Light van registrations in June rocketed by a massive 27% and Ford is firmly placed in the number one sales slot. It is a good time for Gary Whittam to be taking over as new director of commercial vehicles.
But Whittam is keenly aware that his new job will involve more than simply keeping things ticking over – a host of new vehicles have been launched this year by opposition manufacturers and all are keen to nibble away at Ford's commanding lead in the sub 3.5-tonne sector.
Whittam said: 'I see no need for significant strategic changes. However, core to our continuing commercial vehicle strategy is our focus on building a commercial customer-focused dealer network. With the implementation of our new agreements, we will be strengthening our 'Backbone' dealer standards, particularly on the service side, as this is what our customers have consistently told us they require.'
Last year, Ford sold a total of 74,273 vans up to 3.5 tonnes compared to its nearest rival Vauxhall, which sold 32,124. And while not denying that there will be a tough battle ahead, Whittam is confident this commanding lead can be maintained.
He said: 'We are confident that with the strength and depth of our commercial vehicle product range, allied to the Transit Specialist Dealer network, we will continue to offer our commercial vehicle customers vehicles that meet their specific requirements with outstanding cost of ownership. We fully expect competition to be tough, but with our recently-announced ABS standardisation on Transit, new two-tonne low floor Transits, LPG Transit Connect and the new Fiesta Van later this year, we clearly have strong product plans to keep us ahead.'
Despite a host of new vehicles appearing this year, Ford is keeping up the pressure with moves such as making ABS brakes standard on Transit. Also, Transit is the only heavy panel van on the market that offers a driver's airbag as standard. These safety measures have been applauded by fleet buyers, said Whittam. He added: 'The customer and dealer reaction has been very positive. Health and safety is an important responsibility for all companies and many fleets have applauded our action in leading the market.'
Ford is also making greats strides in the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) sector with the launch this summer of the new Transit Connect LPG model.
Despite the fact that the Government is threatening to review its current favourable tax rate on LPG, Whittam is confident that buyers will not be put off the green fuel.
He said: 'LPG vehicles offer significant savings to operators who are able to take full advantage of the maximum PowerShift grant, low LPG fuel prices and congestion charge relief and we have no reason to believe that these advantages are likely to be undermined overall. What is of greater importance, however, is that operators are able to buy with confidence, which is why we cover our factory LPG-converted vehicles with a full manufacturer warranty.'
Transit Connect has been feted by the press since its launch last year and won the Fleet News light van of the year title this year. Whittam is pretty pleased with the model.
He said: 'Transit Connect is building an outstanding reputation as the professional's choice, offering an outstanding value package and class-leading residual values. Our share is consistently rising month by month and the early auction results confirm customer expectations that Transit Connect is in a different residual value league to its competitors. With the only dedicated commercial vehicle product on offer in the small van segment, we recognise that its cost-of-ownership advantage has to be confirmed by customer experience and I'm pleased to confirm that we are on track with class-leading cost-of-ownership figures independently verified.'
With the dropping of the Ford Escort van from the line-up, buyers now have no model choice between the Fiesta and Connect – a fact soon picked up by Citroen, which launched the Xsara Enterprise to plug what it saw as a gap in the market. But Whittam believes the present Ford line-up will satisfy the demands of British buyers.
He said: 'With the new Fiesta Van planned for introduction at year-end, we will have the most modern and extensive commercial vehicle offering of any manufacturer in the UK. We believe Transit Connect SWB and Fiesta Van will cover this ground from a functional perspective – the key will be to convince customers who are compromising functionality for low acquisition price that the SWB Transit Connect offers lower cost of ownership for a functionally superior package – removing the need to compromise.'
As for the possibility of a Ford Focus van in the future, Whittam gave a firm 'no comment'.
Gary Whittam CV