Me & my car

Less a perk than a taxable benefit these days, company wheels remain a vital part of business travel nonetheless. We profile three managers who wouldn't be without theirs.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

SARAH NEILSON - VOLVO C70 CABRIOLET

Enjoyment is a word rarely associated with company car driving today.

To many employees who in the past enjoyed the position-earned benefit of free wheels, the prospect today is regarded as little more than a troubling, additional tax burden. BP Marine's Sarah Neilson (left), however, sees it differently.

'BP runs two different company car schemes,' she says. 'There's a business car scheme for those who must have a car for work because their jobs involve a lot of driving; and there's a company-owned car scheme, which I take part in. It is a perk - I can't deny it - but it's one I pay for each month. However, I really couldn't afford the sort of cars I can have through the scheme. To me, that offers great value.'

Neilson's choice is the new Volvo C70, a four-seater cabriolet with a folding metal roof. In May this year it replaced her previous BP company car, a Mercedes-Benz C180 Sports Coupe. 'The service from Mercedes was very arrogant; the car went wrong several times and all I got was hassle and attitude from Mercedes. This Volvo is built like a tank. I feel very safe in it and it's perfect for my two children, aged nine and six.

'BP is very good,' she adds. 'You can have anything as long it meets the company's driving standards, and this car has roll-over bars in the headrests and airbags everywhere. The economy is not the world's best, and we don't get any free petrol, but it's a really nice car - especially on a sunny day.'

As UK market manager of BP Marine, Neilson is responsible for 'the bit of BP that sells fuel to ships ... or indeed anything that floats'. Her division has customers of all sizes, including P&O and Sea France, and a typical delivery of fuel, called a 'stem', can range from 100 to 2,500 tonnes. A typical road tanker holds 25 tonnes.

'We're based in Hemel Hempstead, but a lot of our business is on the south coast and in Scotland,' explains Neilson. 'I do use the car for work, but a round trip to Portland takes six hours. I will drive to London for meetings with international buyers, but if I was doing business in Scotland, I'd fly easyJet.'

Her career began at Marks & Spencer as part of its graduate intake in 1986. However, disillusionment with its approach to retailing soon set in and two years later she joined BP, initially as a rep tasked with persuading forecourt owners to switch to the BP brand. This was followed by several analytical and marketing roles within the company before taking on the challenge of BP Marine.

'It's interesting,' she says. 'Wherever there's a refinery there has tended to be a local monopoly, so there's plenty of opportunity.'

Another opportunity will arise for her in May 2009, when her Volvo is three years old and she has the option to buy it from the company. 'I'd never say never,' she says, 'but having the company car at the moment is still very reasonable for what I pay.'

CAMPBELL HODGETTS - TOYOTA PRIUS

After much consideration, Campbell Hodgetts (above) has decided to draw the line. When it comes to business motoring, there are a few journeys he just won't contemplate any more. 'Scotland,' he says firmly. 'I just don't want to drive to Scotland any more. It's too far. It takes six hours from the West Midlands, where we're based. Forget it. Flying there is really the best option.'

Not that Hodgetts shuns the car. Far from it: he's a passionate advocate of his Toyota Prius, a petrol-electric hybrid saloon in which he tackles up to 30,000 business miles annually. 'Still, I'm pretty stringent with myself,' he says. 'If I feel even remotely tired or sleepy, I'll stop. At motorway service areas, most days, at about 4 in the afternoon, you'll see a row of cars with people asleep inside them. Sometimes. I'm one of those.'

His company, Savawatt UK, designs and markets energy control equipment used in refrigeration systems. He is a major accounts manager, working with the likes of Tesco and GlaxoSmithkline.

'The sort of clients I see never get a look at my car; it's always lost somewhere in the company car park,' he explains. 'But we're an energy company - we save energy. The Prius suits us well because we are in the energy-reduction business. It would be crass to drive something like a petrol-drinking Jaguar.'

His company didn't offer a cash alternative in its company car scheme when it came to giving up his old company steed (a rather unusual Honda Accord coupe) for the Prius. But the tax advantages of the hybrid Toyota are substantial. 'I pay 14%, which is a significant difference to me. Our company car scheme gives us a budget and we can then pick pretty much whatever we want. At the time, with something like £23,000-£24,000 to spend, I could have had a Rover 75, an Audi A4 or a Mercedes C Class, but I would have had to pay twice the tax on the Merc as on the Prius.'

Hodgetts finds the practicality of the Prius' hatchback fifth door invaluable for the stepladders and demonstration kits he often needs to take on site visits. 'I also find having four or five seats very useful because I do take clients out pretty often,' he adds.

However, the car really comes into its own on Hodgetts' twice-weekly business trips to London. The soon-to-expand congestion charge of £8 a day on the capital's central district doesn't apply to the Prius, as its part-time electric motor renders it exempt. 'I do think we are going to see wider road charging introduced,' he says. 'The technology is there and people now accept it's coming - I do.'

Overall, he is delighted with the Prius. 'It really is an effortless car to drive. You just have to remember to steer it.'

EUGENE KUSSE - PEUGEOT 307 DIESEL

There's a lot to be said for recognising the value of something as well as its price. Unilever's Eugene Kusse (above, with children) has already tried turning down the company car option and instead sourcing his own transport ... It was not a rewarding experience.

'I took the lump sum and bought my own car,' he says, 'but I ended up having a lot of problems with it. I discovered that a car can be a big money-loser. Having a company car costs a little more, but I think now I'd prefer to pay that for the security of avoiding unexpected faults, especially since I have two small children.'

Kusse is manufacturing manager at the Unilever UK Foods plant in Purfleet, Essex. With an annual output of 200,000 tonnes of spreads such as Flora, Bertolli and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, it's one of the largest facilities of its type in Europe. After graduating in chemical engineering in Holland, he joined Unilever and initially specialised in plant safety and environment before moving into production management. When the Purfleet post was advertised internally, he decided to take on a new challenge, and moved with his young family from Rotterdam in May 2004.

'Unilever is a very good employer but you will not be driving an Aston Martin,' he jokes. 'We have a choice of good cars. The most expensive car I could qualify for was the lowest-specification Audi A6, but there is also a monetary incentive to go for cheaper models.' He wanted something that was both efficient from a tax viewpoint and also smaller size-wise. At 6ft 7in tall, it also had to be roomy. His final choice was a five-door Peugeot 307 diesel.

'This was the car that was the most compact but also the most spacious inside,' he says. 'My wife has a Volvo V70 estate and, incredibly, the Peugeot has more room behind the wheel than that.'

Company car culture in the UK is, he says, very different from that in Holland. Within Unilever's Dutch operations, no-one qualifies for a company car - unless they must have one for the job - until they are at the equivalent position of overall plant manager.

The Purfleet plant is about a half-hour commute from Kusse's home in Sevenoaks, Kent. A car is the only realistic alternative as public transport leylines to the area run into central London; consequently, many staff take part in informal car-sharing schemes.

'I have a Dart Tag (chargecard) for the river crossing, and during my morning drive there is hardly any traffic congestion on my stretch of the M25. On the section going the other way, however, you often wonder how people can face the jams every day.

'Drivers are so much less aggressive here than in Holland, where everyone seems to speed and drive close behind you and use their brakes very badly.

I once lost my way here and pulled over; someone actually stopped to ask me if I needed any help - amazing!'

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