Fleet News

Pan-European fleet strategy – definitely not for the faint-hearted

'THE pan-European fleet' is a grandiose title for operating vehicles in a number of markets; however, with a steady growth in internationalisation of products, services and markets, the picture is changing and that grandiose title is becoming reality in more and more fleets.

Interestingly, my research suggests it is not necessarily the big, traditional companies that have moved into Europeanisation of their fleets, but as often as not it is the service companies that actually keep the big players running.

The rationale would appear to be that employees of medium size companies that offer service support to the big players travel extensively by car. And by taking their vehicles with them drivers get the opportunity to compare cars - leading to problems if they are not compatible.

What is a pan-European fleet?
Many a posh definition has been proposed, as often as not by consultants seeking to hike the fees. My definition is a simple one: 'A pan-European fleet is one operated in line with common policies and administrative systems in four or more countries.'

Not ambitious, but it serves the purpose and, if the fleet can operate that way, it is easy to add further countries. The importance is to get the policies right; to plan the implementation and make it work - without adding significant incremental cost for the sake of consistency.

The pitfalls of pan-Europeanisation
'Pan-Europeanising' a fleet can, if not undertaken sensitively, be an extremely fraught activity that can lead to a range of time-consuming and costly problems.

On the one hand, there is commonly a certain amount of independence - 'us and them' between a subsidiary company in its relationships with the head office, or even a bigger subsidiary in the network. That independence can lead to all sorts of 'qualitative problems' especially with something as emotional as a business car. There can be endless opportunities to procrastinate; there can be arguments on obscure technical issues - and downright revolt - or 'non'.

There can also be very real problems in successfully pan-Europeanising a fleet. I am aware of a case where 'it was decreed from above that all general managers in the group should have Jaguars'. And it was; and there were red faces at head office when it was realised that the subsidiaries in Portugal, Greece and Spain employed an average of five people, including the general manager, his secretary/assistant two further sales engineers and a telephone person who doubled up by looking after the stores. And that titular general manager - de facto senior rep - was delighted with his Jaguar.

Fewer cases of that type exist, but they still occur; the moral is 'check everything from every angle before anyone makes a statement'.

Local problems can exist - or be created by the over-enthusiastic head office in its continuing crusade for conformity and consistency. A common car hierarchy can be a real problem between countries; what would be a field car in Germany could be a senior management car in Southern Europe.

Similarly, there can be real problems if one seeks to introduce a single manufacturer product range across the whole of Europe. Not only will the car prices differ between markets, but there can be more subtle problems - as for example from personal experience in France 'your salesman either comes in a French car - or I do not see him'. Yes, it can happen, and those cultural issues are still important and one can rarely justify, managerially, making the sales representative's job any harder than it already is.

Managing the pan-European fleet
Experience suggests that managing the pan-European fleet can be a nightmare. On the one hand, there is a natural tendency to seek uniformity, but in reality, every organisation will have its own systems; more importantly, every dealer will have its own means of doing business which an existing system can cope with so 'if it works don't fix it'.

Just how far should one seek to modify a system for the sake of uniformity? Perhaps it is better to look at overall benchmarks and standards of quality and service to support the person in the field, rather than meddle with systems. However, when a company is introducing new systems across a group, then might be the time to seek uniformity.

Further complications to the nightmare scenario occur if one is not watching for them in terms of extended warranty and of course specification. More subtle problems occur when one begins to look at the vehicle operating cost envelopes and find that warranties may differ with a one-year package being standard in some countries, while elsewhere it could be two or three.

Within the pan-European fleet situation, the devil is in the detail. Europeanisation of the fleet certainly may have benefits in terms of being able to deal with a single point of contact for strategic decisions and overall pricing.

For example, aggregating the total annual fleet purchase across Europe may put a fleet operator in an advantageous position, enabling an overriding discount to be negotiated.

An otherwise relatively modest fleet, with perhaps a hundred or so units per fleet - but running that number in 10 individual markets, plus a few in other countries can make the fleet of considerable interest to a motor manufacturer. A thousand units in operation can generate overriding discounts - or discounts paid to all national companies.

But the luxury of a central fleet management operation for Europe is a luxury which all but a few of the biggest fleets should avoid. A recent analysis suggested that even a relatively modest central fleet office for Europe - a fleet manager, an assistant, an administrator, plus the relevant office, communications, expenses for adequate travel and a couple of cars, leaves little change out of €400,000 a year.

To be able to save that amount of money, for that would be the role of such an operation, requires some significant cost reductions. On a 1,000-unit fleet that would be €400 per year per unit; on 500 units it would be €800 - while even with the 5,000-unit fleet there would need to be an annual cost saving of €80 per unit .

The message is simple 'don't rush into seeking pan-European management for the fleet - it can be expensive'. Better to look at a series of benchmarks and quality/service measures which can be implemented to give the organisation a degree of consistency. Some implications - and actions
I have not sought to be negative regarding a pan-European fleet policy. I have merely sought to raise some of the issues. Realistically, the decision to do so or not comes down to a handful of basic questions - each of which requires a truthful response before any final decision is made.

  • Are there sufficient units in operation in enough countries to justify a pan-European car fleet policy/strategy?
  • What elements of the car fleet policy does the organisation seek to commonise - can those be accommodated in every market?
  • Are there real net monetary advantages for the organisation through implementing a true pan-European policy?
  • Is the fleet the type where a gradual move towards a common fleet strategy is beneficial to the business?
    Quite simply, how far does the organisation need to go at this stage in pursuing a true pan-European fleet policy - and can that policy be accomplished while enhancing the effectiveness of the business - and in particular the fleet itself?
  • Professor Peter Cooke is head of the Centre for Automotive Industries Management at Nottingham Trent University. peter.cooke@ntu.ac.uk (June 2000)
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