Under the Microscope: We talk to Ford's fleet director, Owen Gregory
29 October 2018
Author: Rachel Boagey
Ford is innovating in products and services, and has big plans ahead. Rachel Boagey speaks to director of fleet Owen Gregory.
Owen Gregory is in a unique position in his role as director of fleet operations at Ford, as his current job is just one of many he has held at the manufacturer spanning the past 16 years.
From 2014 to 2016, as European brand manager, Gregory was part of the team developing Focus and Active. "I've been lucky enough to nurture these products through the whole process and now in my newest role I've watched them come to life," he tells us in his office in the maze of a building that is Ford's Warley headquarters. "It's just a really satisfying process to be a part of," he continues, "and what we concentrate on the whole way through is our human-centric approach and just how much consumer thinking goes into the process from start to finish."
This human-centric approach is Ford jargon for designing a product based on customer research, studying the attitudes and values of potential buyers and why they would choose the Focus, for example, over its rivals. "It's not just saying 'I use my car to go to the shops every Wednesday', it's far deeper than that. It's more the actual psychology of our buyers," says Gregory.
This Ford philosophy also applies to its fleet customers, with fleet playing a big part in its sales, representing 40-50% for its most recently released Focus. "While their selection from the marketplace might be limited from the policy they're given by their fleet manager, user-chooser customers are still in control to a point. That's why we really need to ensure we're understanding the needs of the fleet market and fleet customer at all times," Gregory says. "Those choices get a lot more rational where running costs, CO2 and BIK play a part, so we consider those things on every model we release."
Keeping it simple
To appeal to customers further, Ford believes in keeping the options simple, recently creating a few different trims on each car launched and releasing them gradually. "You could say we're launching four Focuses as the line-up will have Zetec up to Titanium as usual reaching from mainstream to luxury, and now we have ST Line, which sits alongside Titanium for that sporty distinctive outlook. Early next year we will bring in the Active lifestyle SUV trim on Focus as we have with other models, and Vignale is yet another flavour that is new to Focus."
But with all these new products on the horizon, Gregory was eager to admit that there have been and will continue to be challenges along the way. "I think for us the uncertainty around Brexit is the single biggest challenge at the moment impacting our business in the near term, and is bringing quite a bit of general business sentiment uncertainty," he says. "People are thinking very carefully about the future of their business and how they want to move forward, and now there's the uncertainty around WLTP to top that off."
Ready for anything
However, Gregory assures us that Ford is a forward planner.
"We are already in such a good position, ensuring we were fully ready and haven't had any major hiccups, despite it meaning an enormous amount of work for our engineering organisation who have never had to retest every vehicle in our portfolio in that amount of time."
A big consideration in Gregory's department has been ensuring the manufacturer is ready for WLTP changes and that there are no issues for fleet customers in their ability to secure production. "We're in a good place as we engineered Focus with WLTP in mind from the beginning, so everything in that vehicle and the new powertrains have all been engineered ready. It's great to have achieved some really good CO2 and fuel economy results. They're all ready and tested, and customers can buy them with confidence knowing they're very, very efficient in the real world."
Gregory admits Ford has seen a shift away from diesel toward petrol and other fuels, but says it's not necessarily a bad thing. "I feel confident about this rather than negative because one of the very natural alternatives to diesel is the multi-award winning Ecoboost range. It's very widely recognised as being some of the best alternatives to diesel out there."
Despite believing that the demise of diesel is perhaps less of a worry for Ford, Gregory admits that for fleets it may not be that simple. "One thing I'm always keen to stress to fleet decision-makers is that in the real world if you're a high-mileage user and not doing those miles in urban areas then diesel is by far the best fuel to choose. If, however, you have vehicles operating in lower mileages with a rich mix of urban mileage then now the awareness or reawareness of petrol is coming back. It's not such an easy choice now and needs more thought depending on use case; that's my advice to fleets."
For that exact reason, Gregory explains that the company is not turning its back on diesel at the moment. Instead of this, Ford is aiming to ensure its diesel engines are delivering the right real-world product. "We're conscious of the different role diesel and petrol should have on a fleet policy," Gregory says.
The manufacturer has been slow to develop hybrid engines compared to many others, but Gregory tells us that running the Mondeo hybrid, currently the only hybrid in the European Ford line-up so far, has given the company insight into how it compares to diesel. "We need to provide the real-world high-mileage operating costs of diesel but want to make steps towards the future, too, and the Mondeo hybrid is delivering that real-world performance."
The Mondeo is a conventional hybrid rather than a plug-in, so Gregory says it's not dependent on the behaviour of the driver. "For us it's about making sure we have the right real-world applicable tech solutions, which I think we have. We can see the way the market is moving, which is why we have lots of future electrification products in the line-up," Gregory reveals.
He was keen to reiterate that the Mondeo remains an important model for Ford, despite rumours that the future of the model was looking unclear following the news that its US sister model will be dropped.
He confirmed the current Mondeo would be updated, while Ford recently announced the hybrid offering would be expanded to include the Mondeo estate, in addition to the current saloon, broadening its appeal significantly.
No definitive answer
Despite his optimism about hybrid powertrains, Gregory says the reality of the whole journey of electrification is one of complexity and nuance, just like petrol and diesel. "There is no definitive answer, apart from saying the answer is 'it depends'. We think electric is a blend of solutions like petrol and diesel, and it's about applying the right technological solution that meets the customer's need at that time in the right way."
Gregory tells us that the manufacturer has recently invested a total of £14 billion in hybrid powertrains. "We aren't Aston, we're Ford, and whatever we do needs to be accessible to the market. There is a huge amount of electrification coming but it can be tailored to make sure it's affordable to customers that need it and operated in a way that meets their needs," he says.
Globally, Ford is progressing with a 48V mild hybrid, full hybrid on Mondeo, and has experimented with plug-in hybrid on the C-Max Energy in other markets. "That was low volume but we learned a lot," says Gregory.
He also revealed that there will be "a very exciting full-electric crossover vehicle coming in 2020. You could say it's a Mustang-inspired all-electric SUV."
He says Ford is preparing itself far more for electrification, and that next year it can be more specific about where that £14 billion is going. At the CV show this year more information was provided on the Transit Custom plug-in hybrid, which was launched as a concept in 2017. "There are 20 well-developed prototype Transit Customs within the M25 area across 15 or so different fleets and we're learning from these. For this, it's another human-centric experiment for deep leanings to see how the fleet drivers and vehicles are performing in the real world."
A connected journey
Another important focus for Gregory and his team is enhancing the connectivity of its cars. "In the next year we're going on a connected journey," Gregory says. "By the end of next year almost every vehicle in our range will be connected capable. It's a driver experience for user-chooser fleet customers that will give them greater functionality in their cars."
This connected initiative will consist of two strands, says Gregory. "The first is data services. When we talk and listen to fleet customers the one thing that is very clear is nobody has the same needs in terms of business challenges and often a 'one-size-fits-all' solution doesn't fit.
"We're working with any fleet who wants to obtain data from Ford vehicles. Data from vehicles will help in the transport mobility cloud, and will help organisations safely and securely access that data for whatever they need to do."
The other is second-generation Ford telematics in the fleet market. "We have had it with a partner but now it's our own engineered solution and this solution is absolutely built from the ground up on human-centric design," says Gregory. "The observation we have made on telematics providers is because of standardised product but as needs are different they end up with a really long list of what's possible, then the customer is left to pick the bones out of that and decide what's important to them. Rather than giving them these reports and saying what do you want to do with it, we highlight where specific action needs to be taken today. It distils what you actually want to know from what you don't."
As part of the new Focus launch, the manufacturer was keen to talk about the launch of Ford Pass Connect, its app where drivers can do things such as book service appointments and check tyre pressure. "We're now releasing this as an embedded modem in certain cars. It also has a remote lock and unlock feature and can get live traffic on the vehicle sat-nav. We will also bring Waze to the big screen, jointly designed via Waze and our development team," Gregory explains.
The start of the electric and connected journey is running parallel for Ford and kicking off as the manufacturer moves into next year. "This is a huge opportunity for us to learn and engage, listen more and remain customer-led in what we're doing," Gregory continues. "Connected and electric vehicles are clearly the future and we want to unlock those benefits for drivers and fleet operators in a way that gives them value. Fleet is absolutely the root of our products and services so it's very important their voice is heard through our product and service development."