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The success of DuttonDirect.com is proof that an internet business can deal safely in transactions involving millions of dollars. Entrepreneur James Dutton talks to Camille Howard about the evolving life of a fourth generation family business.

James Dutton was born into luxury. Well, at least the luxury car trade. His great-grandfather got things started in 1911, creating bodies for exotic cars alongside his building business. His grandfather, a builder and architect, developed the motoring business, providing repairs and services for luxury vehicles. His father became an apprentice mechanic before moving into the sale of luxury, collectible cars—Dutton Sporting Cars.

Active ImageThe idea for DuttonDirect.com came about as James Dutton set himself the task of putting the Dutton name on everyone’s lips. It started as a “niggle” while working on the sales and marketing of the car showroom, where he was constantly asked to sell vehicles for people in Victoria. But because consigning cars in Victoria is illegal, the idea took seed for an online buy/sell outlet. “I thought why not do something on another level, where people can use the [Dutton] name, because of the history and heritage behind it, and create a platform where people can advertise it themselves,” he says. “There was no one catering for the cross-market sector for luxury items, such as cars and boats and property and aviation.”

So, DuttonDirect.com was born.

The business model is fairly simple: clients pay an up-front fee to list their product until sold (although Dutton says this is likely to change to a monthly fee system down the track). And if you’re wanting to advertise your own business to his market—from auto repair shops to finance companies—there are display ads available for purchase, too.

Talking of money, the site has listed more than $1 billion worth of luxury items. While this figure might seem astonishing, it’s not hard to imagine when you consider the $1.5 million Ferrari, the £22 million yacht, or the US$39 million luxury jet already listed on the website.

Online Security

In dealing with prices that are by no means chump-change, and customers with bank balances that would defy the maths of some, security is understandably high on the list of priorities.

As well as having a talented pool of staff to get the online side of the business up and running, he must also have the adequate checks and balances in place to ensure the safety and security of business conducted on the site. In terms of guaranteeing the authenticity and legality of products, there are risks with any online classifieds business. So, the team must stay on top of all the latest scams. There were a few recent scams, Dutton says, where fraudsters were creating false ads, including fake photos, and posting them online. “Because of the nature of it, we knocked that on the head before it went live.” As well as this, he ensures all registration and VIN details are included in the descriptions, and uses similar identifiers with the boats and planes, to ensure the products belong to the seller.

Unlike other classifieds, like Trading Post, carpoint.com and even auction site e-Bay, DuttonDirect.com’s point of difference is the focus on luxury goods. As Dutton says, “you don’t walk into a Ford dealership to buy a Ferrari”. And while he doesn’t begrudge the role of traditional classifieds, he feels the need to “separate the wheat from the chaff” in online classifieds. He is confident his clients and potential buyers agree, and are less likely to be either peddling or purchasing their wares on a generic site. “They’re more likely to go to the dedicated site,” Dutton adds.

As an online business, with no distinct product to push, Dutton has to be selective about the type of advertising and marketing he uses. The most successful has been networking. “I go to race meetings, classic car meetings—we’ve only just started doing some print media—but it’s worked off our family name, it has been around a long time and people search on the web for Dutton because of the car dealership we used to have in Richmond, Victoria. It’s been a long but enjoyable process of meeting people about it and letting them know it is a safe platform for people to use.”

When I suggest it to him, Dutton isn’t convinced the success of e-Bay, and the confidence that has grown in buying and selling online, has helped boost awareness and use of his site. In fact, he argues, although he is sure they’ve heard of it, he doubts many of his users have ever used the online portal.

Because of the multi-faceted features on the site, Dutton and the team recently decided to revamp the existing site, adopting Flash software as a tool to make the site as user-friendly as possible, while maintaining a good look. Even this decision was backed up by solid research. “We had to engage the odd Flash tool, but it’s fantastic because it’s all cross-browser related and we’ve found that 97 percent of our visitors use Flash.”

Business Skills

Active ImageDutton’s business history is varied. Despite finishing school to become a carpenter, then making the switch to graphic art and design, many of Dutton’s business skills were learnt from working his way up the chain in JB Hi-Fi, starting part-time in the storeroom and working up to become section manager and working throughout most of the stores in Victoria. He went into sales and marketing in the family business, Dutton Sporting Cars, working “ferociously” to get the name of the business out to where it is now.

He also cut his teeth on the rally-car racing circuit, developing the skills he still draws on today in his CEO role in Dutton International Holdings, and his more recent role with DuttonDirect.com. His experience jet-ski racing (he once placed second on the Australasian Jet Ski Tour) also plays a part in his business life, and he says these passions taught him more about teamwork and networking than he could have hoped for in a stuffy corporate environment.

In terms of the technical aspects of the business, most of his training has been on the job, and Dutton admits to knowing little about computers when the idea first took hold. With seven staff on the front line of the business, and eight contracted staff working on the online side of things, he attributes much of the early success of the online business to his and his team’s hard work and passion. “I’m lucky enough to have very passionate people behind it,” he says. “We operate with a very relaxed team environment, and in a way that everyone involved is producing results but still having fun.”

As his hobbies indicate, Dutton isn’t afraid of taking risks, which fosters his entrepreneurial spirit in his business life. “Don’t be afraid of doing anything that’s high risk,” he advises. “I’m hungry for the drive to success, and it’s proving to be the right model that I’m continuing with.”

He’s also driven to getting things right for his client, conducting extensive research to make sure the system right for the users, conducting surveys and monitoring the number of hits and browsing on the site. Twenty-six percent of the 6,000 users surveyed are over 55. “I think we got the timing spot on,” he says. “I don’t think we would have been ready for our market until this time.

“We’ve got great security throughout, especially towards our end-user, because of the clientele we have involved with the site as well,” he adds. “My main focus is that the end-user has a great experience, with both security and with the result: if they put up a car, they have to sell it; if they purchase a car, they have to buy in confidence.”

This doesn’t end with the buying and selling of the luxury items, it’s also about helping to find services for the enthusiast market they deal with. That might be finding the right mechanic to inspect the car they want to buy, or finding the right accessories to fill the luxury house they’ve just bought: “Delivering all the answers from pre- through to post-sale.”

Will there be a fifth generation? Dutton, who is 31, laughs. “There probably will be!” But adds, “Not just yet!”

Like his father and grandfather before him, he has worked hard to give the business other avenues to build on and carry the family name into the future. “There was no pressure [to go into the family business]. I grew up with the scope that I’d find the thing that I loved,” he says. “It’s been in my blood that we’re a constructive family, and I’m taking that to another level now.”

And while there have certainly been upsets along the way, he doesn’t think of them as failures. “They’re knock downs and you just keep on fighting. That’s one of the biggest things I learnt from motor racing: you keep getting knocked down until you’ve got what it takes to win.”

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