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Under the Microscope: We talk to John Pryor, chairman of ACFO

Date: 01 September 2017   |   Author: Rachel Boagey

Like a scene from The Devil Wears Prada, the window of Arcadia Group's Oxford Street meeting room looks out onto the craziness of the fashion retail world. "You didn't get killed by handbags on the way here then?" John Pryor asks jokingly.

But he is not there to admire the fashion. After 28 years of managing vehicles for the clothing retail giant, Pryor, the group's fleet and travel manager, has a clear idea of the challenges and opportunities currently faced by the multiple fleets under his management, as well as fleets in the wider industry.   

"Arcadia is a fashion retailer, so running a fleet is not something that is second nature," he tells us. "That's where I came in, and now I help put together a strategy for all of the fleets under its umbrella."

Fleet lifeline

For big companies such as Arcadia, Pryor explains that running and managing a fleet is no simple task. When he first joined, the group was going through many acquisitions and changes and after two years, Pryor became a member of fleet operator organisation ACFO. He was elected to its  board in 2006.

ACFO is a not-for-profit member organisation, which Pryor describes as a 'lifeline for fleets'. "Right now, there is no clear direction for fleets so ACFO tries to put some semblance into it. Out of our six board members, five are practising fleet managers, so we are able to make fleets realise that how their fleet operates might be completely different to another fleet. We can also advise them all on what changes are coming in the industry and how these could affect their fleets."

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To enable fleets to come together, ACFO runs regular member seminars to inform them of the latest challenges they could be facing. "We like to put a line in the sand for our members, and say what they need to do and be thinking about with all the fleet changes coming up," he adds.

So what would happen if we didn't have ACFO? "I think if there was no ACFO, then fleets would have lost their voice," says Pryor. "ACFO is an independent voice and fleet bodies like talking to us because we don't have a vested interest. If we don't have a voice then there is nobody else out there to fill that gap. It would be lovely to be able to say that we have influence and the more people that come on board the more opportunity we have to do this."

No 'one-size-fits-all' solution

In his work at ACFO, Pryor is on a mission to create an overarching mobility solution for the fleets. "Every fleet is different in its requirements and so what I am aiming for is advice for each fleet on what is best for it," he says.

"Not everybody needs to own a company car here, just like in other fleets," says Pryor. The solution he thinks works best therefore is getting drivers from A to B in the most efficient and cost-effective way, whether that be in a car, on the train or using other forms of transport.

"There are so many different types of transport now that some fleet drivers don't want a car outside their house all week. They need the ability to move around efficiently and maybe the train or tube would be better for them. Or would they prefer a cash allowance? All these things are changing and there isn't a 'one-size-fits -all' solution anymore," says Pryor.

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In fact, Pryor believes this mobility solution is coming. "I'm not sure whether leasing companies or travel agencies will get there first but either of them could have a solution that could offer people the best method for getting to and from their destination," he says. "It's an exciting time because there is so much change and not a clear direction of what will actually happen in that space."

However, Pryor explains that there will always be what he describes as a pure 'job need' fleet such as engineers who need to be out on the road. "They need cars because of the nature of their job, and their mileage and tools. But there is the possibility of offering something else to others to make their jobs more efficient," he says.

The conversation surrounding diesel is flowing, to say the least, and Pryor thinks that, just as the question of mobility is changing, so too the choice of powertrain within a fleet should be fluid according to driver need. "Ten years ago, everyone was saying it was diesel that was going to be the fleet solution but now we have plug-in hybrids, pure electric, diesel and petrol. What fleets need to consider is what journey is that driver going on and what do they need to do with that vehicle?"

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"If there are two area managers - one in south London and one in the Scottish countryside - it's obvious which one needs a car and which can benefit from other modes of transport or a different powertrain. It could be the exact same job but it's understanding what's best for that driver and their journey. The London driver is covering short distances so can usually get by with an EV or a plug-in, whereas someone doing far more mileage might be better off with a diesel."

Pryor says that as the range of electric vehicles increases, their popularity within fleets will ultimately grow. "Fleets are thinking that what it says on the can isn't what it's going to do on the road right now, so hopefully that can change over time,"
he says. 

Another thing is the network. "It's all well and good putting charging points into petrol stations but unless they are fast charging points, it's not going to be attractive," says Pryor. "Fleets need processes in place that help staff to work out if they have the right opportunity to take an EV for the day or even if it would work for their job on a daily basis. Fleets want to go greener but the practicalities are something holding them back currently."

Uncertainty arising

Pryor says he is disappointed about the reduction in the number of dedicated fleet managers in the industry, and maintains that companies need someone in-house who understands what is involved in running a fleet of vehicles. "Fleet managers or companies should be looking at the overall," he says. "You do need someone to manage it. If they say they don't need a fleet manager, what do they do? The job still exists and those things need
running somehow."

Pryor believes this is especially the case with the current uncertainty in the UK. "The amount of change that's happening in such a short term, like issues with government and Brexit, means I've had fleets asking me what was announced in the budget as they don't know what's happening. So having someone who can effectively advise is a huge benefit."

Telematics

Pryor believes collecting telematics data from fleets can be extremely useful but understanding the data and doing something with it is no easy feat.

"There is so much data coming out of vehicles that trying to understand it is becoming even harder. You can get a black box fitted and that's great if you can use the data effectively. But fleets need to concentrate on actually using the data to find out about the three cars that there is a problem with, rather than the 997 that are driving just fine."

In the future, and even now to an extent, Pryor says that having that data and not assessing it could make fleets liable if something goes wrong: "If there's a fatality and it's involving one of your drivers who has been breaking speed limits constantly, the liability may fall on you."

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Pryor says the future for ACFO will be led by the needs of fleet customers. Much of the change in mobility that we are facing, he says,  is going to be led by customer needs but education is vital. "Fleets need to educate their drivers," he says. "If we change a driver's region from urban to motorway, then the driver needs to understand that a change in vehicle is necessary and appropriate. This is where a fleet manager can be an influencer, and this is where ACFO steps in. We can advise fleets on the challenges they may face and ensure that they know what to do when they do face them."



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