Fleet News

Award winner’s profile: John Webb, Customs & Excise

IF a businessman was looking for somewhere to turn for advice on running a fleet of vehicles, HM Customs & Excise would score highly as the least likely port of call.

After all, as the official funnel that feeds the Government purse, by collecting duties and taxes, as well as controlling imports, exports and national security, businesses tend to be wary when they hear the name mentioned.

But it pays to listen to good advice and there is plenty available from HM Customs & Excise (HMCE), the Fleet News UK Fleet of the Year 2004 sponsored by Mazda.

It has one of the largest fleets in central Government, and operates an amazing array of vehicles in support of its revenue collection and law enforcement role in the UK and globally.

John Webb, its national fleet manager, has had to introduce innovative business processes because the nature of the fleet’s operation is so varied. It’s not just a case of buying a batch of diesel saloons and letting company car drivers cruise up and down motorways for three years in them.

There is a core fleet of 2,400 LCVs and cars. But Webb also has to look after more than 1,000 specially-converted vehicles and a covert surveillance fleet, as well as a large number of HGVs, motorbikes, trailers and fork-lift trucks.

The HMCE fleet is spread far and wide throughout the country, and there are several hundred vehicles, including a number of armoured cars, in drug producing countries round the world. Its 11,000 authorised drivers travel more than 30 million miles each year.

Staff also have 9,000-10,000 car hire bookings each year in addition to using private vehicles. With such big numbers come big responsibilities, big budgets and big risks.

Webb took over the HMCE fleet in 2002 after 26 years in the department as an investigator, policymaker and, in recent years, as a project manager involved in high profile change projects.

Webb said: ‘Although the prospect of taking over the fleet was daunting at first, I have found that good risk management and effective change management processes work in any business.

‘However, I have worked very hard to identify and implement best practice wherever I can find it from the public and private sectors. Membership of bodies such as the Association of Car Fleet Operators (ACFO) and the National Association of Police Fleet Managers have enabled me to tap into an enormous reservoir of expertise. I have also been fortunate to have had good senior management support and a fantastic team in Manchester and London to support me.’

Risk underpins everything that Webb has set up, and protecting drivers is a key priority.

‘Because the nature of our work involves putting our staff in sensitive and sometimes dangerous situations, such as the land boundary in Northern Ireland, inner cities, trouble spots, ports and airports, the usual fleet risks are multiplied tenfold. This is also clearly the case where our drivers are conducting surveillance work,’ he said.

‘Our uniformed staff have to drive a wide range of vehicles from specially converted road fuel testing units, prisoner vans and dog vans to mobile X-ray scanners, motorcycles and fork-lifts. In response to this we have put in place a comprehensive risk management strategy and a plan designed to manage the risks and reduce accidents by 10% over three years.’

Webb persuaded senior management to back his new approach to risk and then used various methods of communication to ensure all drivers got the message, including road risk awareness seminars, intranet announcements, text messages, leaflets in cars and a poster campaign. He has also instigated more robust risk assessments and accident reporting procedures to ensure that everybody meets their duty-of-care obligations.

But alongside the physical risk, with such a large, widespread fleet, Webb has had to work had to minimise financial risk, and in particular, vehicle procurement.

He said: ‘Our procurement policy has been driven entirely by wholelife costs. The previous emphasis on front-end discounts alone has changed to reflect a need to have reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles, which have good residual values.

‘We feel that this is the only way that we can achieve value for money for the taxpayer and achieve our operational targets. Our internal systems and those operated by our contractors are governed by wholelife costs. The other benefit of this policy is an enhanced budget forecasting process.’

Once wholelife costs had been pinned down, Webb set about ‘greening’ the fleet: encouraging drivers to do fewer miles where necessary, keeping pool cars under control and buying more environmentally-friendly vehicles.

He said: ‘We’ve implemented a sustainable development policy aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, and we currently have 200 alternatively-fuelled vehicles across the UK, and we’re also considering a scheme to look at bio-diesel conversions. We even operate a bicycle on the Scilly Isles, and you can’t get more environmentally-friendly than that.’

HMCE runs one of the largest fleets of hybrid cars in the country, with 120 Toyota Prius and Honda Civic IMA’s operational by the end of the year. He added, ‘In 2003/04 alone we reduced CO2 emissions by more than 4.5% and reduced our fuel bill by £150,000. We have recently joined the Transport Energy Motorvate scheme, which will provide consultancy support and further incentives to reduce mileage and emissions. We have been fortunate to receive ministerial support which indicates the buy-in from the top.

‘Contrary to popular belief, Government departments are just as likely to receive hefty tax bills from the Inland Revenue in relation to company car tax.

‘Although vehicles are not allocated to specific drivers, as they’re all operational, HMCE can fall foul of the tax system if drivers take pool cars home.’

As a result, Webb instituted a number of initiatives to educate drivers. These included a commitment by senior management to reduce the tax bill and intranet briefings with the creation of a car pool tax ‘frequently asked questions’ page on it.

He has also re-let all of their fleet management, accident management and disposal contracts and introduced new administrative systems designed to reduced manual intervention and improve service levels.

This has allowed him to reduce national staffing levels by 29% – equivalent to more than nine staff years. New procedures for car hire bookings and more effective use of pool cars have allowed his team to make savings of more than £500,000 a year. The biggest savings have been in fleet SMR costs, which fell by over £300,000 in 2003/04 alone.

Webb said: ‘Although we are very proud of our successes in the past two years we have even bigger tasks ahead of us as the department merges with the Inland Revenues in HM Revenue and Customs in 2005. We are committed to working with our colleagues in the Inland Revenue to deliver value for money transport services to the new organisation. We are also working with our colleagues in the National Crime Squad and other law enforcement agencies on the creation of the new Serious Organised Crime agency in 2006.’

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