ING Car Lease: midfielders of the FN50. Lounging at number 24 for the past few years, putting on customers just to stand still.
But not any more. In the summer of 2006 ING sprinted out of the blocks with the acquisition of Leeds-based Appleyard Vehicle Contracts.
The combined ING/Appleyard fleet shot ING Car Lease up the FN50 ladder to number nine and gave the combined company a suddenly serious-sized fleet of 46,726 vehicles.
All well and good, but in a merger and acquisition, one of the first things to wilt under the weight of a newly combined company is the hard-won, but easily lost, reputation for customer service.
“The senior management at Appleyard have a strong relationship with their customers. It was one of the reasons we were attracted to them,” says Ian Tilbrook, boss of ING Car Lease.
“This access to senior management is vital. We’re still at a size where that can be maintained.
I spend 50% of my time on customer-related activity. I know of every complaint that comes into the company, whether it’s verbal or written.”
You could argue that the merger has reduced the pool of choice for fleet managers looking for a provider
in the market.
As you might expect, that’s not how Tilbrook sees it.
“I can’t agree. There’s no overlap in our business so we haven’t taken out choice. Appleyard now has more products to offer its customers.
"This includes Risk Assist and ING Protect.
"We’ve invested heavily in these products and now Appleyard customers can benefit from them.
“For ING customers there’s greater sustainability and less anxiety over our size. We’re also now exposed to new markets – such as the public sector – thanks to Appleyard.
But I would also argue that there are too many contract hire companies out there so consolidation is actually a good thing for fleet managers.”
With the economic climate looking bleaker by the day, it might not just be consolidation that takes leasing companies out of the market.
What is Ian’s outlook?
“A positive that might come out of tougher times is stability in rates.
"During our period of fantastic growth, contract hire companies have got confident but that has also led to erratic pricing.
"A downturn in the secondhand market can lead to lease prices becoming less volatile.
“Obviously, there are negative effects of the credit crunch but about 50% of all corporate fleets still fund cars by outright purchase and we’ve seen them reviewing their situation and coming to leasing tenders.
"Company car drivers have enjoyed hassle-free motoring, wrapped up in cotton wool.
"We believe cash-takers didn’t fully recognise the true cost of running a car.
"They find themselves very much on their own.”
Ian also sees a strong will among public sector fleets to get grey fleet drivers back into company cars. He clearly has affection for this part of the market.
“People think of public sector as a price-driven channel.
"Cheapest gets it’ is often bandied around,” he says.
“Our experience to date is that this is not the case. Public sector fleets have a very strong requirement for quality of service.”
So despite the gloomy outlook, ING Car Lease expects to be putting more people into more company cars, and Tilbrook says the company is already seeing the impact of CO2-based legislation.
But there is also a stark warning for customers who don’t lease cars emitting less than 160g/km of CO2.
“About 75% of our purchases are now 160g/km or less and that’s about 7% up year-on-year.
"Drivers are becoming more environmentally-conscious and manufacturers are doing an outstanding job of producing cars at this level.
“Capital allowances that are coming in next April are quite significant for leasing companies.
"While the impact on cars below 160 will be negligible, it’s fair to say that with the different writing-down allowances on cars in excess of 160, namely 10%, leasing companies’ costs will increase because they will have to now provide the additional funding for the longer capital allowance.
"This cost of additional funding will result in more expensive leases on cars in excess of 160.”
* Talk to customers
Too many staff hide behind e-mails and reports. You can’t beat a face to face relationship with a customer. Business is all about relationships and that sometimes gets forgotten.
* Recruit the best people you can
Recruiting purely on the basis of qualifications can often lead to problems.
Recruit on the basis of attitude and you’re far more likely to pick the right candidate. You can train skills, but not attitude.
* Where are we headed?
Clear leadership and helping people understand where the business is going is important.
Too many businesses forge ahead with their great plans for world domination, but forget to take the people with them. You can’t do enough internal communication.
* Learn from your mistakes
People often spend their careers avoiding mistakes. However, it’s important to remember that mistakes can turn into valuable learning opportunities too.
* It’s not over ’til it’s over
If a contract has been lost, don’t give up and let service levels slip. Customers often return once they’ve seen that the grass isn’t always greener.
Carol Slater is the risk manager for Sony’s UK electrical goods business.
Carol works to minimise the at-work road risks the company’s drivers face, while the HR department is responsible for administering Sony’s company car scheme.
There are currently some 2,000 company car drivers on a user chooser contract hire fleet policy.
This is solus-managed by ING Car Lease.
So does Carol think ING’s reputation for customer service is warranted?
“They are very customer-focused,” says Carol.
“For example, I was looking for a way of delivering a safety driving programme. I’m very aware that driver training is often stigmatised as being dull, uninspiring or part of a penal system that has to be endured.
"So I wanted an innovative way of delivering driver training in a fun and dynamic hands-on way.
“ING went out and found Ultimate Car Control.
"The company is highly passionate about what they do, and created a competitive element to the training – culminating in the Sony Driver of the Year 2007 - while delivering the safety education I wanted. It’s been a very big success.”
Carol is also full of praise for the accessibility of the ING directors.
“They don’t hide behind management tiers,” says Carol.
“Even during the merger with Appleyard I didn’t see service levels dip.”