It’s an industry obsession that started 15 years ago when Foxtons, keen to promote its brand in any way it could, started giving its staff ‘Italian Job’ themed racing green Minis designed to “radiate a cheeky mix of fun and professionalism.”
“When we unveiled our first branded Mini in 2001 a striking personalised fleet of cars was unheard of among estate agents,” says Nicky Chute, Operations Director of Communications at Foxtons.
“The Mini was the perfect vehicle, with its British roots, well recognised and versatile design with a sense of fun. With the convenience of our customers at the forefront of our mind, the Mini also demonstrates a practicality in its compact size allowing our agents to navigate the streets of the capital while chauffeuring customers to their viewings.
“It is also renowned for its low CO2 emissions – an important consideration for us. All in all, it’s an iconic car that our agents love driving and our customers love being in.” The cars, which have retained their racing green hue, have since undergone numerous versions including graffiti and punk-inspired designs while the company’s fleet has swollen to more than 800 vehicles.
Peter Rollings, who from 1997 to 2005 was the company’s Managing Director, says, “I think the original idea for the branded Minis came from a designer who was working for us at the time called Jeremy Sice of brand agency Stops Austin Sice.
But the plan nearly went awry, Peter admits, “The first idea for the cars was that we would use Chrysler PT Cruisers which was very ‘of the moment’ then but instead we went for Minis which is lucky as the Chrysler had gone out of fashion a year down the line,” he says.
But it’s not just in the design that Foxtons innovated. The company manages its cars in an unusual way, treating them more like a rental fleet than a traditional carpool. Foxtons recently revealed that negotiators are upgraded to better cars depending on their sales performance and therefore each car can have multiple users over its three-year stint at the company.
Existing cars within the fleet are refurbished before being given to the next member of staff, much like a rental car, although it’s a fleet operated by just five office staff, a mechanic and two vehicle valets while minor repairs and windscreen replacement are carried out by contractors.
The company also leases its vehicles under an unusual ‘nonmaintained’ contract and does much of that work in-house. As well as Minis its fleet includes Golf GTEs, a couple of BMW i3s, Volkswagen Ups, Vauxhall Adams and a few Smart cars. Oh, and they also have two hybrid Porsches for the two Managing Directors.
But most of their cars are Minis. Ever since Foxtons adopted them the Mini has been popular with other agents who want a nippy urban runabout that’s upmarket enough to ferry clients around but also not too expensive to insure or maintain.
Foxtons isn’t the only company to buy Minis in large numbers. According the BMW Mini UK’s Corporate Development Manager James Morrison, Countrywide also has a large fleet of mainly five-door Countryman models and Savills also has quite a few Minis too.
“But Foxtons is most long-standing corporate customer as they took on the Mini in 2001, the year we relaunched the car,” he says.
“The Mini’s appeal among estate agents is wide, from the large firms right down to one-branch businesses because it’s an iconic, classless car that has mass appeal – everyone drives them from factory workers to royalty.
“We would also say that the Mini is more than a car – it’s got personality and an emotion attached to it which agents like to associate with their brands.”
James also says the Mini has a rational side with low emissions and good fuel consumption, which he says makes for low running costs overall.
But perhaps most importantly, BMW has set up the Mini to be business friendly and the company is geared up for companies wanting to acquire a car or a whole fleet direct through its dealership network, as well as a generous service package for high-mileage customers like estate agents.
And all this, from the estate agent order book to a slick sales operation, has made the UK the biggest market for Minis in the world. In March this year 12,526 were sold in the UK, just under a third of the company’s global Mini sales.
WHY I CHOSE A MINI
Julian Walley of Wallingford, South Oxfordshire agent Winterbrook has been working in the industry for 25 years but recently decided to execute a local ‘first’ and buy a Mini. He then wrapped it in the firm’s signature purple and grey colours, logo and an unusual image – the area’s most famous landmark, Wallingford Bridge.
“We wanted to do something that had some local interest and wasn’t just about our brand and it seems to be working as lots of people comment on it to us,” he says.
The Mini is a classless, iconic car that has mass appeal – everyone drives them, from factory workers to royalty and, of course, many estate agency businesses, large and small.
Julian adds that his company rebranded recently from Lesters to Winterbrook and that the mini has been an important part of getting the new name across.
Before getting the car the company used a Fiat 500 but Julian says he found that “nothing works as well and has the impact of a Mini.”
Nevertheless Winterbrook’s new Mini is only used for specific tasks. Julian’s team only use it for viewings while for valuations they use their own vehicles and get a mileage allowance instead.
“When people are having their homes valued they want a bit more discretion and don’t want their neighbours to know that they are having their house valued,” he says. “So the Mini is purely a pool car for viewings.
“But the real beauty of our Mini is that no one else has ‘wrapped’ their cars in our area so our vehicle really stands out and has the maximum impact. In Reading, down the road, there are quite a few of them.”
But there is a downside to wrapping a vehicle, Julian says. Since he’s done it it’s been more difficult to find insurance for the car because, he believes, it makes the cars both stand out more and therefore they’re more likely to be broken into.
FULL SERVICE FINANCE
According to Steve Bolton, a Director at Barclays Asset Finance team, until recently the two most common ways agents funded their vehicle purchases was either through hire purchase or a bank loan.
But he says agents are moving away from these and towards finance that comes with additional services such as vehicle maintenance, repairs and fleet management.
So Steve reckons the key question for agents wanting to fund a car or fleet has got to be whether they want just the finance looking after or whether they need a package of ancillary services in the deal too – and that’s what contract hire agreements offer and why they are increasingly popular.
“If you have just one brand and a handful of cars then one person can usually manage them as part of their other job but for more cars it becomes a full time job and many agents prefer to outsource that rather than take a full time fleet manager on,” says Steve.
This is an important issue for agents because the urban, short journeys these cars are used for and the younger, less experienced drivers that agents tend to employ mean the vehicles tend to get bashed about.
“With contract hire agreements, agents should also think about whether they want to own the car outright at the end of the lease period or whether there’s a ‘balloon’ or residual value factored into the financing arrangement,” says Steve.
“All residual value does is reduce the monthly outlay for the vehicle which to many small and medium size estate agents is usually very important.”
“It enables them to have a better quality car for the same price or the same quality car for a lesser price or anywhere in between.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF GREEN?
Not everyone is having a Mini affair. London agent Chase Evans is taking delivery of 50 plug-in, hybrid electrical vehicles from BMW’s UK-wide dealer Syntner. The vehicles are the new 330e saloon with an official fuel economy figure of almost 150mpg, it produces just 49g/km of C02 and can run on electricity alone for 25 miles.
“The nature of our business means our staff cover a lot of miles on short journeys in a densely populated, urban environment and so reducing our carbon footprint is important to us,” says Ian Ruffle, Operations Director at Chase Evans.
“These cars not only look great, but they also give us the peace of mind that we are playing our part in reducing energy waste and pollution.”
It’s good marketing thinking – a cutting-edge mobile advertising billboard that’s community friendly – how many ‘wins’ is that? But whether you go Mini, Smart or green, it’s a powerful way of keeping your presence in the community strong and your brand driving your business – literally!