Fleet News

Face to face: Andrew Walker

ANDREW Walker, chief executive officer of Fleet Auction Group, believes fleet managers have a responsibility to ensure their used cars go to a reputable outlet for disposal.

You don't often find the chief executive officer of a company sitting at the reception desk.

But walking into the Fleet Auction Group's headquarters, I ask for its CEO Andrew Walker, only to find it is him I am speaking to.

And this isn't some two-bob operation in a rusty shack selling a few old bangers. This is Fleet Auction Group's state-of-the-art multi-million-pound auction hall in Coalville, Leicestershire.

It's just that Walker prefers to be in the middle of things, sitting with the rest of his staff in the open-plan office. He reckons he gets a better feel for what's going on in the business if he is there rather than being stuck in an upstairs office away from the action.

He said: 'At this moment in time, although it is getting more and more difficult, I like to see what's happening. I can't make overall strategic decisions for the business because some of things we have put in place are a bit different and I need to know how they're being accepted. I just like to keep my hand in. I know it can't continue indefinitely, but I'll always have a desk down here.'

Retiring to the more conventional surroundings of the boardroom, which overlooks the two auction halls, Walker has a few shots to aim at the disposals industry.

At the moment, his biggest haymaker is reserved for auction houses that allow non-trade buyers into the hall, which he claims opens them up to criminals buying second-hand cars for various nefarious practices.

He said: 'Fundamentally, our underlying principle is that we are the UK's strictly trade-only auction. To get in here to hold an account, they need to be VAT registered and bona fide members of the motor trade and we do not accept any cash payments whatsoever.

'Everything is done electronically or by cheque or by account. There's a reason for that and it's that retail customers belong in retail showrooms and we're protecting our own industry.

'We sell vehicles. We specialise in the fleet market. And the number of members of the public who buy fleet vehicles at auction is relatively low – perhaps less than 5%.

What the public do buy is the older part exchanges and that type of vehicle.

'We operate under different laws with respect to the Sale of Goods Act and there can be some confusing and awkward situations. For example, a private buyer walks into an auction, sees a vehicle outside that's been through an auction and hasn't sold, makes an offer at the reserve price and buys the vehicle. He's then covered by the Sale of Goods Act – six months cover on this and that, which is not what we've offered. There are some prickly issues there.

'But we haven't done it to protect ourselves, we've done it to protect what we view as the industry.'

Walker fervently believes fleet managers have a responsibility to ensure they know where they send their cars for sale and that it is a reputable business. He reckons the industry has to face the problem together on a united front to ensure rogue traders are kept out.

'We've also gone down this route for what we believe is our part in corporate social responsibility. We've all seen in the past at auction the dodgy character who likes to pay cash and has taken mega amounts of money on cash before, which can lead to money laundering. It's money being washed through. As far as we are concerned, that doesn't happen here.'

In 2003, FLAG sold around 20,000 vehicles at a conversion rate of 80%. Walker reckons this is a high figure within the industry, which is already very active, but as he says: 'We are only selling fleet vehicles: any business, fleet vehicles or main dealer over-age stock and no part exchanges or older vehicles – that side of the industry is aimed at the public.'

Despite the hi-tech surroundings and somewhat unconventional approach, Walker is no revisionist, looking to revolutionise the disposals industry. He wants to ensure his company does the traditional things, but does them better than anybody else.

He said: 'Our view of all these new weird and wonderful electronic ways of selling vehicles is that they are great but they need to be supported physically by experience and expertise.

'A lot of what these internet based sales are doing is based on the initial condition report of that vehicle. So, with respect, if you're paying a guy 12 grand a year to go out there condition reporting, he's not going to spot the vehicle needs this or needs that.

'We're conscious of that, so when a vehicle comes in, it might have this hand-held report done that's been e-mailed to us.

'And while the transfer of information is fantastic to a certain degree, at the of the day it's down to experience and expertise and you don't get that for the sort of money you pay these guys trade plating and picking vehicles up.

'So any vehicles we sell along that avenue come back here and they're checked by people who are trained in that field.'

The firm uses the latest electronic systems from Bynx, but Walker, who has worked in the disposals industry since leaving university 17 years ago, still believes you cannot beat the hands-on physical auction and good quality stock.

He said: 'We've based ourselves on quality. It's easy for anyone to say 'it's quality', but it is purely about quality and service, and it's not about a cheap rate to get the volume, where others might offer a cheap deal to get volume in.

'We're not about that and we don't work in that field. We're here to make a profit, but what we will do is give the proper service, the proper quality to both parties, vendor and purchaser – and that's something people quite often forget.

'Without the purchaser, your vendors will not make much, so it's how you look after those guys as well.

'It's not rocket science and the job is very simple. We are a bit like a dating agency. We take the vehicle and it's our job to make as much money as possible for the vendor.

'Then we bring a purchaser in and in order for a purchaser to go away happy, he wants to buy the car as cheaply as possible. We bring them both together and find that happy medium and if both parties go away happy, then we've done our job.'

Looking after the purchasers has been a priority of FLAG since it opened the site in April 2002, to the point that Walker claims to have the best facilities for the visiting trade.

Everything is very clean and new and the cafeteria does not have the traditional smoky, greasy-spoon ambience of some auction houses. Walker was keen to point out the menu, which alongside old classics like the bacon sandwich, also offers dishes including chicken in a garlic and herb sauce for the more discerning palate.

And situated where it is, FLAG has to offer ultra-competitive conditions, because it sits in the shadow of the auctioneering monolith that is BCA Measham.

Walker said: 'We're right in between the M1 and M42 and we're in the area with BCA Measham, one of the oldest and most respected auction sites in the country, so what we're doing is not trying to change where people go, because Measham's just down the road.

'What we've done is put ourselves right on the doorstep of one of the most established auction houses. It's aggressive, but we don't have sales on the same day!'

It may be relatively new in the disposals industry, but there's an attitude around FLAG that it's not just BCA Measham that needs to be looking over its shoulder – the rest of the established industry players had better watch out.

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