Fleet News

Face to face: Paul Thomas, managing director, Ford of Britain

VAUXHALL may have stolen Ford's business sales crown last year, but the blue oval badge is winning back customers. We talk to Ford of Britain MD Paul Thomas about his plans to battle back to the front.

With the fleet sales year now at its halfway point, there is a palpable sense of confidence within Ford about prospects for the future.

Sales are strong, putting it in first place in the fleet sales charts during May and just a whisker behind Vauxhall for the year-to-date, while a string of new products is hitting the showrooms.

Among particular successes are its diesel models, which now account for one in four of all Fords sold.

Figures revealed last week for May show that Ford's fleet sales are up by 8.6% year-to-date at 96,654, compared to 89,001 this time last year. For May itself, 17,940 fleet cars left the showrooms, compared to 17,473 in May 2003. The Focus continues to dominate the fleet sales charts, having held on to the top position every month for years.

Despite a replacement being due in early 2005, Focus sales for the year-to-date are up 18.26% at 45,822, while for May, sales were 8,957 compared to 7,589 for May 2003.

The mood of confidence was reflected at Motor Show Live, held in Birmingham this month, where Ford invested in the biggest stand in its history.

Dominating the stand was a Thunderbirds set designed to tie in with the film that is being released shortly, featuring a Ford-badged limousine used by Parker and Lady Penelope.

To fleet customers, it is a clear sign Ford is unshaken by the loss of its status as best-selling fleet manufacturer in the UK to Vauxhall for the first time in its history.

Full-year sales figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show Vauxhall supplied 221,806 cars to fleets during 2003, up 3.5%, compared with Ford's 213,947 units, down 3.3%.

This year, the tables could well be turned. Overall, Vauxhall still holds first place on 98,003 sales, but Ford is just behind on 96,654. Although both manufacturers insist that profitability is more important than market position, it is an important milestone to reach.

Also on the 7,400 square metre stand, Ford showed a vast range of products, including a host of new diesel models. Paul Thomas, managing director of Ford of Britain, pointed out that Ford remained overall market leader and added: 'As market leader, it is important for us to take the motor show seriously. We have 45 cars on display as part of the experience.

'I don't think there is a big step-change between retail and fleet in terms of what people want. People want good looking cars that are well-equipped, with a competitive price, so there is not such a difference between a fleet and a retail buyer.'

In the past few years, Ford has focused heavily on creating quality product, revolutionising core models including the Ford Mondeo and leaping ahead of the market with the Ford Focus, which is still a contender for best-driving car in its class even with a string of brand new rivals snapping at its heels.

But the next step is to tackle the traditional difficulties of perception that plague volume brands in both the retail and fleet market, which make owning a Ford feel less special, no matter how good it is.

Kevin Griffin, director of fleet operations, said: 'It is important to fleets and private buyers that we offer an exciting product range. But I want people to be proud of owning a Ford and that is what this year's show is all about.

'This is important where choice is involved, for example with user-choosers, where the buying decision is very close to a retail one. Above all it has got to be affordable.'

To make the equation even more complicated, it all has to be in the cost-efficient package that Fords are famous for, effectively meaning customers expect more for less.

A number of new products revealed by Ford show key models that will take the strategy forward.

The Fiesta Zetec S made its world debut at the show, powered by a 1.6-litre 99bhp petrol engine or, for the first time, a 1.6-litre 89bhp diesel. The ST version was also on show, sporting a 2.0-litre 149bhp engine.

Both cars will launch at the end of the year.

In the upper-medium sector, the firm revealed the Mondeo ST TDCi that packs peak torque of 295lb-ft.

It can reach 62mph in 8.7 seconds and hit a top speed of 137mph, while returning combined mpg of 46.3.

It emits 151 grammes per kilometre of CO2, putting it in the lowest tax band for this year. Thomas said: 'Wholelife costs are very important and you will see us being focused on residual values. We can and will walk away from certain fleet deals.

'We are pleased to do business such as rental sales, but only up to a certain volume, because where residual values are concerned, volume is critical. You have to think like customers in the used car market.'

This is a key factor in Ford's fall from the top spot last year, as rental volume fell by 20% as part of the focus on wholelife cost control for customers.

Ford predicts that the turn to diesel that now accounts for one-in-four of its sales will continue, but will keep a careful eye on how the used car market is responding to growing availability of heavy-oil engines, Griffin said.

Following Motor Show Live, all eyes are now on the Paris Motor Show, where Ford will be showing its long- awaited Focus replacement.

With sales of the current Focus still going strong, Ford decided not to launch the car until the show in September, rather than at Birmingham.

But clearly preparations are under way and fleets have already been given an idea of what the model might be like because it shares a platform with the Mazda3 and Volvo S40.

But Thomas insisted that did not mean the cars could be seen as the same, saying: 'You can get synergies by using the same fuel pump, but the shape, internal feel, handling and the whole experience of the car is unique to Ford, or Volvo or Mazda.

'We will be increasing awareness of the car from its September unveiling onwards.'

Whether its success mirrors that of the current Focus remains to be seen, but already extensive work has been carried out to make sure it meets the firm's wish to be aspirational and cost-effective at the same time.

Griffin added: 'Early discussions with industry on specifications and on wholelife costs have been absolutely key for both the fleet and retail markets.'

Cash-for-car buyers get the red carpet treatment

FORD'S fight to offer products that attract fleet and retail buyers is vital as growing number of drivers opt for cash-for-car schemes.

Industry research has suggested corporate sales in 2003 might have fallen by more than 10%.

Ford also has a business centre that offers help to drivers whether they have Fords or not and there is evidence of growing numbers of cash-for-car drivers asking for help.

But fleet director Kevin Griffin added: 'We are also seeing drivers opting back into company cars. So some drivers are coming in while others are going out.'

In May, Fleet News revealed shock Government figures showing 250,000 vehicles had 'disappeared' from the company car parc.

The number of tax-paying company car drivers plummeted from 1.6 million to 1.35 million in the two years to November 2003.

However, some industry figures have questioned the figures, pointing out they only represent initial findings (Fleet News, May 7).

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