Answering questions in the Fleet Van hotseat this month is John Collins, managing director of up-and-coming van rental and leasing firm Reflex Vehicle Solutions
Fleet Van: Reflex is a fairly new name in the van rental industry. Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to set up the company.
John Collins: I have been involved in the rental industry for the last 20 years where I started my career as one of the original management team at Northgate plc.
After 17 very happy and successful years where the business grew from around 1,000 units to over 75,000 units across three countries, I decided I needed the challenge of running my own business.
This I did, after taking a year off to satisfy my contractual obligations, by attracting investment from outside the industry successfully raising in excess of £50 million to fund growth, which has now risen to over £100 million thanks to the continued support of both my investor and my banks.
FV: What services does Reflex offer to van fleet operators?
JC: Reflex offers a flexible rental product which allows companies to take vehicles in their own specifications and livery but without a contract.
This has two massive advantages – one, it gives the client full operational freedom to react to the changes in the marketplace and the economy and, two, the vehicles are funded truly off the balance sheet as the liability is only for one day.
This is hugely important for companies today who will require maximum return on their gearing levels allowing them to channel funds into the areas of the business that produce profit and also to allow them to constantly adapt to the changes in the marketplace.
Other services we offer include a used vehicle sales operation allowing our customers and their staff to buy our used stock at favourable prices and finally, the most important part, we have a fantastic team of people here at Reflex who are dedicated not only to our business but also to that of our customers.
FV: At just four years of age, you have entered the ‘Fleet Van Rental 10’ table at number nine. How did you manage such a meteoric rise in such a short time?
JC: I am hugely passionate about not only vehicle rental but also my business and I believe that people associated with Reflex can see that.
I have had terrific support from not only my bankers and investors as well as my suppliers who have all been terrific but I have also been incredibly lucky to find a group of people in my staff who share not only my passion and enthusiasm for this business but also my passion for customers and delivering what we believe are the best service levels in this industry.
Finally we would be nothing without our customers – these are people who, in the early days, had the utmost faith in me and my staff and through them we have been able to grow and attract more customers through strong word of mouth recommendations.
Our company now owns and operates more than 8,500 units and this is down to our work ethic and the fact that we all really enjoy what we do.
FV: There are many van rental firms in the UK at present. What would you say sets Reflex apart from the others?
JC: There are two key areas that really do set us apart from our competitors.
One is our low cost business model that utilises a network of third party direct service providers and the other is the people who we employ here at Reflex who are, in my opinion, the very best in the industry at what they do.
With our network of more than 2,500 service outlets we can offer our customers a truly national network, which includes over 300 mobile service engineers allowing people the opportunity to have vehicles serviced either while they are at home or on site, completely reducing downtime and ensuring that the customer suffers no unnecessary inconvenience.
This is all managed by our fantastic team of reactive maintenance engineers based in our head office in the North East of England.
FV: How many vans do you operate and what models are they?
JC: As a fleet we now operate more than 8,500 units of which 6,000 of these are light commercial vehicles.
We tend to focus our firepower on the major manufacturers such as Ford, Vauxhall, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen.
FV: What was behind your decision to choose these models?
JC: The main reason is one of residual value. They are all really strong at the moment and this is something that must be considered.
FV: When choosing which vans to buy, do environmental and safety issues come into your buying decision or do you simply pick the cheapest base-spec models?
JC: More and more we look at the issues around things like CO2 emissions and fuel economy.
It’s vital that we can offer our customers an answer to the increasing questions that are raised regarding costs.
We are also ever mindful of our responsibilities regarding duty of care and we are constantly looking at the additional safety features available.
FV: What does your firm do in order to help with duty of care issues in the light of the introduction of the recent Corporate Manslaughter Act?
JC: This is something that is covered in our comprehensive in- cab information packs that we produce for all of our customers and are inserted into all our vehicles.
These packs cover all aspects of duty of care as well as do’s and don’ts.
In addition to this we also provide regular mailings to our customers to help them with their driving habits with things like our winter pack which helps and reminds people of what they need to do in difficult driving conditions.
FV: It looks as though the UK is heading for a major downturn in the economy at present. Does this worry you or do you think that van rental firms such as yourself can actually thrive in a recession?
JC: I have actually been through a couple of recessions, the last one in 1990/1, and while I wouldn’t say any business is recession-proof, rental companies tend to be more robust than some other companies, but, and it’s a big but, only if you have got your house in order well in advance.
It’s far too easy to say “oh yes, we will be okay as people will not be able to fund vehicles so they will need to rent” or “we can offer people the flexibility to react to the market as the economy changes, either shrinking or increasing” (both of which are true by the way).
But if you have not made the necessary changes in your business with regard to reducing the number of used vehicles you will be disposing of (as the residual market also falls) and also how you manage your costs and, more importantly debtors and cash, then ultimately you will suffer.
Here at Reflex, we have been planning for the downturn for some time and we are extremely well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity (and I do see it as an opportunity) by managing our business carefully and diligently over the past six months.
FV: Reflex seems to have been spectacularly successful so far. Tell us a little about your plans for the future – can you keep growing at this present rate and if so how are you going to manage it?
JC: So far we have been incredibly fortunate in attracting the right kind of members of staff as well as a great bunch of customers. We have a large sold order bank and we have a great deal of prospects that we will be continuing to develop in the coming weeks and months.
Last year we grew by almost 100% and this year we are looking to grow by around another 60% (we have grown already by 50%) and this will continue as we roll out our plan of opening another two sites in the UK to add to our latest venture in Ireland which we have recently opened and which went live on September 1 this year.
For the future we remain on course with our three-year plan (which we started at the beginning of this year) to double the size of the business to more than 12,000 units as well as developing our depot structure both here and in Europe.
FV: What, in business, is important to you?
JC: It’s vital that a business is built on good corporate values.
You don’t need many, in fact here at Reflex we simply have two – one, the customer comes first and two, business can be and is fun, but its no joke.
This is something that all our staff buy into and it’s something that runs through the DNA of the business.
This helps us in not only the training and development of our staff – something that again I am passionate about, but also in our recruitment.
Ours is a great company and a great company to work for but, if people aren’t sold on our values then, quite simply, they are not for us.
John Collins fact file
POSITION: Managing director
BRIEF CAREER HISTORY: Started in business on leaving school which I did for four years and then moved into the main dealer environment with GM before joining Northgate in 1987 as one of the original management team. Left in to start my own company, Reflex Vehicle Solutions in 2001
FAVOURITE BOOK: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
FAVOURITE FILM: Field of Dreams
FAVOURITE HOLIDAY DESTINATION: Florida in the winter and Spain in the summer
WHAT THREE RECORDS WOULD YOU TAKE TO A DESERT ISLAND: Blinded By The Light – Manfred Mann’s Earthband, Both Sides Now – Joni Mitchell and my iPod with all my other tracks on to be played until my battery ran flat!