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New Ford fleet boss targets contract hire for growth

Date: 07 October 2016   |   Author:

Ford's UK director of fleet operations Owen Gregory is now three months into the job since replacing Nick Themistocleous as the man in charge of fleet car operations, and having kicked off a strategic review of the company's business, he already has some early plans as to where opportunities could lie for the brand that sits at the top of the fleet registration charts.

"I kicked off the strategic review of fleet operations for a couple of reasons:  it's been two or three years since Phil [Hollins, a previous fleet boss] did something similar so it's a good opportunity to look at things fresh, and it's the most effective way for me to get a good, broad oversight of different parts of the business," he tells BusinessCar. "I'm beginning to uncover clearly where we are strong - we've got historic strength - and also where we are less strong and where the market has moved or is moving, and we have the opportunity to do better."

Gregory is expecting to have a clearer picture by the end of this year in time for a strategy to form for 2017, but said initial conclusions have already come to light.

"I think one area we have an opportunity on is contract hire on cars," he says, while admitting that it's "tricky to unpick" the size of the market due to the way new car registrations are reported.

"It looks like our relative performance in contract hire is not as strong as some others," Gregory reveals. "Leasing companies and brokers are out there marketing and driving their own volume and in that channel I think we have some opportunity to grow." While firm plans have yet to be drawn up, the suspicion from Gregory is that a range of solutions will be incorporated across marketing, relationship building and other areas, including strength of product.

"I suspect the answer will be have we got a product that particularly resonates in that channel? And my view is that ST-line is a really strong vibrant product for this channel," he declares. "In addition, SUVs are a very strong customer pull, and as a manufacturer I feel very lucky when I look at our SUV portfolio, with the [facelifted] Kuga coming and the Edge being very well-received."

"Product is a really key part of how we do better in this channel," he continues. ""We've got a super relationship with partners, who help us get at what is a fragmented sector. There's much more work to do but if you ask me what the main emphasis will be, I think it's that."

Gregory's main point is that the contract hire user-chooser end of the business, where company car drivers have a freer choice of vehicle, isn't as productive as where Ford's own fleet team have a customer relationships. "The corporate side of the business has been doing it for so many years and have a great relationship with so many customers, that have been many years in the making," he says. "I don't take it for granted. I'm very pleased with a team that is hugely experienced and has built very strong relationships that are hugely valuable."

ST-atus symbol

Gregory expects the new sporty-styled ST-line trim to become an important part of the brand's line-up, being offered to start with in Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo and Kuga lines.

"It has the potential to be very big. We did a really deep investigation into what motivates customers," he explains, talking about finding different clusters of buyers that gravitate towards different products, such as SUVs, performance cars or luxury models. "We found that the performance group were looking for something bold and exciting. They are buying STs and GTis, so if this is what turns these customers on, how can I make it accessible to customers?

"ST and RS are not always affordable for some, be it purchase price, company car tax etc., so could we take the essence of ST and make it more affordable? That's what we've got to," Gregory says. "I would hope it sells really well with company car drivers - we've ensured the engines available mean people can choose a CO2 output that means it's affordable from a BIK perspective, and fuel and running costs, plus it looks great and has got great RVs, so the rentals work."

ST-line means a slight blurring of the walk-up nature of trim levels, as is priced close to the Titanium level. "For me we've moved beyond traditional hierarchy trim levels and towards more distinct and differentiated vehicle characteristics - Titanium, ST-line and Vignale are all very distinct in character," says Ford's fleet boss. "Having these very distinct characters makes it easy for a customer to choose the one that is for them." Plus, he says, some customers will always want a lower price, and therefore choose the lower-spec models that also remain in the range.

But Gregory's ambition is to better understand what Ford's fleet customers need, and how they use their vehicles. "Once you really understand that, you can add much more value than 'here's a vehicle'," he concludes. "Where you go beyond expectations is where you unlock the potential with a customer and my objective is to get there with all customers."

Kuga time

Ford _GW2016-Kuga _04 

Ford will facelift its Kuga SUV late this year, using the opportunity to add a new entry 115g/km 1.5 diesel, which the firm feels will open up a wider area of the market where it only currently competes for around half of sales due to the diverse nature of the rapidly growing sector.

"The Kuga is a big deal for us next year, and increasingly for my customer," says Ford's director of fleet operations Owen Gregory. "We've done a good job in getting our share of the segment, especially given how diverse it is in product and price point; given the half of the segment we compete in, we're getting a good slice."

Gregory describes the Kuga's revision as a "visually significant update", tying together the three SUV products with Ecosport below and Edge above.

The revised Kuga will also get a top trim level Vignale model (pictured), joining the Mondeo and S-max already launched, and the forthcoming Edge model.