Under the Microscope: We talk to Seat's fleet boss, Peter McDonald
07 February 2017
Author: Debbie Wood
Seat would be the first to admit that the breadth of its product range has been a real stumbling block in fleet. Companies today require a broad range of cars for their drivers, which has often left the Spanish firm missing out on some key corporate deals as a result.
That's all set to change in 2017, though, with key updates for two of the brand's most popular fleet models and the launch of an all-new crossover SUV.
According to the brand's UK head of fleet and business sales, Peter McDonald, fleets need economy of scale, and Seat is planning to deliver its biggest-ever product offensive over the next 12 months as the company strives for growth.
"We've had a consolidation period and now we're moving into our development stage," McDonald tells BusinessCar. "We know that the majority of fleets want scale and want to limit the number of relationships they have; it's more efficient for them. Seat's challenge has always been that we know our fleet customers want more breadth than just the Leon."
For most of last year, Seat was only able to compete in around 50% of the market by product type; however, by the end of this year the firm will have raised this figure to 75%.
"We can now be seen as relevant to major fleets that may not have considered us in the past because we will have a broader range and our key cars will have been refreshed. On the back of that we are expecting growth."
First on the menu is the Ateca, which was launched late last year and has already had over 1,000 true fleet orders. A refreshed Leon, the firm's current big fleet seller, is also set to go on sale imminently. An all-new Ibiza will arrive towards the middle of the year too, followed by a brand-new compact SUV named Arona, set to rival the Nissan Juke, which will join the range by the end of 2017.
Currently, the Leon is the big fleet lifter in the line-up, taking 50% of sales; however, the arrival of the Ateca is expected to tip the scales dramatically over the coming months.
"Ateca is going to be important in fleet," McDonald says. "It's the first time we've had fleet customers actively approach us about a product because they were looking for something different to the Nissan Qashqai."
To help more fleet drivers get behind the wheel of the Ateca, Seat has launched a four-day test-drive programme for business drivers, which they can sign up for online.
"We've been trying to make it really easy for company car drivers to gain access to the Ateca, rather than having to speak to their fleet manager or leasing company," he says. "We know that when they walk into a dealership, there's often some challenges on how dealers approach business customers so we want to fix that."
Pulling back from rental
If you look at the headline stats, Seat's performance in fleet didn't look too strong in 2016; however, the firm made a conscious decision to move away from rental last year and get its volume back in line with the market. The firm's true fleet growth has been more impressive, ending 2016 17% up year on year, Seat's best-ever performance.
"In both true fleet and Motability we've got the biggest order banks we've ever had," McDonald explains. "Those true numbers got stronger as the year progressed and in rental we ended the year 20% down."
Although rental has been an ideal channel for the firm in the past as the brand struggled with awareness, a greater focus on residual values and whole-life costs has meant that Seat needed to take a more conservative view on its rental volumes moving forwards.
"Rental has been important for getting people in the cars and it's changed a lot of experiences," says McDonald "But from a corporate perspective we know how important it is for residual values to be strong and a way to manage them is to reduce our rental share."
As well as doing well in SME and contract-hire channels through the firm's local fleet programme, Seat also has some large blue-chip clients, including Zurich, which, working together with Audi, was the biggest fleet deal the Volkswagen Group has done to date. A total of 1,100 cars were part of the original deal, which has now been in place for nearly three years.
For some fleets, driving premium cars can be a real problem, especially when their image is around customer value, and this is where Seat has seen some real growth over recent years.
"Customers are aware that the Seat product quality is really good. Premium vehicles from our sister brands are built off the same platform, but when you're a public body or someone who needs to report to shareholders, where perception is important, we are a great choice, because the product is premium but the brand is recognised as more value, and that places us really well," McDonald explains.
"We're not an ostentatious premium brand but our products are great."
A standalone brand
The Zurich deal is more of an exception than the rule at the Volkswagen Group, though, as all brands operate separately with their customers. That isn't to say that they won't work together when the opportunity arises, and according to McDonald, Audi and Seat work best collaboratively because there is less of a crossover between products.
Collectively the group has a 22% share of overall true fleet business here in the UK, and for Seat fleet makes up around 50% of overall sales. In 2016, the carmaker ended the year with 9,900 business registrations.
Where it does make a lot of sense for the group to work together is in back-office support. The Volkswagen Group has a central fleet contact centre, which all the brands feed into, plus invoicing, legal services and the booking process for appointments are all run through a central team.
"Yes, we have the backing of the Volkswagen Group, and that gives us a stable base, and we get economy benefits from doing a lot of our back-office stuff together, but when we are talking to fleet customers, we speak to them as the Seat brand alone."
2018 and beyond
Although Seat is keeping pretty tight-lipped about what is coming beyond 2017, BusinessCar has been told to expect an electric car by 2020, if not sooner. Notably absent from the EV market at present, platform sharing within the Volkswagen Group brands means Seat can react quickly when the market does eventually take off.
One area that McDonald firmly has his sights on in the immediate future is in petrol engine technology, and when the facelifted Leon goes on sale in February there will be an Ecomotive version with emissions from just 102g/km.
"When there's a standard that works and is adopted then we'll be very quick to react to it, but where our technology is going at the moment instead is in petrol technology. It's not electric, it's not plug-in hybrid, it's conventional combustion engines and that's where we think the market is today," he says.
Whether the firm will launch a standalone electric car or introduce the technology across its range of products as another method of propulsion is yet to be announced, but with the Volkswagen ID electric car, revealed at the Paris motor show in September, set to be built on the groups new EV platform, it suggests an all-new electric car from Seat could well be on the cards.
It certainly looks like 2017 is going to be a hell of a year for the Spanish carmaker, and McDonald admits the one thing that may hold them back is brand awareness.
"2016 has been the best year we have ever had," he concludes. "Our cars are desirable and look good - now it's all about making sure more people know about us."
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