang). But his everyday car is a Tesla, which runs on electricity and connects to the internet to download updates. 
“That will offend some car dealers because Teslas don’t retail through the normal channels, but I love it because it’s technologically where many of the car companies will go in future,” he says. 

A perfect weekend 

Read: Fiction on my Kindle, which I’ve rediscovered in the last few months. I share an account with my father and our books are often from the New York Times bestseller list. At present, I’m reading “One Trillion Dollars” [by German author Andreas Eschbach, about a pizza driver who inherits US$1 trillion from a 16th century Italian ancestor who bequeathed 300 florin, invested for 470 years, to save humanity’s future]. 

Eat: In summer, I like barbequing. I’m not a great cook, but I’m reasonable at barbeques. In winter, I like good Chinese takeaway. 

Drink: Red wine. Perhaps a Western Australia cabernet or a Victorian pinot noir. Anything but shiraz.

Sport: I play tennis every week and over summer I’ll play against my daughter’s boyfriend – I still think I’m in my twenties. And I love watching Aussie Rules [football] and my team, Richmond.

Activity: I like playing with new technology. The current toys I’m intrigued with are a 3D printer and an old Scalextric kit. I’m using my 3D printer to print barriers [for the toy slot racing cars]. I also like woodwork; I’ve built a fussball table and a games cabinet.

Getaway: My beach-house at Mornington [an hour south-east of Melbourne]. I try to get there most weekends; it’s good thinking time. 

Indulgence: A family dinner or holiday. I just got back from a holiday in Africa with my wife and two daughters and the animals were great but being with the family was the best part.

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