Tony Leigh swapped the starry-eyed career of an EMI photographer, taking snaps of pop stars like the Rolling Stones, Supremes, Beach Boys and The Who, for a job in fleet management on a recommendation from a careers adviser.
“He told me I should be a manager, so I changed my career,” Leigh tells Fleet News.
That was 27 years ago. The former art student hasn’t looked back since.
His first position was as company secretary at Schering Agricultural Chemicals, which included responsibility for the fleet. Shortly afterwards, he began a long-term and ongoing involvement with the Association of Car Fleet Operators, helping to establish the East Anglia region.
“I got involved with ACFO in the early days when there wasn’t an opportunity for fleets in East Anglia to get together. I saw a need for those out on a limb to have some way to network together and chew over fleet matters,” Leigh says.
Moving ACFO forward
“From there my involvement mushroomed and I saw the possibility to move ACFO forward, away from its successful beginnings into a 20th century organisation which could offer much to the fleet industry.”
Leigh spent 11 years as an ACFO director, including a spell as chairman. He remains company secretary.
From Schering, he moved on to Granada in a dedicated fleet manager’s role before taking the decision to go self-employed, undertaking fleet-based projects for a variety of companies.
In October 1998 he began advising PricewaterhouseCoopers on its car fleet as a six-month project.
Twelve years later he’s still there – self-employed but now working for PWC full-time.
“I manage the fleet. We outsource employee contact and admin to the leasing company,” he says.
“This is the distinction between fleet management and fleet administration.”
But he warns companies against outsourcing everything and then relying on the leasing provider or fleet management company to run their fleet.
Guarding the guard
“Companies have to recognise that if they outsource, they still need somebody to control the car fleet, somebody to guard the guard,” he says.
“It might be a standalone fleet manager if they have a big enough fleet or it might be someone in procurement. But they need to understand what the fleet business is all about – there’s more to it than buying a few cars.”
Over the past 27 years Leigh has seen huge change in the fleet sector, not least in the amount of choice offered to company car drivers.
“You used to be given a list with little choice which made the job simpler,” he says.
“Legislation was also simpler on risk management and health and safety. The top priority was getting the cheapest car at the cheapest price.”
More recently, there has been an explosion in the number of derivatives offered on every model range, while the level of complexity on risk management and the need to check licences and ensure staff and vehicles are fit to drive has seen the car fleet rise in stature within companies.
“People take more notice because of the costs involved,” says Leigh. “It’s also used as more of a recruitment and retention tool rather than just job need.”
PWC operates an all-perk fleet of 2,500 cars on a salary sacrifice scheme called Choices.
It’s an apt name – staff can choose from any vehicle on the market, although in reality five brands dominate: BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Ford and Renault.
The only restrictions are no double-cab pick-ups and a 200g/km emissions limit.
The threshold is arbitrary, however. Salary sacrifice works from a tax perspective only when drivers choose low CO2 emissions vehicles. PWC’s order bank is currently running at 132g/km, down from 144g/km a year ago.
Growing number of products
Salary sacrifice has become a major talking point in the fleet sector as a growing number of leasing companies launch their own products.
PWC was one of the first, introducing Choices in April 1999.
“The beauty of salary sacrifice is that it is cost neutral because the person is flexing their remuneration in to various benefits,” says Leigh.
“It is a way to increase the benefit to the car driver and to the firms involved and it will probably take over from ECO schemes.”
Take-up within individual companies has been low – typically 3-5% – which Leigh puts down to a lack of understanding from drivers.
PWC’s take-up is around 15%, although it has seen a contraction in fleet size over the past 18 months as economic uncertainty forced staff to question whether they really needed a car.
That trend has now bottomed out and Leigh predicts the car fleet will begin to grow again, possibly returning to the 3,000-car mark.
Choices bundles everything in one package, including insurance, maintenance and repairs.
Drivers simply pay for the fuel.
“This means we can control all the elements and get the best deal to ensure the car and the driver are looked after,” says Leigh.
Early terminations are fully protected. If a driver leaves the firm voluntarily, they pay four months of the Choices fee; if they are made redundant, PWC picks up the bill.
“Some schemes have GAP insurance, but with our size of fleet this would be a considerable sum,” says Leigh.
PWC’s average length of contract is 27 months, with cars averaging 13,000 miles a year. The firm used to have a lot of contracts on a 12-month cycle, but when residuals fell it extended to 24 months.
As residuals dropped again, impacting on monthly leases, it extended to 36 months, but more recently cycles have started returning to 24 months as the prices converged.
Often there’s only a £10 per month difference in the cost to the driver between 24 and 36 months.
“We agree the length of contract at the start – it can be extended, but not shortened,” says Leigh.
With the jury still out on whether fleet managers have a long-term future as a dedicated function within companies, Leigh suggests they might evolve into mobility managers, responsible for all types of travel not just cars.
He points to the spread of car clubs, options on trains and planes, and the role of short-term rental as reasons why companies should unite travel responsibilities under one position.
“There’s also the growth in flexible leasing, for example, your contract is for a 3 Series, but if you go on holiday you swap for two weeks for a Galaxy,” he says.
“General mobility programmes will happen in larger organisations.”
Leigh adds: “The people who pronounced the car fleet was dead were wrong.
“It is epitomised by the companies that have looked at their car fleet and decided to keep them – they are just doing it in a different way.”