Northern Ireland car firm motoring ahead as economy grows again
Contract vehicle hire company Fleet Financial is celebrating 20 years in business and a strong start to 2016. Yvette Shapiro reports
Mondeo Man rides again. So does Audi Executive and White Van Man. The cliched vehicles of choice for travelling sales staff, middle managers and tradesmen are going to be even more visible on our roads as the Northern Ireland economy grows, according to the man who keeps many of our large and small companies moving.
Philip Miley, sales and marketing director of the Belfast-based contract hire specialist Fleet Financial, said the company was feeling the effects of business revival.
"We're well-placed to see exactly how the economy is performing," said Philip, "and we've had a really pleasant start to the year. We have more than 600 orders for deliveries this year and that's from businesses of all sizes, from sole traders up to huge companies. I would venture that we will have our best sales year ever.
"The economy is improving, businesses are growing more confident, companies are hiring more sales people and therefore they need to order new cars for their fleet. In addition, we supply vehicles to many major construction companies and they are getting busier, so they also require more vehicles."
Apparently, the Ford Mondeo and Focus still dominate the fleet sector, Audi is popular with middle management, as is BMW, while Vauxhall and Ford are the leaders in the commercial sector.
Fleet Financial, based at Mallusk, employs 32 people and has more than a thousand customers driving 4,100 vehicles ranging from cars to light commercial vans. Clients include some of Northern Ireland's best-known companies in construction, utilities, agri-food and distribution such as Gilbert Ash, McLaughlin and Harvey, Phoenix Gas, Sky, SHS Group and Dale Farm, as well as small firms with fewer than 10 employees. Its last annual accounts recorded pre-tax profit of £950,000 on revenue of almost £26m - up nearly 18% on the previous year.
Apart from the recent boost to the order book, Fleet Financial has much to celebrate in 2016. The company is 20 years old and during that time, it's come full circle.
The company was founded in 1996 by Philip Miley and a group of directors who'd built up the contract hire arm of Charles Hurst, but decided to leave when Charles Hurst was sold by its then owners, TBF Thompson, to the UK plc Lookers Group. Four years ago, Charles Hurst re-acquired Fleet Financial, a sweet moment for Philip in more ways than one.
"I suppose it brought a certain amount of closure and a sense of satisfaction and achievement, because when we left Charles Hurst all those years ago to set up our new business, I was told that we would never be able to compete in contract hire.
"We set up the company in the conservatory of a house in Holywood belonging to one of the directors. We had two rented mobile phones and two hire cars and the first big challenge was to find premises. From that basic start, we grew the business very quickly and by 1999, we were the market leader."
Managing director Damian Hughes, who joined the company 16 years ago as financial controller, said that the buy-out by Lookers-owned Charles Hurst had enabled Fleet Financial to grow at a time when its planned expansion was being hindered by local financial institutions.
"The sale of the business really came about because of the economic downturn. People were turning increasingly to leasing and customers needed leasing finance, but the banks were capping the limit of our growth. We were dealing with two local banks at that time, but when Lookers came on board via Charles Hurst we found ourselves with access to six or seven lending institutions who were knocking on our door. The difference was massive. We were able to serve more customers, recruit more sales people and become more aggressive in our expansion."
Around 18 months ago, the company launched 'Preferences', a move into the growing personal contract hire market.
"In the United States everyone leases cars and that's starting to become more popular here," explained Philip Miley. "The retail market in Northern Ireland is still very much about the used car, but customers are realising that you can get a new car for the price of hire purchase payments on a used vehicle. It's opened up a new strand of business and on a personal level it's very exciting - it feels almost like starting up another new business."
The only cloud on the economic horizon, said Damian Hughes, is the looming vote on the EU referendum.
"Some of the funders are a bit nervous about the referendum because they think that it's affecting some of the larger capital expenditure growth. We should stay in Europe because that gives us certainty. We haven't even scratched the surface of what might happen if Britain pulls out. Private sector companies need confidence to expand and invest, and I don't see how us leaving the EU would give us that."
The company's immediate focus is a charity gala ball, to be held at the Culloden Hotel on April 22. It's hoped that the event, in aid of Hope for Youth NI, will raise at least £20,000.
"We're very pleased with the response," said Philip. "Many of our large customers, as well as banks and motor manufacturers are supporting the event. We've partnered with a charity that is, like us, celebrating its 20th anniversary. We've benefited a lot as a business over the past 20 years and we want to give something back."