Fleet News

Triple takeover creates a leasing super firm

If the current vogue for cookery programmes extended to car leasing, Delia, Nigella, Jamie and Co would undoubtedly point to the same three ingredients to create a successful company - fleet expertise, easy access to cash and an extensive business database.

These three trump cards were common to all the top 10 contract hire companies in last year's FN50 guide to the UK's largest leasing and fleet management companies.

Split evenly between bank and manufacturer ownership, the major contract hire companies could combine their own fleet experience with access to the resources and customer contacts of powerful parent groups.

Yet assembling these huge trading advantages into a single company is neither automatic nor easy, with acquisition playing a key role in the development process. Acquiring and merging a business in the service sector is never a simple task, but acquiring three businesses that themselves are still in the process of merging makes the challenge even more delicate.

This, however, reflects the recent history of Lloyds TSB autolease which has grown its fleet fourfold in the past three years through acquisition to occupy the number three spot in the FN50 table.

The potted chronology of the company witnessed ACL buying Autolease and Motorent. These three companies were then acquired by Lloyds TSB which already operated its own fleet leasing company Black Horse Vehicle Management.

The result was four brands, three headquarters and three IT systems, a situation that hardly lent itself to delivering the anticipated benefits of consolidation - namely cost savings and synergies.

'We had to decide what to do with the businesses and how to brand them, without falling into the trap of destroying brand values,' said Nigel Stead, managing director of Lloyds TSB autolease.

The result was the closure of the BHVM operation in Harrogate - Black Horse being a retail rather than business-to-business brand - and its merger with ACL autolease in new offices in Birmingham, while Motorent retained its name and London premises. The group was then renamed Lloyds TSB autolease, a name that reflects both its shareholders and its core business.

Stead readily admits that these were not easy decisions to take, and the loss of 70 to 80 employees through the consolidation is one of the inescapably high prices to pay for achieving a genuine merger.

Yet the merger process - to create the 'biggest new start-up in the industry in 2001', according to Stead - was completed in a remarkably swift six months, without damage to the business.

'It is huge credit to the ACL Autolease staff that they did not lose one major client (100+ vehicles), despite those customers being clients of a company under permanent change for three years,' he said.

Sensitive to the different cultures at the four leasing operations, Stead acknowledges the difficulty of bringing together four individually successful companies to create a stronger ensemble.

'We could, for example, have closed Motorent, but I suspect that we would have lost new business and found it difficult to give existing customers the levels of support to which they were accustomed,' he said.

'So we have integrated some of the Motorent activities with those of Lloyds TSB autolease, giving Motorent access to better computer systems and more support from our sales operations as we target sub-50 vehicle fleets under the Lloyds TSB motorent brand, where the service offer is tailored to meet requirements of smaller fleets.'

Yet if the strategic merger decisions were tough, Stead is in no doubt about how hard the four companies would have found it to compete individually in a market where a breakaway superleague has clearly started to emerge.

'Historically, small fleet leasing companies have not been seriously disadvantaged against big companies and have sold a more personal level of service,' he said.

'But with the emergence of a superleague, and structural changes - including the revision of the car distribution block exemption - I suspect that larger companies will gain a competitive advantage. There will still be a place for small and regionally-based companies, and they will compete with us in local market places by convincing customers that they can deliver better service and by doing their best to compete on price, but it will get harder to achieve.'

The growing sophistication of product development and delivery certainly requires significant financial resources as fleet customers turn away from off-the-shelf lease packages.

Lloyds TSB autolease may still be finding growth for traditional contract hire among smaller customers that have caught a cold during the residual value crisis of the past two years and decided to abandon an outright purchase strategy in favour of the risk-free protection of contract hire, but its larger clients are expressing a sharper interest in personal leasing schemes and structured car ownership programmes.

'Many large businesses are looking at the whole issue of company car provision, and some have started to offer cash alternatives. It is very much the hot topic,' said Stead.

Criticising the absence of tax breaks for high business mileage drivers under April's company car tax system - 'No one drives 18,000-plus business miles for fun' - he is eager nonetheless to capture the business of employees opting for the cash alternative, by providing them with a personal leasing product.

Lloyds TSB autolease has already developed Peach as a PCP package, and late last year unveiled Motor Direct, an internet-based product that promises fleet-style discounts and competitive interest rates to small businesses.

It is an illustration of the blurring of the traditional distinctions between fleet and retail customers, and a prime example of the lending and database advantages of having a bank as a parent. These advantages are being explored right across the Lloyds TSB network as the bank pursues its strategy of 'customer intimacy', knowing and satisfying the every need of its clients.

'The bank's business customer base is split by scale into two, corporate and commercial, and we are currently at the early stages of working with the commercial side where we have a huge database of medium-sized businesses that is under exploited and that we believe is very receptive to our products and services,' said Stead.

'We are creating a dedicated bank team because firstly, we want to put appropriate resource into it, and secondly we want to make sure it does not negatively impact on our core business. BHVM made no real attempt to satisfy the needs of the bank's customer base, but some rivals have identified the opportunities there and made real progress.'

Looking ahead, Stead can see major opportunities not only in the bank's databases, but also in new products such as telematics, an area currently under investigation by a Lloyds TSB autolease project team that is exploring how to harness the opportunity of the technology for customers, their company car drivers, and its own operational efficiency.

'The whole concept of technology going forward will become very important. People still want to do business with people they want to do business with. A company with personality, innovation and initiative that can project those qualities will give customers confidence that it will bring not just competence but excellence to their businesses. We believe we can do that and that it will give us a competitive edge over our rivals.'

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