When I first approached Fleet News editor Martyn Moore with the idea for this piece, I wanted to know if Lombard was always going to be the bridesmaid.
Was the RBS-owned company ever going to go beyond number four in the FN50 league table, where it’s been for the past six years.
But Martyn had other ideas.
“What I want to know is this: do the carpets change when you leave the RBS banking sector and enter the Lombard Vehicle Management building?”
I knew what he meant. Banks – all risk averse (well, supposedly) – and vehicle management: all about risk taking and betting on future values.
OK, I’ll blame Martyn if I get summarily ejected from the offices of Rob Bailey, head of Lombard Vehicle Management.
Are you just a bunch of wild west cowboys in comparison to the respectable and staid banking sector gents? Metaphorically speaking, of course…
Rob laughs. “Yes, I remember Martyn was quite keen on that theme. I hate to disillusion him, but the RBS colourscheme carries throughout every RBS office – so there’s no change in the decor!
“And anyway, RBS is multi-coloured already. NatWest and RBS run separately but you can still build a business culture through a multi-brand strategy.
"The difference in the relationship is that we have the car knowledge here.”
Rob pointed out that recent changes have actually brought the bank and Lombard Vehicle Management (LVM) closer together: LVM business teams have been integrated into broader Lombard teams.
“In practice, that means LVM teams won’t do hire purchase but contract hire. And vice versa with the Lombard finance guys. It’s a case of aligning the specialist teams together.
"We’ve lost a couple of senior people along the way but it’s not eroded our specialisms or expertise,” Rob explains.
Talking of specialisms, I’d noticed that Rob’s experience was deeply rooted in banking. What value had this brought to the vehicle side of the business?
“I think it’s improving the quality of the customer experience and improving the quality of the staff. Both of these are strong RBS values.
“I also tend to bring a more commercial view that benefits us and customers. It’s not just a question of doing the numbers.”
Does Rob think that his banking experience would help a fleet manager?
It’s not a question that Rob seems particularly comfortable with. Rob’s not typical of some of the more gregarious FN50 leaders.
He’s quieter, more reflective.
“A bank manager sees a lot of customers who have different challenges and require different solutions.
"Generally, they see where they can add value. In the end, there are only so many problems and they will have seen someone else struggling with that issue.
“But I wouldn’t be arrogant to say that my banking background could add anything to a fleet manager because it’s such a very different market.”
OK, then, let’s get back on to steadier territory. Is there anything you wish fleet managers wouldn’t do?
Ah, this is more like it, Rob’s more forthcoming here. Evangelical even: “I’d like to talk to fleet managers about service and advice rather than just aggressive pricing,” says Rob.
“We seem to be dealing with more and more procurement teams that just want best price and don’t understand the complete picture. That’s not true of all fleet managers, of course.
“More experienced fleet managers would balance procurement with relationships and service.”
That’s the usual issue for leasing companies – being boxed into the commodity corner. And some of these procurement teams can be fearsome.
Nevertheless, spot-on pricing is important if Lombard wants to move up the FN50’s greasy pole.
Which gives me a chance to ask the question I want to know: So, Rob, will Lombard always be the bridesmaid? Or does it want to move on to the top three steps of the FN50 podium?
“I don’t think we’ll stay at number four,” comes Rob’s confident but slightly guarded response.
“However, we won’t grow by acquisition. I’m looking more at organic growth. We want to build a profitable business and a business based on service quality.
“I’m sure there will be opportunities for the purchase of leasing companies, but we will only be prepared to look if it’s a quality proposition and there’s some equity for shareholders.
“Meanwhile, we’re building a capability that’s market leading.
"We’re investing £21m over the next 18 months to manage assets in-life. We expect to see it delivering considerable benefits.”
Rob also adds that RBS has 25-30% of its banking market; Lombard finance has 25% of the asset market; and LVM currently 8% of the FN50 market.
Which I think we can take as a guarded but quietly confident yes to my question.
Lombard at number three in 2009? Don’t bet against it.