Champion of the buying classes

As head of the Consumers' Association Sheila McKechnie has just scored her biggest victory - and car-makers everywhere are running scared.
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The Independent Online

There was good news from the man in the sheepskin coat at your local Mercedes-Benz dealership last week. In case you'd been thinking of splashing out on a brand-new S500 limousine, he was happy to tell you that it would no longer set you back 74 grand. In fact, it wouldn't even cost you 64 grand. No, it could be yours for just £56,790. That's a whopping 20 per cent off. Or perhaps you fancied something smaller, such as a nippy little A140 Classic? Well forget fourteen and a half grand. Yours on the road for a mere £12,790. A bargain or what?

There was good news from the man in the sheepskin coat at your local Mercedes-Benz dealership last week. In case you'd been thinking of splashing out on a brand-new S500 limousine, he was happy to tell you that it would no longer set you back 74 grand. In fact, it wouldn't even cost you 64 grand. No, it could be yours for just £56,790. That's a whopping 20 per cent off. Or perhaps you fancied something smaller, such as a nippy little A140 Classic? Well forget fourteen and a half grand. Yours on the road for a mere £12,790. A bargain or what?

Across the entire Mercedes range, prices were cut by an average of 9 per cent. And the reason, according to Dermot Kelly, the company's UK passenger cars director, was to prevent potential customers flocking to the "grey import" European market, where cars can cost as little as half the price demanded in Britain.

Like Land Rover, Audi and Toyota before it, Mercedes had finally bowed to growing pressure from consumers who refuse to pay over the odds for new cars.

For Sheila McKechnie, the doughty 52-year-old director of the Consumers' Association, this was the latest victory in a campaign that began last June, when she turned up at the London headquarters of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in a Ford Focus painted with a Union flag and displaying the message: "The Great British Rip-Off".

The association had been writing about the high cost of cars in the UK for 15 years, but this time it was determined to do something about it. Ms McKechnie delivered a letter to the SMMT's chief executive, Christopher Macgowan, in which she dismissed the industry's "feeble excuses" and demanded that manufacturers stop treating the UK as "Treasure Island".

In September, the association went so far as to urge customers to hold off buying new cars until prices came down. In October, it took the campaign to the London Motor Show, where visitors to the association's stand could take advantage of special hot lines to ring car manufacturers' headquarters and ask why they were being overcharged. In January, a petition was organised, with 20,000 signing up.

It was at the end of March, however, that Ms McKechnie's most controversial initiative was launched. This was, a website allowing potential car buyers to receive quotes from overseas dealers over the internet. Since its launch, it has helped to broker 1,400 car import deals.

Although the association has not made any profit from the scheme, critics have suggested that by entering the commercial arena it has put at risk its independent image. But such an interventionist approach is typical of Mr McKechnie's buccaneering leadership of a body that was formerly best known for the quiet appraisals of toasters and kettles in its magazine, Which?

"It's not enough to say to people, 'You're getting ripped off' if you don't provide them with a means of doing something about it," Ms McKechnie says.

In fact, the CA was already involved indirectly in the selling of products. Two years ago, feeling there was a pricing racket in white goods and electricals going on, the association linked up with a small company called Value Direct to start selling items reviewed in Which? direct to subscribers at highly competitive prices. As far as Ms McKechnie is concerned, this is where the future lies for the association.

"We think in a nice quiet little way we've shifted the electrical-goods market, because some of the prices have shifted considerably," she says. "And we will do that. We will go into markets where we think the market is not functioning in the interests of the consumer, and by using the Which? subscriber base we can shift the market.

"And that's why we're creating a lot of enemies out there. We're taking on some big, big people. Car manufacturers are big beasts and you don't take them on without thinking they're gonna throw the book at you."

It is five years since Ms McKechnie became director of the CA and in that time she has reinvented it as a pro-active organiser of consumer power. The time was ripe for change, she believes, because the very nature of consumerism has changed. Whereas in the Eighties it was associated with individualism and selfishness, the "new consumerism" is all about using power in the marketplace to shape the society we live in, she says - "I think we need to use that power responsibly but we are the main counterbalance to corporate power."

It is a power that politicians have come to recognise and the association is now courted assiduously by all the major political parties, although Ms McKechnie is careful to keep them at arm's length. Others, however, would suggest that sometimes this same power can be misdirected.

Last October, for instance, Which? magazine "named and shamed" the 10 mortgage lenders which had received the largest number of complaints from customers and Ms McKechnie duly announced that the mortgage industry needed "an urgent dose of regulation to correct its many ills".

For its part, the Council of Mortgage Lenders urged "a healthy dose of caution" in reading the Which? report, which it said was based on a mere 1,000 complaints from the UK's 10.9 million mortgage holders.

Furthermore it was unclear whether the complaints were even justified. The CML also pointed out that it was perfectly natural that the country's largest mortgage-lending institutions featured on the list, because they of course have the greatest number of customers. The Daily Telegraph went so far as to describe the entire Which? report as "laughable".

But Ms McKechnie will not be moved. "The essence was that they had clauses in their contracts that were absolutely disgraceful," she says. "And to take us to task on this kind of statistical validity? Pathetic!"

This is the word, usually couched in withering italics, that Ms McKechnie reserves for organisations that are unwilling to see the error of their ways. Such as car manufacturers. "I have to say their response has been pathetic!" she announces. "I do find it very irritating when we've done a very solid report and what you get back from the people you are criticising is trivia."

Sheila McKechnie was born in Falkirk in 1948 and raised in a working-class, left-thinking household. Hers was a family of strong women, she says.

She became head girl of the local high school before going to Edinburgh University, where she read politics and history. Nearly 6ft tall and with a penchant for wearing mini-skirts, she was known as "Legs" McKechnie by her fellow students. She also had a reputation as something of a radical firebrand. "I was one of the first of the revolting feminists of my generation," she says.

At the end of her time at Edinburgh she successfully took the Civil Service examination. She had ideas of joining the Department of Employment, but by the time she had finished an MA in industrial relations at Warwick, she had decided the Civil Service wasn't really her. After a spell as a research assistant at Oxford, her career really began when she was given the post of assistant general secretary of the small and obscure Wallpaper Workers Union. The next stop was at the white-collar ASTMS union, where she spent nine years as health and safety officer, fighting for reforms on safety in laboratories.

In 1985 she was approached to be director of Shelter, the charity for the homeless, which had itself fallen on hard times. "It had gone from raising lots of money to just ticking over and it was living on its past record," she says. "It seemed to me in many ways to be functioning more for the benefit of the people who worked for it than for homeless people."

In 10 years she transformed "a bunch of banner-waving moaning lefties" into an efficient, modern business, increasing turnover from £1m to £10m. Some people were dismayed by her abrasive, direct manner, not to mention her short temper, but nobody could quibble with her results. According to John Trampleasure, who was her fundraising director, her greatest achievement was to get the organisation taken seriously by the Conservative government.

When she moved to the Consumers' Association in 1995, Ms McKechnie once again found an organisation that had become becalmed. Staff morale was low following a strike over pay, and there had been public criticism of Which?'s attempts to attract new subscribers with hard-sell mailshots. The magazine's circulation had fallen in eight years under outgoing director John Beishon from 900,000 a month to fewer than 700,000.

Ms McKechnie believed the association was punching below its weight and she saw an opportunity to carry on doing what she loves most: standing up for the disadvantaged. "When I moved here, people said, 'How can you possibly move from something like homelessness into running the middle-class shopping bible?' " she says. "But I always thought this organisation was incredibly well placed to deal with a lot of injustice."

Circulation of Which?, which accounts for 70 per cent of revenue, has now stabilised at around the 530,000 mark, and the Which? Online website has a further 50,000 registered users. Although the magazine continues to test new products, its scope has widened. Products are relatively far cheaper nowadays than they used to be, says Ms McKechnie, which means choosing one is not quite the problem it used to be. Hence space is now given to more general issues of concern to consumers such as health, food, financial services, transport and utilities.

Sheila McKechnie lives in East Finchley, north London, with her long-term partner, who works for the Financial Services Authority. Her passion is cooking and her vice is gambling: she goes to the races about half a dozen times a year, most recently at Ripon, where, to her disgust, she failed to pick a single winner. "I normally get one or two," she says.

She is a woman who seems genuinely happy in her work. "To be paid to take on all these issues of unfairness and injustice is something incredibly worthwhile socially and very fulfilling personally," she says. "It's good fun tweaking the tails of the motor manufacturers, who've been getting away with it for years. Yes, I will readily admit to the fact that it's been a very enjoyable experience to see the car market shift and people get a decent deal at last."