Fleet car: Three Careful Drivers

If MT's sample of company car users is anything to go by, executives enjoy their perk but weigh up the responsibilities and their needs intelligently. Giles Chapman reports.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

SARAH KEENAN, UNILEVER

On the day Sarah Keenan spoke to us, cramming an interview between appointments in a hectic diary, she was on a train somewhere between London and Norwich.

'I certainly am concerned about the environment, but the car is a necessary evil, and I try and use it appropriately,' she says. 'Today, I've been to Kingston for a meeting, and taking the train there has been the most time-effective way. When public transport works best, I'll use it.'

Keenan works for Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever. She is the regional human resources manager for the supply chain in the south-east of the UK. Primarily, that entails splitting her time between the company's two manufacturing plants at Purfleet, Essex and Norwich, Norfolk - which make Flora margarine and Colmans mustard, among other things.

Such laborious dual-desking is the result of a recent change in the way Unilever assigns its managers, giving them a zone to control rather than tethering them to a single plant. To travel between her two allocated sites, she has an Audi TT coupe on Unilever's company car scheme. 'Doing this journey regularly without a car would be difficult,' she says. 'It's a 200-mile round trip from Purfleet to Norwich and back, and I'm carrying a lot of my paperwork around with me, which would be very unwieldy on the train; this car, fortunately, has a very deep boot.'

Keenan joined Unilever from university six years ago, when she won a place on its graduate trainee scheme. She worked all over the organisation before landing up in Grimsby, where her skills were tested with a plant closure and redundancy programme. 'The biggest challenge for us is that [if we were starting from scratch] it's cheaper to produce goods in eastern Europe. We must constantly strive to be competitive.'

During her early years with the firm, she used her own car for work-related motoring. As it was a humble Nissan Micra, it couldn't be more of a contrast to the Audi she has today. 'When I moved to the Purfleet site, I was promoted and became eligible for a company car. It's a hassle-free option to take: the tax disc arrives when it should and everything - it's all a benefit. At my level, Unilever offers £600 a month towards the car of your choice, although there is the option to trade up or down. There are a number of preferred suppliers and Audi is one of them.

'I'd always lusted after a TT in my youth, so I decided to go for one; I'm single, so a two-door car is fine anyway, but it's actually quite a spacious and comfortable car.'

The 1.8-litre option also helps reduce the tax burden, and the attractions of company-sourced insurance are obvious.

ALISON REESON HARRISON, SADLER

I commute from Bromley and I go to Norwich once a week, staying over in a hotel while I'm working there,' says Alison Reeson, joint deputy managing director of Harrison Sadler Ltd (HSL), a public relations company. 'It's not the best journey in the world, because there isn't much motorway. Going up and back for an odd day can be tiring. But, I think, as a motorist, you get a pretty fair deal out of using the roads in this country.'

The 16 staff at HSL know exactly where they stand when it comes to corporate wheels. Since the sale of the firm's Vauxhall Corsa pool car, there are none. If transport is needed to see clients, they don't use their own cars either: public transport is one option, the other a hire car. This is brought to the door, in Teddington, by a cheerful driver from National Car Rental, who makes the return journey to his depot on a folding moped. When the company motoring is over, he collects it. The delineation is clear: the car is hired for specific work purposes.

'We don't have the time or manpower to run a fleet,' says Reeson, 'and this, we've discovered, is a simple way to use cars as and when we need them. We became acutely aware of the "duty of care" aspect too, especially the financial imperative: the consequences of something going wrong could be horrendous, but this way we have control.'

Reeson is one of HSL's four company directors, who are - in marked contrast - all entitled to a company car, or the cash alternative. She's opted for the car, which the business acquired for her on a finance agreement. It's a secondhand Saab 9-3 convertible, with one previous owner, and she has run it for a year.

'From a simplicity point of view, of having everything sorted out for me, it's great,' she says. 'Before that, I had a Volkswagen Beetle convertible - also a company car - so although I pay tax for having it, I don't feel the pain. It's not a burden to maintain: we already have one of those in the family, because my husband needs a car for his work and we have that on finance.

'I cover 10,000 to 15,000 miles a year, with most of my journeys of 60 to 100 miles. I have a well-worn path between Teddington and Uxbridge to visit one of our biggest clients. But I made a decision never to drive into London.'

With customers in the automotive, financial services and travel sectors, HSL has stayed tight-knit since its formation 20 years ago. 'We prefer to give commitment on a personal level and tailor our public relations to the client; lavish presentations are not our style because we're constantly trying to understand what the client wants.' Reeson cites the firm's biggest challenge as recruiting and retaining staff who are 'convincing' and exhibit the right mix of copywriting and personal communications skills.

'I'm not sure the car you drive really impresses anyone,' she says. 'But people do read something into it when they see you with your car. What I like about driving today, despite the many drawbacks, is it gives you time and space to think - it's an e-mail-free zone, and really has to be a phone call-free zone too.'

NEIL MCGEE, PAT-KRUGER

Neil McGee is something of a technophile. He actually postponed delivery of his new Citroen C6 - an executive car fair dripping with cutting-edge kit - until he could obtain the precise model he wanted. It wasn't the choice of engine or trim he was pernickety about: it had to have a Canbus control system, featuring a DVD reader and an internal hard drive to convert CDs to MP3 format, rather than the fibre-optic set-up fitted in early versions of this unusual car.

'I'm into hi-fi - esoteric hi-fi,' he admits. 'I want pure quality, and the standard system wasn't that great at first. I love music, from classical to hip-hop; if it's got something interesting about it then I want to hear it. Plus, the C6's electronics system, which has integrated products made by our partner company, Hirschmann, can be upgraded.'

McGee, you see, is an electronics control freak. He has spent his working life in the high-tech world of safeload indicators, a branch of electronics dedicated to such sectors as cranes and cargo-handling equipment where they ensure structures are not over-stressed or overloaded; they co-ordinate weights and angles. He is now the director of UK operations for PAT-Kruger, a safeloader indicator business based in the Netherlands and Germany.

'It's very specialised stuff,' he says. 'When I started in this industry, totally accidentally, aged 18, all the equipment was mechanical, with simple green-amber-red settings; now, I'm 54 and our microprocessors can assist 500 duty combinations on really big cranes, making them enormously safer to operate.'

He has an unusual arrangement to run the Citroen. He bought the C6 himself and then rented it to the company for his own use. 'Any company director can do it, as long as the company agrees. I buy the car, I rent it to them, and I have an agreement that they'll pay me so much a month for that. Then the Government grants so much per mile of use.'

McGee had to be coaxed into acquiring a new company car by colleagues, because he was quite happy with his Citroen XM. In that, he had racked up an incredible 223,000 miles, with similarly enormous totals in previous cars, all Citroens. He covered 225,000 miles in a Xantia and 175,000 in a BX. 'I like the technical side of a Citroen - their aerodynamics and advanced engineering. Must have got it from my father, who once owned a Bugatti because he admired the way it was designed.

'The C6 is very impressive. A BMW may be a driver's car, but I like comfort, handling and safety. It must be an age thing. But the C6 is also very different: people look at it and then look again. It has an excellent 2.7-litre turbodiesel, and features like the automatic headlights and lane-change warning system are superb. So is the active suspension. I got into it and just thought: "Wow!" It's not for the young driver, but that's fine by me.'

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