Midway through our interview, Nick Brown’s gaze wandered towards his office window.
His expression turned from serious-but-good-humoured to frowningly concerned. I turned to look in the same direction.
There, in the car park, was an ambulance.
“I wonder why that’s here?” Nick, FMG Support chief executive, quizzed – almost to himself.
We suspended our conversation until he had found out.
Five minutes later, Nick breezed back in with a smile on his face – “It’s alright, just a precaution for one of the staff but it doesn’t appear to be anything serious.”
In that moment, you had very much the essence of the man – and the company – a mixture of entrepreneurial bravado that has propelled the company forwards, and a deep-seated responsibility for his staff, the driving force of the firm that also provides the support and care for clients.
FMG Support operates across several fields (see panel below right), but the key word in the company’s title is “support”.
When a company needs outsourced assistance, FMG Support is able to provide it.
“One of our roles is to help the fleet manager do their job better,” says Nick.
“They are under-rated and the issues they face often don’t make it to the boardroom.
"Our job is to provide good management information, which they can act upon to make decisions on strategy.
"The fleet manager is an important part of the mix for us.
"We have little interaction with car manufacturers.
"Apart from fleet managers, our main clients are leasing companies, insurance brokers and insurance companies.”
I ask Nick whether the support the company provides is more of a crutch than a service to fleet managers.
Does he see it that way?
“The vast majority of our fleet customers come from the bigger fleets.
"They look to us as a specialist provider that invests big money in our electronic systems to provide economies of scale for them.
"So I wouldn’t say it’s a crutch at all,” responds Nick.
He continues to tell me about the firm, its services, and its focus on lowering accident claims for the industry.
But I also wanted to find out about his background and what his time in car rental (see panel left) had brought to the company in terms of experience.
“The car rental bit per se was more the experience of setting up a business,” replies Nick.
“But from it I’ve learned that first, it’s a fast-moving business, and, second, there are lots of different dynamics at work, which doesn’t make it a simple business. I enjoyed that complexity.”
In the end, the company went into voluntary liquidation during a credit squeeze.
“I got into trouble when interest rates went up to 15%,” Nick says candidly.
“That’s when I joined FMG. But the big learning experience from that was that if you don’t have the right management structure in place – key people in roles that complement your skills and capabilities – then when market dynamics shift, you are in a very exposed position.
"Today, the business here at FMG is robust.
"We have risk analysis, we’re prudent about how we account for things. It’s still entrepreneurial, but there’s more balance.
“Twenty years ago I’d do it all by the seat of my pants, which was fine when the market was going well.
"But when the market faltered it tested the robustness of the business.”
Given that experience, I ask Nick if he has any advice for fleet managers facing tightening budgetary controls and an uncertain economy compounded by runaway fuel prices.
“I don’t know there’s much they can do.
"Good fleet managers should have been keeping tight control of what they’re doing anyway.
"So fuel, yes it’s going up, so that storm will have to be weathered, but it’s something that should have been sorted in the first place.
“But I also believe it gives another opportunity for fleet managers.
"Why? The firms they work for will be suffering, so if fleet managers can demonstrate their effectiveness, there’s a chance to get more airtime – because they just don’t get enough recognition.”
If that’s the way for fleet managers to be more successful in their jobs, I ask Nick what the secret is of his company’s phenomenal growth – £29 million turnover to £73 million turnover in just three years.
“I think it’s being clear about what we are, articulating that message, and being in it for the long run, which means investing in technology – that’s vital.”
- Tips from the top
Golden rules for success:
There are three – honesty, openness and respect for everybody’s contribution.
In moments of frustration, what do you kick?
A football after hours is usually enough for me.
But I do have people I confide in – they come into my office and what is said in there is not taken out of context.
More importantly, I have learned what my demeanour communicates around the building.
If I have a problem at home, I mustn’t bring it into work with me because staff might interpret my frowning as a sign that we’ve just lost a customer.
So that won’t do.
I’ve also learned through personal development programmes to identify key telling points to which I’ll react – and will get me out of those darker moments!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Given that you’ve just been handed £7 million of investment from Aberdeen, does failure to deliver keep you awake at night?
No, because I see it as a step on a journey. If anything does keep me awake, it’s only wondering how I’m going to fit everything in before I die.
Company car or cash – what do you drive?
I’m a cash taker, and drive an Aston Martin DB9.
Also tucked away in the garage is a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder.
It just makes lots of noise with the roof down. It’s great fun.
What key tips would you give a fleet manager for running an efficient fleet?
Have really good administration qualities and strong outsourcing partners – don’t get bogged down in the operational “doing it” trap.
Outsource those things not core to your role. Another element is to have good MI (management information) to make informed decisions.
If FMG was a football team, what Premier League side would be its equivalent?
Well it would have to be Spurs, although perhaps not as fickle. After all, it’s never easy being a Spurs fan.
But when they’re playing well, FMG has the same qualities of flair, agility and we make enjoyable viewing.
If you weren’t the boss of FMG what do you imagine you would be doing now?
I got into skiing late in life, and if my life had been completely different I would like to spend six months in the mountains being a ski instructor, and the rest of the year surfing.
What personal and professional qualities will be required in your eventual successor?
Uppermost would be the ability to understand the culture and values of the business.
- FMG Support: what do they do?
Fleet incident management
When a company car is involved in an accident or is stolen, FMG Support manages the incident process, from replacement vehicles through to estimates and repairs, claims handling, loss recovery and risk reduction.
Vehicle rental management
This business area provides independent and cost-effective rental at any UK location through an online booking system.
Roadside repair and recovery management
This area caters for commercial vehicles. It handles breakdown, repair or recovery on a 24-hour basis throughout the year.
FMG Support has been operating since 1986. The company, based in Huddersfield, employs 360 people and has an annual turnover of £73 million.
Nick Brown CV
Nick Brown founded his first company in 1982 as a partner in CH Associates, an insurance broking company.
By 1986, Nick had set up car rental operation Jet Self Drive.
Two years later he left to start vehicle rental firm Freeway.
Having grown the company, but faced with a national economic slump, Nick put the business into voluntary liquidation, and used the company goodwill to set up a rental brokerage – called Satellite Vehicle Rentals – as part of the family-run FMG Group.
Between 1991 and 1994, FMG consolidated its north and south divisions and Nick headed the combined operations from the company’s Huddersfield base.
In 1997 he was appointed to the board and in 1998 bought out the company.
Nick recently secured £7 million of finance from Aberdeen Asset Managers Private Equity to fund further growth and expansion.
He also has an interest in a cosmetics firm, and is looking to set up a fine dining restaurant in Huddersfield.