Paul Barker grabs a cuppa and a chat with one of fleet’s most influential figures – Arcadia Group Travel Manager and former ACFO Chairman, John Pryor
Arcadia Group travel manager John Pryor is, for now, one of the industry’s leading fleet managers, having been with the firm for 30 years, an ACFO member for more than 20 years, and chair of the fleet organisation from 2014 until he stepped down last month, ahead of retirement in August. But before heading off into the sunset, he sat down with Company Car Todayto reflect on three decades in fleet.
QAs one of the most high-profile fleet managers in the business, what do you think you’ve learned over the 30 years at Arcadia?
There has been a huge amount of change, and technology has moved everything further forward, but in reality, the basic principles are still there. You’re running a vehicle for a business requirement, whether it’s a van or car, you’ve got people out on the road. Or it’s done for part of a remuneration package, those are still there. It’s the change that you’ve seen in technology that has brought it forward; I remember when I started in the Burton Group, as it was in those days, I had an accountant and we got all the invoices in and everything was done on bits of paper, it took a month, now everything is done in eight or 10 seconds.
And you’ve seen where it’s got much more complicated over the years in the respect of things like taxation. It simplified itself [at the beginning of this century], certainly very much for user-chooser fleets, moving from the mileage break to the CO2 breaks. You could focus on one figure of CO2, and the more you could drive that down ,the cheaper the motoring would be for you. I think once they got their head around it, everyone understood that it compared well to the old way of mileage where with a lot of businesses – I’m sure we were one as well – you wouldn’t see anybody in February or March because they were all rushing to get in their 2500 business miles.
QWhat do you think is your biggest achievement over the past 30 years?
I’m very proud of joining everything together and seeing the join-up between travel, expenses and fleet, because I think that is now being seen more. A lot of companies siloed it, as we used to, but having all the information there, at least you’ve got something you can look at. Whether you can do much about it at the moment, at least acknowledging you have everything
there together is useful.
I’ve been very grateful to ACFO, because we’re very isolated. We’re a fashion business, and therefore nobody knows about running a car fleet, but organisations such as ACFO have been very helpful because it steers a lot of what we do.
THE AMAP CONUNDRUM
The Approved Mileage Allowance Payment that is paid to drivers for using their own vehicles on work business is out of kilter with the rest of vehicle taxes in encouraging mileage rather than being emissions-based. It illustrates the absence of joined-up thinking in Government, says outgoing ACFO chair John Pryor.
“This is my personal point of view, but you’ve got this situation where why on earth are we paying an AMAP rate that has no connection with anybody’s CO2s or anything else, and however many miles they drive up to 15,000, they’re going to be paid 45p per mile,” he told Company Car Today.
“So, the older car drivers are making fortunes, and people are saying the company car is costing me a lot so I’m going to opt out and claim all this back in that way.
“And a load of businesses are saying ‘OK, you’re taking the cash, we’re going to pay the [lower] AFR rate’, and these people then claim – and they are allowed to do so, it’s not a tax dodge – the difference back on their tax return at the end of the year,” he continues. “So, my taxes are paying the subsidy on this person’s older car, it’s this joined-up thinking that they are not doing that’s really sad – they are pushing out the company car by how they are taxing it, making it seem more difficult to do, and I’ve heard evidence of people saying ‘is it really worth it?’”
QWhat about within ACFO, how do
you reflect on your time both as a member and having worked your way up to the chair position?
I think it was very useful for me because in Arcadia you could go and ask someone what a colour swatch was or what the fashion was going to be for spring or autumn, but if you start asking about catalytic converters or what do you do about this or that, not so much. So going to ACFO was very good because you could talk to other fleet operators.
That was where I’ve always found the usefulness of ACFO and I would engage with it. The most important thing from ACFO’s side of it, we are there as a fleet operator’s association, but have always understood that every fleet runs differently; that’s almost a fundamental and that’s still there today. Yes, we all run fleets, but it’s the culture and the company, and everyone does it slightly differently in how it’s reported in and structured, and when you think about it, where does fleet sit? Is it procurement, is it HR, is it finance, is it facilities? Fleet could sit in all those areas quite easily because it touches everything about a company.
So, I think that’s the beauty of ACFO – nobody would ever say that’s the wrong way of doing it, it was more ‘that’s a good idea, I’ll steal that one’, or ‘that works for your fleet but wouldn’t work for mine’. It’s having that ability to understand your company. A fleet manager should understand their company and get the fleet to run in the most effective way.
QWhat sort of state are you leaving ACFO in, and how will it evolve?
We’ve got to change our concept of what ACFO is there for; trying to get best practice, trying to give people advice and putting the name of the industry out there, trying to make sure people like HMRC and Treasury understand that there are fleets out there. We recently went to an HMRC meeting and they were very welcoming, they said you haven’t got a vested interest, you represent fleets and all you can tell us is what your members want. And what fleets want a knowledge of what is going on, to be taxed fairly and equitably, and be able to plan things out, not this chop and change that we have seen over the past three or four years.
So much has changed hugely in the past two or three years with WLTP, with the mess up with salary sacrifice – what was a very clear process has since been chucked out of the window.
QWhat do you think is the future of the company car?
I still think there will be a requirement for it, because I think you have a whole load of people with different lifestyle requirements. Once you’re settled in a house with a family, you need a car more. I see whole stages, and that’s why it’s important for people to be able to pick and choose what they want. You’ll have the millennials that say I don’t need this, but later on, as their lifestyle changes, they will do. I still think there will be cars because people will need them, just for their lifestyle. What they’re driving is largely immaterial – whether it’s powered by diesel, petrol, or electric, they will still need something.
QAnd is the pace of change about right with the move to electric?
I think the growth should continue, everything I’ve ever heard is just having the product out there. And there isn’t enough range; 300-400 miles is needed. We had a demo of the VW e-Golf; lovely car but a range of 110 miles. Everyone that has had a demo of electric cars loves them, but the trouble is that there aren’t enough out there at the moment. We know more product is coming, but the quicker that will come, the quicker that will alleviate. Most people commuting just want to put it in drive and have something sensible, economical, environmentally very friendly.
And if we have good, proper plug-in hybrid vehicles with a range – there are certain manufacturers that can only do 12 miles and then wonder why it’s never plugged in – once you’re up to the 40, 50 miles, that becomes a game-changer to me; people will say I can do my small commutes around on electricity.
I don’t think anyone I’ve spoken to has ever said I’ll never have an electric car, it’s just the product is not out there, and it seems expensive at the moment.
QWhat about the future for fleet managers themselves?
Fleet managers and mobility managers that are looking after the mobility of a company should be getting all their data together from their agent, from their suppliers, and advising staff of the best ways to travel. The fleet manager as such is changing; you will still need one for the LCV fleet and HGV fleet, plus a lot of companies with big workforces – to my mind they still need a dedicated fleet manager. In businesses where fleet is a smaller part but you’ve got all the other travel, that’s where the fleet manager should be looking to take on this wider role of mobility, looking at the whole silo of how people get around. And that’s taking into account how you are reimbursing people, looking at the environment and your environmental costs. It’s having everything in your toolbox as a business to say you can do this or you can do that. I do not believe the fleet manager is dead, the job is simply morphing.
PRYOR ON…Managing a fleet
“I’ve made sure Arcadia runs the fleet the most effective way that Arcadia wants to run it, which is not necessarily the cheapest but is the way they want to run. That’s where every company is different – some will be a bit stricter in one area, but a bit more lax in another.”