Fleet News

Face to face: Roger Putnam and Paul Thomas, Ford of Britain

Ford’s entire stand for the press day of the Paris Motor Show was consumed by the unveiling of the Focus, so it’s no surprise, sitting down with the two most powerful men at Ford of Britain, that the new car is the primary subject of conversation.

But before fleet issues such as residual values, sales and marketing strategy get an airing, they want to know one thing – have I driven it yet?

I rather shamefully admit I haven’t (road test editor Simon Harris put it through its paces in our September 16 issue), and it gives chairman Roger Putnam and managing director Paul Thomas the chance to preach the virtues of its abilities on the road to the as-yet unconverted.

The pair of them are fervent, almost evangelic about the new car, its handling, and quality. It’s not really surprising. This is a car that, having received rave reviews from all those who have driven it, will replace a car that redefined Ford as a company, put it back on the map as builder of volume cars drivers love, and has spent 51 continuous months at the top of the sales charts.

That’s a run of success that shows few signs of slowing, even with the new car going on sale in January.

Roger Putnam: ‘I never realised that we would achieve on run-out what we are achieving with the outgoing car. The minute the public is aware that there’s a new model coming, the old model would hit a brick wall, which in my experience is often what happens.

‘With the Focus, the car has been so cutting edge that it still hasn’t really been caught, and the new one takes us on another step forward. There is still plenty of demand for the outgoing model.’

Ford will sell 120,000 Focus models this year, with another 20,000 C-MAX on top of that. It’s confident of doing similar volumes with the new car, but Thomas and Putnam claim Ford will not be aggressively chasing huge volume following launch.

Paul Thomas: ‘I wouldn’t want to push the volumes excessively. We’ve also worked very hard to ensure the residual value is strong. There are a number of things you can do: such as how you go to market with it and how you supply that market.

‘Some of our competitors are pushing very hard on short cycle fleet business and that can have an adverse effect on residual values, so we’re very protective of residual values on the new Focus and we won‘t overdo our volume in that arena.

‘There are 740,000 Focus out there on the road. That’s an owner base our competitors would die for, so our role with the new Focus is to both retain the loyal customers and go for conquest. I think the premium quality of the car addresses a couple of things the existing car wasn’t best in class for, such as trunk space and rear passenger room, NVH, and interior quality particularly.

PT: ‘There are so many elements of the fleet market, from direct sales, user choosers, contract hire, solus fleets, Motability, rental so on, so we’re not going to actively throttle the cars back. But we won’t over push the car. We want a good quality fleet share.

‘In terms of the transition, the fleet customer will want the new car more quickly than the retail customer, because the retail customer will split more evenly between the new and those that want the old car that will have stronger marketing offers on it, finance, free insurance and that kind of thing.

‘We will have a transition in the first quarter where we will sell both. We sat down and spoke about how to bring the new vehicle in. It’s an approach we’ve done consistently. When we brought Focus out, the Escort was still on sale for a year, so we’ve some good experience of doing that.’

Whatever Ford’s future strategy for the Focus and its effect on residual values, at the moment the approach of conservative styling and premium quality interior has certainly impressed the guides. Cap is predicting RV percentages in the high 30s – second only to Volkswagen's Golf and way ahead of other volume products, although still some way behind the high 40s premium brands are predicted.

But Ford is less concerned with the effect of premium brands such as BMW and Audi moving into the lower-medium hatch sector than you might expect. Or at least they are playing their effect down.

RP: ‘BMW 1-series is going to redefine the sector, there’s no doubt about it, but I think you’ve got to accept the huge gulf that exists between premium and volume in transaction price, and if you look at MINI, that certainly hasn’t taken anything out of our sectors. It has established a market of its own and we haven’t seen a noticeable difference. The 1-series will have an impact but I think more likely at the bottom end of other premium product, because selling price is pitched right against them.

‘I’m going to be very provocative: the premium manufacturers are now knocking on serious volumes and they have got to be very careful at the bottom end of the market that they don’t see their margins just disappear, and they’re not lean manufacturers by nature.

‘We – and by this I mean the volume manufacturers – have been fighting in the jungle of the volume sector for a long time, and those guys have got to understand what it means to be there when you have to react every day to something else.’

PT: ‘And you have to have a used vehicle strategy. At the end of the day, no matter what you do, whether it’s a fleet user chooser for two or three years or a rental car, they end up with a retail customer when they come back to market and they’re resold. That’s why if you overdo your short cycle business then you will hit your retail volume on the new car.’

RP: ‘If you’re up against it with too much volume, particularly if you’re a premium manufacturer who’s not used to that position, they will see their residuals float away from them if they’re not careful.

‘But the spread of premium branding is not just in cars. Its clear that branded goods are making inroads into the market, but the difference in the car market is that we’ve had that problem for a very long time and these things always go in cycles.

‘When the volume sector is producing goods that are so good, we’ve got to let the car speak for itself and get people driving it. I think that is beginning to redress the balance. I think the Ford genes that existed 30 years ago are starting to resonate again.

I’m very comforted by the number of customers that I speak to who won’t have anything but a Ford, and we’ve got to make sure we keep those people, while we go for new markets that are going to be seduced by the way this vehicle performs.

‘The Focus has premium car performance with a volume car price and badge, and that’s a wonderful place to be.’

The new Ford focus family

Five-door

Share of total Focus sales: 73%
OTR prices from: £11,495 (1.4 Studio)

The five-door hatch will be the major seller to fleets, with improved rear legroom and bootspace over the outgoing model

Four-door

Share of total Focus sales: 5%
OTR prices from: £14,670 (1.6 Ghia)

Never the most popular in northern Europe, the saloon will sell further south and in the growing Asian market

Three-door

Share of total Focus sales: 10%
OTR prices from: £10,895 (1.4 Studio)

The sleeker three-door matches the five-door for predicted RVs, despite being less popular with used buyers, thanks to lower volumes

Wagon

Share of total Focus sales: 12%
OTR prices from: £12,845 (1.6 Studio)

The wagon will be a fleet workhorse, but has been designed to look less workmanlike and more ‘lifestyle’ than its predecessor.

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