While Ford has long been the biggest player in the UK fleet market, recent years have seen a renewed focus on appealing more to smaller businesses through its dealer network, especially as the brand limits its exposure to the fast-churn daily rental sector which can play havoc with residual values.
Ford has steadily reduced this short cycle business while retaining its dominant market share by growing its penetration of retail and what it terms “net fleet” which embraces local fleet and user-choosers.
Mark Ovenden, Ford of Britain chairman and managing director, sees the Blue Oval's storming performance as indicative of a new direction.
‘These sales are founded on growth in the more profitable retail and net fleet sectors of the market and they are the result of our continued investment in exciting products and industry-leading technologies, delivered through the strongest dealer network in the UK,’ he said.
While retail will always be its mainstay, fleet constitutes a vital and growing part of its mix, especially the company car business generated by its 550 UK dealers.
‘Local fleet is very important to us. We continue to rebalance our business away from short cycle, our share now of the rental market is about 18%, if you go back to 2006-2007 it was probably nearer 40-45%. We have reduced our short cycle business but kept our market share by growth in retail and net fleet.’
To this end Ford has been addressing the way dealers interact with local businesses, something the network has not always excelled at and Ovenden is on a mission to improve it.
‘Some are very good but I’d have to say there is too much inconsistency. We’d like all our dealers to be good at it.’
Late last year the brand started to overhaul the way it delivers its commercial vehicle business with the launch of 100 designated Transit Centres across the UK, each offering designated showrooms, elevated aftersales and extended opening hours. With 85% of its commercial vehicles sold to fleets this initiative has the potential to transform customer expectations especially with the Transit24 programme aimed at minimising vehicle downtime by offering late night appointments and while you wait servicing.
Ford already operates specialist Business Centres across its dealer network but these too are set to up their game as the brand moves to further improve its local fleet offering, especially when it comes to selling competitive finance packages. Through Ford Credit the brand already offers between 5,000 and 6,000 Ford Lease finance deals a year to fleet customers but Ovenden sees scope for significant growth to mirror the high level of penetration it achieves on the retail side.
‘I don't see any reason why Ford Lease doesn't have the potential to become as strong in the local fleet market as Options is in the retail market. Now there's a huge way to go, because there's some very strong contract hire companies around, but I see that as achievable when you have the new Mondeo, new Focus and Vignale coming, plus our full range of commercial vehicles. The potential to grow our local business is very high and that is certainly an opportunity for our dealers,' he said.
The initiative ties in neatly with Ford’s fresh look at retailing which has seen a radical transformation of its outlets to create a bold new look more akin to an Apple Store than a traditional car showroom. Boldly coloured signage identifies each of the four main zones so the reception desk becomes the Hello area; a Discover area invites customers to use iPads to gather information on their purchase; a clearly defined Relax zone is available for waiting customers and a Thank You area, outside the showroom, is where vehicles are handed over.
It might all sound a bit corny but Ford and its dealers have invested millions in making sure the look and feel is right. Most importantly though the new thinking elevates the status of the customer, something not always apparent in the showy gin palaces still favoured by some brands.