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In Focus: Athlon

Date: 10 February 2021   |   Author: Simon Harris

Daimler Fleet Management rebranded in 2020 to become Athlon. Simon Harris speaks to Patricia Wolfe, managing director, to find out what the change to Athlon means for its customers.

It's easy for any announcement unrelated to the ups and downs of the automotive industry in 2020 to be lost in the ether, no matter how significant.

Daimler Fleet Management (DFM) rebranded in the autumn to Athlon, although, the new name isn't brand new. Several years ago, Daimler purchased Dutch leasing company Athlon, and the name now lives on in the company's UK contract hire division.

DFM managing director Patricial Wolfe remains in place, and told us the rebranding was an opportunity.

"The relationship with our outsource partner was due to end," she said, "And this was an ideal time to launch our rebrand to Athlon, creating continuity of branding across Europe. 

"We want to grow our business. The opportunity to grow our corporate fleet in the UK via the strong Athlon multi-marque proposition in this important channel is an exciting one and a key part of our growth strategy."

She adds that having the backing of a Europe-wide leasing company is essential for growth with the current pace of change in the automotive sector.

"The new brand reinforces our new way of thinking and new approach to mobility," explains Wolfe. "What has been exciting for the team at Athlon in the UK is that rebuilding our business under the Athlon banner has allowed us to rip up the rule book and act more like a new start-up - although, with a history that stretches back to the 1800s, we are probably the oldest 'start-up' in the world."

The rebranding also heralds the introduction of new products Wolfe plans to bring to the UK in future, including a flexible subscription service called Athlon Flex and another product called SecondDrive. 

"The UK will benefit from the experience of the wide Athlon community in bringing these products to them in the near future," Wolfe says. "We will look to offer tailored solutions to meet customers' needs, for example, through rental and subscription models, and further make our mobility solutions more flexible for customers. Our ambition is to offer our customers exactly the flexibility they need: 'Mobility from Years to Minutes'."

Being part of the Daimler family allows Athlon to benefit from insights and products that are being developed across the wider group, which, Wolfe says, allows the introduction of well-established products from elsewhere in Europe to the UK.

She says that, without the burden of research and development of these products carried out exclusively in the UK, it allows cost savings to be passed on through its products.

Athlon's portfolio is split between the UK corporate and end-user, public sector and other specialist channels, including rental, accident management, and body shop courtesy cars, chauffeur operators and ride hailing. 

At the last estimate, before the pandemic took hold, DFM's fleet size was around 15,000 risk vehicles, and smaller businesses could be responsible for future growth.

"Not wanting to rest on our laurels following the migration of all of our core systems and the relaunch of a completely new brand in the UK, we are implementing plans to strengthen our portfolio further by launching our regulated proposition for the SME market," says Wolfe.

"We are currently investing in the systems and processes required to deliver a seamless fully digital customer [experience] from quote to delivery and in-life."

Demand for electric vehicles increased during 2020, led by the public sector, according to Wolfe.

"The UK's strong and clear position on BIK for the next three years is definitely helping and, providing supply and infrastructure can support demand, we expect this growth to continue," she says.

"We generally take a positive approach to future residual values and, therefore, support our customers with good pricing. We have a clear strategy and approach to the second life for EVs and believe that the used market can support the volumes that the fleet market will generate over the next few years."

But 2020 was a mixed year for the automotive sector and its fleet customers, and Wolfe says Athlon was there to offer support when they needed it.

She also predicts a reduction in typical mileage for lease cars as customers and drivers adapt to holding more virtual meetings and travelling less.

"We are seeing some contracts being extended for a number of different reasons," says Wolfe. "Mainly as customers focus on the key priorities and start to understand the longer-term impacts of the current situation [the pandemic and Brexit].

"We are seeing a reduction in actual miles travelled and, in the future, we are likely to see this in the contract mileages. The impact on new orders varies by channel, with the public sector continuing its focus on the move to more EV and hybrid, and some corporate customers delaying decisions for the reasons mentioned earlier.

"We do expect the three-year clarity on BIK vehicles to drive growth [for plug-in cars] in the traditional company car market following several years of decline due to the high-taxation burden on petrol and diesel vehicles. An increase in models and vehicle supply, as well as improvements in infrastructure, are crucial to this growth."

More than growth, Wolfe says Athlon regards customer satisfaction as an indication of the company's success.

"Yes, we want to deliver profitable fleet and fleet related services across all the channels we operate in, but we will not be successful if our customers are not delighted with the service we offer and find us easy to deal with," she says.

Although Athlon's fleet size is relatively small compared with many other contract hire companies, Wolfe says it can offer the benefit of operating in a number of European markets for fleet customers who also have an international presence.

Wolfe says that this helps keep things simpler for customers, as well as provide the advantage of being able to negotiate with vehicle manufacturers at an international level, with potential savings due to scale.

"When working with Athlon UK, our conversations never start with the car but always with the customer's needs," she adds. "We are a genuinely customer-centric organisation. We start by understanding our customers mobility objective and then by making them our objective too.

"Through consultation and a partnership approach, we establish needs and, through TCO modelling and whole life-cost analysis, we put our customers in the right vehicles to match those needs.

"Athlon UK is currently a comparatively small leasing company in the UK, with the support of a very large global organisation," Wolfe continues. "This enables us to provide customers with a personal approach that they can no longer get with the significantly larger operations, who are more likely to operate with a remote, call centre led approach.

"Mobility is what we do. Not just in the UK, but globally. Operating in more than 20 countries worldwide, the launch of Athlon in the UK sees us join the ranks of a truly international leasing and mobility network.

"Many of these markets offer tried and tested mobility services that are already improving efficiencies and driving down costs. Now that the launch is complete in the UK, we have the foundations to 'drag and drop' these products without the burden of lengthy R&D processes and, more importantly, lofty implementation costs," she says.

Having a rebranding during a tumultuous time for the automotive sector can't have been an easy decision, but Wolfe says the pandemic and the restrictions it has necessarily forced on businesses has made them more adaptable and creative.

"In these uncertain times, adaptability and speed of reaction have been key," says Wolfe, "Being a virtual leader is a skill we have all had to learn very quickly. Despite the limitations of the 'home office', the basic principles of business still apply. People do business with people. As an organisation, one of our priorities has been to make it easy to do business with us. 

"We are proud of the flexibility and engagement that our colleagues have shown throughout both lockdowns, and cannot speak highly enough of their fortitude throughout 2020. As we continued to build our new business, mainly remotely, through two national lockdowns last year - collaborating with a number of European Athlon entities facing similar challenges - we truly learned the value of affective communication.

"Taking an agile start-up mindset to do things differently, but underpinned by the scale, breadth and expertise of a large global brand behind, enabled the team to tackle the complexities of building a new back office while maintaining a high level of business continuity - all under the backdrop of global uncertainty," Wolfe adds. 

"We will have to see what 2021 brings. I believe that affordability, flexibility and sustainability will stay key for fleet managers."