20 Dec 18

CEO Philippe Bismut says goodbye to Arval and the fleet industry

On Christmas Eve, Philippe Bismut will serve his last day as CEO of Arval. His successor Alain Van Groenendael is ready to take over on January 1st. How does Mr Bismut look back on his time at Arval? 
“There are mixed emotions, but mainly I feel like a youngster at summer camp, just before the holidays are about to end”, Philippe Bismut laughs. 

If it’s similar to the end of summer camp, what’s unique about leaving Arval? 
“After almost a decade at the helm, you develop a special bond with people and teams throughout the company, and you experience all the ups and downs of business life with them. Struggles, uphill battles, but also triumphs. That makes this quite a special experience.”

You joined Arval in 2002 as CEO of the UK and have been CEO of Arval since early 2011. What’s your proudest achievement?
“First off, I’ve been very lucky in my overall career with Arval. It was a winning streak. If I’m proud, it’s for the whole team. Arval has incredible people, an incredible sense of entrepreneurship, an incredibly positive and creative mindset. As a leader, I’m just the enabler.”

“More specifically, and more personally, I’m very proud of our account team model. It’s a unique system; I didn’t invent it, but I made it a central plank of our policy. We start from our teams, let them have direct client relationships – basically, it’s the opposite of conventional wisdom, which says that you need to mutualise to create efficiency. We have created many Arvals, and that has increased the motivation of our people. And the satisfaction of our customers. And the efficiency of our business! So that was a winning bet.”

And what was the most difficult thing?
“Well, there was a period in 2011-12 when we had an issue with liquidity as a consequence of the crisis in 2007-2008, and we had to slow down the business because of it. Jumping on the brakes was tough and frustrating, because we felt that there were plenty of opportunities. But other than that, I’ve been blessed, and the planets were aligned in the right way, mostly."

What does it take to be a good CEO?
“Business life is difficult and unstable, so versatility is essential. To illustrate with a metaphor: ‘When you're moving something uphill, you need to push. When things are going downhill, you should be able to pull the brakes’. Those are not the same talents. So, the message is: Adapt your management style to the nature of the challenge. Sometimes you need to be careful, conservative. Other times require a more daring approach.”

In your opinion, where is the fleet and mobility industry headed?
“You’re forcing me into prophecy. As you know, predictions are hard – especially about the future. However, the fact that we as an industry now provide services directly to end consumers is the major trend, because it changes the scale of our industry. We’re no longer fishing in a pond, but in the ocean. Of course, there will be challenges: we have to work on pricing, processes, client journey. But this is the new frontier. As a result, the corporate fleet sector will refocus on utility company cars – mainly cars for salespeople and technicians’ tool cars, in other words.”

The two main topics in the industry today are Mobility and EVs. But the gap between theory and practice is still very wide. Are these two trends for real, or are we falling for trendy blah-blah?
“It’s definitely not blah-blah. There’s a real urge – and need – to address, first, environmental issues, and also urban congestion. Cars have a role to play. I don’t like the term ‘mobility’: it’s vague, and it includes things we’ve always done, like walking and cycling. The essence is the availability of flexible, door-do-door solutions on demand, via a combination of public and private transport options. Arval is part of that ecosystem, and for us the basis remains the car. But that doesn’t mean that we exclude or ignore the rest.”

If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change in the fleet and lease industry?
“At the moment, I’d like to change the carmakers’ attitude on providing access to car data. We’re currently forced to install secondary telematics devices in cars, even though the data we capture could be available directly from the vehicles themselves. That’s a shame, because it creates complexity where we could have cooperation.”

“If I could use the wand a second time, I’d undo the way carmakers are preventing us from unlocking the private lease market.”

“By not contracting with us. We would want a contract in order to buy a car to provide for private lease. From a purely legal position, they can’t prevent us from doing this, but attitudes vary depending on the carmaker, the market and the competitive position. For example, a challenger brand is motivated to help you with private lease, while an incumbent brand is not.”

Do you have a principle that you swear by?
“If you have the choice between an elevator and the stairs, always take the stairs. It keeps you fit.”

Do you get angry if a competitor is quicker in getting a product to market?
“It’s more of a push, a wake-up call. A call for us to react. It’s better to be first ourselves (laughs).”

You weren’t first to launch an IPO…
“No. That’s a shareholder decision, by the way. Also, I don’t think an IPO necessarily is a recipe for success. Honestly, I don’t know why our competitor’s shareholder chose to do it (ALD Automotive launched an IPO on 16 June 2017, Ed.) I don’t see the benefit. We are a key part of the value proposition to our shareholder’s clients, and I wouldn’t like to see that intimate relationship be disentangled by an IPO.”

Most of your competitors have explicitly refocused away from vehicles towards mobility. Your baseline is still ‘We care about cars’. Why?
“Because we like cars. ‘Car’ is not a dirty word. Our area of expertise is renting and managing vehicles and providing smart solutions around vehicles. Of course, we can aggregate or become part of a mobility solution ecosystem. But cars will remain a key component of any solution we provide."

What’s your advice to start-ups entering the fleet and mobility industry?
“The app is not the solution. Mobility is about people, equipment, infrastructure. Even if you have the right idea, don’t expect it to spread quickly. Be patient and gather support for change.”

What’s your advice to your successor?  
“I’ll be very modest and not give any advice. I don’t think my advice will be valuable. In my opinion, when you’re out of the game, you’re out of the game. Alain is an experienced manager with a great track record in consumer finance management. We’ve developed a mutual esteem, even a friendship, I’d say. So the transition will be very smooth, which is nice for us but also good for the team and the company. Alain is ready.”

How about yourself? Don’t you fear falling into a black hole?
“No, for me, retirement is not a black hole; it’s a blank page. You have to reinvent yourself. Believe it or not, but I don’t have any clear plans yet. First of all, I’d like a more balanced life – with the luxury of time. Time to spend with my family and friends, indulge in a few passions and help the young. Teaching disadvantaged youths about finance, for example.”

Excellent plan. Good luck with it!

Authored by: Steven Schoefs