I guess when you’re in a position of strength you can view the market how you wish. As long as you stay number one.
So when John Leigh tells you that National Car Rental no longer measures itself by fleet size, you raise eyebrows and pay attention.
“We can’t keep growing,” says Leigh.
This is some start to our conversation.
“It’s to do with our manufacturer relationships,” continues John, no doubt spotting my rather bemused expression.
“The cars just simply aren’t there to continue growing. So we can talk about market share, but fleet size is no longer key for us.”
So, market share it is, then. John says the combined National/Europcar fleet takes 30% of the daily rental market, and its nearest competitor is Enterprise, with about 18%.
“Going forward, we’re more concerned about operating levels and shareholder expectations – with a particular focus on earnings before interest and taxes – and getting the synergies you would expect between the companies.
“We’re comfortable with that. But we’ll certainly make sure we retain our market leadership.”
However, alarm bells are ringing here. When managing directors start talking about earnings for shareholders, I start thinking rising prices for customers.
So I ask John, what does this new focus mean for fleet managers?
Can they expect National to start upping rates, for example?
“No, not at all,” comes the response. “Since National and Europcar merged last year we have not lost a single customer. What I’m looking for is further efficiencies.
"How can we leverage additional enhanced product offerings from the two companies while continuing to take out costs from the business?
“The other thing is that relationship management is so important to us.
“For our corporate customers we operate on a consultative rather than tariff basis. So we can’t change anything arbitrarily.
"Although, having said that, I think the cost of car rental is ridiculously cheap. Our service is world class.”
These efficiencies include better utilisation of vehicles, particularly over the weekend period.
Then there’s the avoidance of duplicate National and Europcar centres.
And better customer coverage thanks to unbranded cars, allowing interchangeability between National and Europcar vehicles.
Talking of which, I ask John to spell out the different characters of the four brands he now controls, so fleet managers fully understand the offering.
For National, John says it’s highly focused on the UK’s corporate business market – high levels of customer service, reliability and availability.
Europcar, he says, has enormous recognition across Europe, less so in the UK.
Europcar will be characterised by its customers – the community of travellers, businessmen and consultants who need travel requirements but don’t want the form-filling.
It will also work at local level and looks likely to fulfil the SME equivalent of National’s corporate position.
Guy Salmon is “niche and beautiful”, says John. It’s for customers who want a high quality premium product – and is restricted to just six UK locations.
Finally, there’s the consumer brand Alamo, which sits in the internet travel portals.
What does he thinks is the biggest challenge facing fleet managers?
His answer is unequivocal: the environment.
“I think this is going to be the big green monster. Do companies recognise the issue? What’s their reaction to it?
Where does responsibility sit in a company? What’s the company’s carbon footprint?
This issue will apply to fleet managers most of all.
“If not already, they will find themselves under pressure internally – because of corporate social responsibility concerns – as well as with their end users, the drivers themselves. It’s a bullet fleet managers can’t dodge,” says John.
Finally, as time is running tight and we both have to get to a certain FN50 awards dinner, I ask why National is such a key supporter of this event.
“Well, its great exposure to our core audience,” John explains.
“It’s also an opportunity to communicate with that audience and get across some of our messages very simply.
“And, of course, it emphasises the strength of the National brand in the fleet market at a prestigious event. We will continue to be number one in the corporate market.”
The world according to John Leigh
Golden rules for success
Being a good listener. Listen to your staff. And listen to your customers. And never stop learning. You know, when I look back over everything we’ve done, it’s because we learnt by listening and talking to people. It’s magical really. I detest people who are poor listeners.
And what would you say to someone who wants to be like you?
If you can create, by sheer will and determination, something people want, it will be a success.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It came from Sir Freddie Laker. He said: “The toughest thing is sometimes saying no. It can disappoint people. It’s easy to say yes.”
After more than 40 years in the business, what keeps you motivated?
Well, it’s not a case of being driven by the pay packet any more. I guess it’s a bit like Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson. I enjoy what I’m doing. And I still feel there’s unfinished business.
Rental car or company car?
I tend to drive whatever they give me – so I guess it’s a rental car! But I do have a Mercedes S-Class as a company car and an Aston Martin DB9 at home. But that’s my own.
Top six cars on National's fleet
1) Vauxhall Astra.
2) Vauxhall Vectra.
3) Peugeot 207.
4) Peugeot 307.
5) Ford Focus.
6) Vauxhall Corsa.
(Top six based on contracted acquisitions)
National in numbers
* 5,000 vehicles bought in a 12-month period.
* Number of supplying manufacturers: 25.
* Cars are kept for six months.
* Vans are kept for 26 months.
* Average rental: five days.
* Average size of fleet in 2006: 44,000 vehicles.
* Average size of fleet in 2007: 56,000 vehicles.
“When you think I started as a junior with Godfrey Davis more than 40 years ago and now I’m sitting here – as the managing director of a combined National Car Rental and Europcar and buy more cars than anyone else in the country. I do pinch myself occasionally...” says John.
National is not the only organisation to benefit from his extensive industry knowledge.
He’s been chairman at the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA) for the past two years.
But it has not always been cars. Back in the 1960s John was a rock promoter, his clients including Pink Floyd.
Even today, it’s definitely not all cars.
He spends time on the Make-A-Wish Foundation, where he’s chairman of the Make-A-Wish Ball, the biggest fundraising event organised by the foundation.
Then there’s his work for industry charity BEN, the Motor and Allied Trades’ Benevolent Fund, of which he’s a vice-president.
And football. John is vice-president of Chelsea FC.
John Leigh timeline
1966: Joined Godfrey Davis as agency sales representative based in Brighton.
1968: Promoted to area manager, Scotland.
1970: Promoted to regional manager, London.
1973: Joined Swan National Car Rental.
1978: Swan National becomes franchise of InterRent; appointed commercial director.
1989: Company rebrands as EuroDollar; appointed managing director.
1993: Member of management buy-out team that takes Eurodollar out of TSB ownership.
1994: Eurodollar listed on the London Stock Exchange.
1997: Eurodollar sold to Republic Industries in USA which already owns National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car.
1999: Appointed senior vice-president. Leads integration of EuroDollar and Alamo in UK and rebranding to National Car Rental.
2000: National Car Rental/Alamo Rent A Car declared UK market leader.
2003: Cerberus acquires National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car brands and forms new holding company – Vanguard Rental
2006: Europcar acquires EMEA operation of Vanguard Rental Corporation. Appointed managing director of newly combined operation.