Jaconelli family runs Romans International and Fully Charged
One of the most respected high-end UK car dealers is quite the family affair
“The day after I left school, I had a job cleaning cars. My dad wanted to teach me the value of a pound, but I also learned about the value of doing a job with pride and passion.”
If that mantra needs justifying, the Bentley, Bugatti and Ferrari that flank Paul Jaconelli, now 72 and owner of the Romans International emporium in the Surrey town of Banstead, do a pretty good job of it. If you will excuse the pun, the teenaged car washer came, saw and continues to conquer the world of supercar and luxury car sales.
“After washing the cars for a few years, I started trading them when I was 18,” recalls Jaconelli. “I would buy what I could afford, clean it up and then put it back in the paper and sell it on. I wasn’t an overnight success; I was working at the BBC as a scenery technician to top up my salary.
“I enjoyed it and made some money, but it was very gradual growth. I didn’t have the money to have more than three or four cars for sale at a time initially, but eventually I got my first premises – in Wimbledon, under a driving test centre – and grew from there.”
Success kept coming. Jaconelli opened premises in nearby Sutton and then Epsom, but even then he couldn’t have dreamed being where he is today
His big break came when he was offered the chance to run neighbouring car business HF Edwards, a Fiat dealership.
“It had been established in 1938 and was run by a chap called Stanley Pickard,” he recalls. “We got on, we had lunch together, but then he got ill and I was asked if I wanted to buy the business. I had to be honest: there was no way I could afford it. But he turned round and asked if I would run it for him and pay it off that way. We became Fiat’s biggest dealer in Europe, winning the Dealer of the Year title three times. From that point on, I started to believe that I could make a success of it.”
Underlining the drive that has underpinned his career, Jaconelli credits his move into high-end car dealing to a fear that he wouldn’t be able to give his children the education he felt he had missed out on.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I was determined to give them chances I didn’t have, to the extent that I ended up taking A-level maths at the age of 40. I never had the opportunity to do it at school, so I thought I would show them that I could!”
Continuing this theme of embracing every opportunity, Jaconelli pounced when a business that he had long admired, Romans of Woking, closed down.
“I’m Italian, so I guess that appealed, and I had admired the business too,” he recalls. “That was 30 years ago. They had spent a lot of money building their brand, and it was ill health that prompted the closure, nothing else. I went to the receivers and have never looked back.”
Today, Romans is regarded as one of the premier independent supercar dealers in the country, remarkable not just for its stock but also for its early adoption of video and social media, as well as a source of valuations that are used across the industry.
Jaconelli gives much of the credit for this to his son Tom, who was quick to realise the potential of digital innovations and has a forensic eye for pricing.
An Italian with a large family running a business called Romans… Is this the birth of an empire? Sure enough, the rest of the Jaconellis got involved too, although they have also forged their own success elsewhere . As such, business is booming, even in these challenging times.
“Last year was our best ever and this year is shaping up to be better again,” says the boss. “At one point in the pandemic, there was an element of people not being able to spend their money on holidays, so they were buying cars. That helped us, as has the fact that the very top-end cars have become fantastic investments.
“But the key is treating customers properly. In this game, there are always egos and there are always chancers. I don’t want either; I want to treat my customers correctly, because I’ve learned a customer you look after will be a customer for life.
“I want to sell cars that are accurately described and priced, because then your customers will learn to believe in you. I’m not interested in high-mileage or damaged cars or ones that have no service history. It has taken my life to build this business, and I tell everyone who works here that it can take two minutes to lose it.”
As well as building the business, Jaconelli’s family has grown, and he now has two younger daughters, aged six and eight, to consider. He wants all of them to have the choice of working in the business – but only if they’re willing to do so under his watchful eye.
“Retire? I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” laughs Jaconelli. “I did take some advice once, and they asked me what I would do with my days. I like sailing, I like golf, but they wouldn’t give me a sense of purpose. I can’t imagine not getting up and coming to the showroom. I can’t bring myself to let go.”
E-Bikes for the next generation
If a love of cars runs in the Jaconelli family, so too does entrepreneurship. Initially, Ben Jaconelli joined his father in the business, showing a flair for sales. And then one day he gave it all up to set up for himself selling e-bikes.
He says: “I started selling a few M55 electric bikes through the showroom around 2011. They were £28,000 and awesome to ride. I sensed there was an opportunity for e-bikes to be a real tool for getting about the city, and with Bosch launching its first e-bike system that year, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.”
He spent the next two years building his contacts and experience before launching the Fully Charged retail brand in 2014. At the core of his offering was a dedication to working with independent, high-end brands (“at least at the Audi end of the car scale and often Porsche or Bentley”) and building a team focused on customer experience – something he learned from his dad.
“It was my own money and hard work,” he says. “In year one, we made £50,000, but the curve was always encouraging. We were organically achieving year-on-year growth of at least double, and that has continued to this day.”
Today, the business turns over nearly £10 million a year and Jaconelli has brought his younger brother Max into the business, in charge of e-commerce.
“Ben was pretty up front with me about what a rocky road it was going to be, so I went to university and did a two-year business enterprise course,” he says. “It was the perfect grounding for me and meant I arrived with the right skills at the right time.
“The conversion rate of someone who walks into one of our shops to purchasing a bike is incredible. My job is to replicate that online. Watch this space.”