Interview: SEAT head of fleet Peter McDonald
In a challenging UK market, SEAT’s focus on wider appeal and straightforward interactions is reaping rewards, according to head of fleet Peter McDonald. By Alex Grant.
SEAT, it seems, has found its place in the Volkswagen Group. Having struggled for its own identity at times, not helped by an often-inconsistent model range, it’s focused on growth areas of the market and has the freedom to do things its own way. This push to be in the ‘centre of the room’, as global president Luca De Meo calls it, has had a marked effect; record sales worldwide, and not only in expanding markets. It’s a brand on a roll.
So much so, that it’s weathering a UK market mired by faltering exchange rates, uncertainty about diesel and rising company car tax. SEAT’s sales are booming; following a record 2017, the company recorded a 22% year-on-year rise during the first half of this year, to 35,896 units, and fleet has become a core component. In a market down 7%, SEAT was up 27% at 20,595 units, driven by a surge in ‘true fleet’ volume. It’s now a top-10 ‘true fleet’ brand, with a 45% year-on-year uplift to the end of June (10,987 units), and a 4% market share.
For head of fleet and business sales, Peter McDonald, there’s been a massive shift since he took the role in 2013: “Over about a five-year span we will have tripled the volume in true fleet,” he says. “I think what makes us really relevant, in fleet, is we spent a lot of time developing end-user relationships. And, as we have more products available, we’re only more relevant to those business partners because we can service all their requirements.”
Still the backbone of its fleet offer, the catalyst was the latest Leon. Launched in 2013, this gave SEAT a more credible hatchback and its first C-segment estate, which began broadening its appeal into fleet-relevant sectors. Slow sellers such as the Altea and Exeo have gone, and stylish SUVs have taken their place. It’s a brand focused on in-demand segments rather than filling every niche – choice is valuable, but there are no plans to over-diversify.
“The renaissance is the breadth we can offer, and these cars have been in very attractive segments of the market, for fleet in particular,” adds McDonald. “A decade ago you would have been remiss to say you didn’t have a Mondeo or Passat-sized car. That’s been declining in the non-premium part [of the market], so the fact that we don’t have one hasn’t been a challenge. But having an SUV is perfect. It’s broadening the range but with the right products.”
While the range is growing, the infrastructure behind it has reached maturity. The fleet team – a mix of new and long-serving members – is as McDonald wants it, and the dealer network has equally established programmes in place to serve operators of all sizes. Around 25 dealers are set up to prospect and manage in-life relationships with small local fleets, while the ‘Fleet Excellence’ programme launched 18 months ago enables SEAT to support dealers targeting larger customers.
So the mix has changed with it. While short-cycle volume has gone through a controlled reduction of around 30% per year, SEAT has had the components in place to grow in every ‘true fleet’ channel. Corporate orders are up 83% year on year, it’s growing its relationships with non-captive leasing companies, and maximising the small car opportunities with salary sacrifice and public sector fleets. McDonald says the aim is to stay in the top 10 by the end of the year.
Just as significant, though, is SEAT’s unique approach to market. Spotting an industry-wide problem that it is often difficult for company car drivers to access products, McDonald introduced a four-day test drive programme with the Ateca last year, before rolling it out across the range a few months later. Booked via phone or the company’s fleet website, this now offers access to 200 test cars delivered to home or work, and racking up around 2,000 bookings per year. Not only does it offer a varied experience of the car, but it’s proved more efficient for all involved.
“A number of our major fleet customers now offer this to their staff through some sort of intranet. Rather than having someone administering test drives, the corporate can empower the staff member to make the call,” says McDonald. “The feedback has been very strong.
“The next step in the programme – because these are unaccompanied – is helping the customer have the best experience possible. We are in the process of putting some collateral, such as a tablet, in the car as a reference. We’ve been giving [drivers] the car, but not giving a lot to help [them] test it to its potential, so that’s the next step in that space.”
There’s more to come. Earlier this summer, SEAT bundled the most popular equipment into six fixed trim levels, removing options and offering metallic and bi-colour paint at no extra cost to simplify the order process. It’s also looking at new ways to offer an effective handover process when the cars are delivered, giving drivers a clear view of the technology at their disposal. The hope is that the process, end-to-end, is as straightforward as possible, and for SEAT to find its place with operators as much as it has within the Volkswagen Group.
“We have a real desire to make life for the customer easy,” says McDonald. “We want to make it really easy to transact from us, we want to make the test drive great, and the third thing is around making the first experience of the product when they take delivery better. It’s recognising that many of our fleet customers get that experience off-site – it’s not done at a dealership. That’s the direction of travel.”
Doing things differently…
The right segments:
Leon is by far SEAT’s biggest-selling true fleet car, but its SUV line-up has helped raise awareness and drive volume. Ateca launched in 2016, catering for upsizing Leon customers and those coming out of the D-segment, while Arona launched late last year alongside the platform-shared Ibiza supermini. The seven-seat Tarraco completes the range in 2019, aimed at user-choosers and with demand expected to be weighted towards the top trim level.
Launched with the Arona, but now rolled out to the rest of the range, Easymove is a three-stage ordering process unique to SEAT. Drivers choose an engine, one of six trim levels, and metallic and bi-colour paint is a no-cost option. It’s aimed at maximising residual values, reducing confusion for buyers, and simplifying ordering under the WLTP regime – where some add-ons will affect CO2 emissions and tax bands.
A plug-in hybrid Leon with a 31-mile electric range is due in 2020, with a “competitively priced” 310-mile electric car to follow. In the meantime, SEAT is positioning itself as a technology pioneer; it’s rolling out Amazon Alexa assistance in the Leon and Ateca, digital instruments in the Arona and Ibiza, and tests are underway with smartphone-access car sharing in Barcelona.