Hitachi. I’m sure we’ve all been touched by the huge Japanese conglomerate at some stage in our lives, whether it’s DVD players, camcorders, electrical white goods, or even – for those fortunates among us – the fabulously sleek
Shinkansen bullet train in Japan.
You might even have financed a home item using Hitachi consumer finance. But Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions?
Hmm… that’s something of an unknown.
I put it to Hitachi’s chief executive Simon Oliphant that perhaps fleet managers are in the dark about the company.
If that’s the case, how would he describe the character of Hitachi and what it offers?
“Integrity and trust” comes the smart response.
“We operate with integrity and deliver on what we say. We put a lot of store by our customer management.”
I nod, probably with that look which says I’ve heard all this customer service posturing before.
Simon picks up on this. “No, it’s true – let me show you.”
And the interview is interrupted while I’m taken to the customer service section of the building.
Simon explains: “If a customer adviser receives a call – and customers speak to real people here – then if the adviser says the issue can be sorted, it will be.
If they can’t, or it’s not appropriate to do so, the customer adviser will look for another solution. If we have someone that answers the phone politely but doesn’t do anything, that is no help whatsoever.”
I’ve obviously hit a rich seam here.
“When a customer asks if they can trust you, they are really asking three questions,” continues Simon.
“Do we have the expertise, do we care and are we committed? If you can answer all three positively, the customer will thank you.”
This is all good stuff.
But if no one knows about Hitachi then that’s no good – apart from for existing customers, of course.
Simon admits that better communication is now part of the firm’s strategy.
It also seems to me that the company has been hit by a degree of paralysis. Since 1999, Hitachi – or Fleetlease as it then was – has been in the FN50’s top 20, pacing around the 15 mark.
A bit steady-as-she-goes.
Does the company have ambition?
Or is it just a takeover target?
Simon, quite clearly, is alive to this criticism.
He points out that, in its own quiet way, Hitachi has been steadily growing – the acquisition of CV specialists Trowbridge Vehicle Rentals in 2001, G4 Security’s internal leasing division two years later, and the addition of GE’s heavy goods vehicle fleet in 2006.
“Acquisition? Yes, we’re ready for more of it,” says Simon.
“We have a history of acquisitions – it was really how the company was born.
“But there is another factor driving us. Until August 2006, Hitachi Capital was listed on the stock exchange.
"It’s now been taken back privately by Hitachi and the board has asked us for accelerated growth.”
Simon says Hitachi is looking for both car and CV operations, but warns, in that thoroughly reasoned way that appears to be his hallmark: “We need to be fully clear why we are doing it.
"There must be a strategic fit. We must buy at the right price, and there must be a cultural fit. If one of these things is not right there’s a chance of failure.”
Talking of failures, does Simon have any advice for fleet managers about the current dive in residual values?
“This is my third experience of it,” says Simon.
“The current downturn is driven by economic conditions. Did we spot it? No – and we didn’t see the 2001 downturn either.
"And that goes for the rest of the industry. It’s part of the risk-and-reward culture of this business.
"So what should you do? Manage your way out of it, while staying true to your values – and don’t make customers pay for your mistakes.”
And you know the saying.
Do as Simon says…
Tips from the top
Golden rules for success.
Commit to service and invest in staff.
When it’s all going horribly wrong, who gets it first?
I don’t have a go at anybody really. That’s not to say I don’t get angry and passionate because I do.
But I don’t take it out on anyone, because it’s important for me to stay calm.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
Work should be fun. If it isn’t, why bother?
ECO car or company car: what do you drive?
I drive a Honda Civic 2.2 i-CTDi EX on an ECO scheme. At home there’s also an 11-year-old Porsche 911 sitting in the garage.
What key tips would you give a fleet manager for running an efficient fleet?
Research your internal customer market and your external market, and make sure this review is continuous.
For example, what’s the approach to the April 1 corporation tax changes?
Even though you may end up taking no action, the review must be continuous. It should all lead to a lower-cost fleet and a greener fleet.
Also, remember that a fleet manager has two different audiences – the company’s board and the drivers.
Creating a dynamic and innovative fleet policy that’s valued by drivers will help satisfy both these audiences.
You spent a short time at an internet-based company. What did that teach you?
The paperless office is a reality.
What qualities are required to be a leader?
Be prepared to lead by example.
If you had been competing at the Olympics, what sport would you have represented?
I’m a racquets man so it would have been squash or badminton.
Simon Oliphant CV
Simon has been something of a Hitachi ‘lifer’.
While he was lured away once, the temptation lasted just six months before he was working for Hitachi once more.
Not surprisingly, Simon’s career has been grounded in the fleet industry. It began in 1978 working as a sales manager for TC Harrison.
Seven years later, Simon moved on to Grosvenor Contracts Leasing in a similar capacity.
However, in 1988 the call came from Hitachi Credit (UK).
Would Simon head up the new contract hire division? Simon grew the fleet from 175 units to 1,000 over a period of three years and successfully worked on the acquisition of Fleetlease in 1991.
Between 1991 and 2000, he became sales and marketing director for the newly-renamed Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions and, over a nine-year period, grew the fleet from 3,000 units to 20,000.
Simon left for six months, during which time he developed the B2B side of an internet-based group, before returning to Hitachi as managing director.
He is currently its chief executive.
Outside the business, the clues to Simon’s interests are hanging on his office wall.
There’s a Lotus Elan, pictured going round what looks like Castle Combe – which had to go when funds were required for extending the family home -– along with two split-screen Volkswagens (a Beetle and a Camper van), while there’s also an 11-year-old Porsche 911 sitting in his garage at home.
Hitachi Capital’s top 10 cars
1 Ford Focus
2 Audi A4
3 Audi A3
4 BMW 3 Series
5 Honda Civic
7 Toyota Avensis
8 BMW 5 Series
9 Vauxhall Astra
10 Vauxhall Zafira
(Based on models ordered over the last 12 months)
Top 10 car makers
1 Volkswagen 16%
2 Audi 14%
3 Ford 10%
4 Vauxhall 10%
5 Toyota 8%
6 BMW 8%
7 Honda 7.5%
8 Peugeot 4%
9 Renault 3%
10 Saab 3%
(By volume, based on Hitachi’s current ‘live’ fleet)