Tim Buchan left school at 16 to become an apprentice technician in an Alfa Romeo garage. He never left the automobile industry. Today he is chief executive of Bridgepoint-backed Zenith, the UK’s leading independent vehicle leasing business. With decades of experience under his belt, Buchan’s passion for motor cars remains undimmed. 

THE INTERVIEW

Driving ambition

Driving ambition

Tim Buchan left school at 16 to become an apprentice technician in an Alfa Romeo garage. He never left the automobile industry. Today he is chief executive of Bridgepoint-backed Zenith, the UK’s leading independent vehicle leasing business. With decades of experience under his belt, Buchan’s passion for motor cars remains undimmed. 

Cars are in Tim Buchan’s blood. His father ran automotive dealerships, so Buchan junior often helped out during the summer holidays. Shiny new cars with exciting gadgets were a perk of the trade and they became a regular feature of the Buchan household. An enduring passion was born.

“There was a family history of being involved in cars, right back as far as I can remember. So that was all I knew when I left school. Academia was not my strong point back then. I had more of a practical focus, so I started out as a motor vehicle technician in an Alfa Romeo garage,” says Buchan. 

This was in the late 70s and early 80s, a time when Alfa Romeo was an aspirational brand whose technical ability did not always live up to owners’ expectations. 

“Being an Alfa Romeo apprentice gave me a really good grounding in the automobile sector. I learnt about selling cars, maintaining them, providing parts and dealing with difficult and demanding customers, who often had lots of money but were disappointed with their vehicles’ performance,” he says.

Valuable lessons

After a few years with the Italian luxury marque, Buchan moved on to Avis Assistance, where he worked a night shift, repairing hire cars and dealing with customers’ problems. Now in his early 20s, 
the job provided him with another opportunity to learn some 
valuable lessons.

“Because it was at night, I was often on my own, so I had to think on my feet, be agile and find solutions to common problems: people breaking down, losing their keys, leaving the lights on, forgetting where they parked, being towed away. That was 30 years ago, but we still face many of the same issues in our business today, so it was another really good experience,” says Buchan.  

Night work is only palatable for so long, so he then moved to car-leasing group LeasePlan UK, where he worked initially as a technical controller, in effect sanctioning garage expenses when cars were sent off for maintenance or repair. ​

 

 THE INTERVIEW
Driving down costs

“LeasePlan is still a competitor of ours and the job of technical controller is an important one at Zenith too. Garages tend to inflate their expenses, but we can use our scale and expertise to drive down costs. Even today, then, our technical controllers save £21 in every £100 of costs requested,” he says. 

While at LeasePlan, Buchan moved into an account management role, working with corporate customers in the City. “I was helping high net worth individuals with their cars – people with demanding jobs who expected someone to do everything for them. It was a great grounding in account management,” he says. 

Over time, Buchan became head of account management and new business and, by 2000, he felt it was time to branch out and run his own business. With a group of colleagues, he founded a company offering fleet-style solutions to individuals. 

Dotcom bubble victims

“It operated under a subscription model, where customers paid a monthly sum, in return for which we would manage their cars for them – repairs, maintenance, service and such like. It would have been perfect for now, with the subscription economy coming along, but we were probably a bit early,” he explains.  

Within a couple of years, the business failed. Victims of the dotcom bubble, Buchan and his colleagues were unable to secure sufficient funding. “I was bitterly disappointed, but it was a real learning curve. In particular, I realised that you need a level of financial backing if you are going to build a serious business,” he says. 

Wider skill set

Out of a job in his mid-30s, Buchan joined a small consulting firm, which specialised in the automobile industry. He says: “I’d never done consulting before and I worked on all sorts of projects, so it gave me another skill set, which has proved really beneficial to this day.” It was at this stage in his career that he met Andrew Cope, founder and then CEO of Zenith. Cope asked Buchan to join Zenith, but initially the conversation did not go well.

“Being a Yorkshireman, he negotiated hard and I could not really see an opportunity for me. But a few months later, he came back, we came to an agreement and I started as sales and marketing director,” says Buchan.

That was in 2005, when Zenith operated from a mill building, had 80 employees and a fleet of 12,000 vehicles.

Over time, Buchan’s role expanded, as he took over more and more functions within the company. In 2010, he became CEO and in 2014, Zenith merged with Leasedrive, a transaction which doubled the size of the business. 

Transformative takeover

“We did our first acquisition in 2008, but the deal with Leasedrive was really transformative. We integrated it successfully, added new products and services and in 2017, Bridgepoint invested in the business,” he says.

By this stage, Buchan and his team had a clear mission – to ensure that Zenith covered every part of the automobile sector. He says: “There are 38 million vehicles on the road in the UK today, from the largest truck to the smallest car. We want to be in each of those markets.”

To that end, Zenith acquired truck-leasing specialist CVL shortly after the Bridgepoint transaction. The move gave the company access to a new segment of the automotive sector and took the fleet size up to 120,000 vehicles.

Different dynamic

“The CVL deal was really important for us on several levels,” says Buchan. “The dynamics of the truck market are very different from ordinary cars: the sector is highly regulated, trucks are serviced every six weeks and they form a large part of the 38 million vehicles on the road today. 

“Also, we can now go to large corporates and service all their automobile needs, from heavy goods vehicles to home delivery vans and company cars to short-term hires and a wide array of special services around personal leasing to employees. No one else in the UK can do that.”

Growth in mind

Mindful of his start-up experience, Buchan also devoted considerable time and resources to building up Zenith’s infrastructure so that it was well positioned for future growth and could accommodate the CVL acquisition. 

He says: “We have invested heavily in the business over the past four years. We moved all of our technology out of physical servers and into the cloud, which gives us much greater security and resilience. And we moved into a new headquarters last year, which is much more suitable for an employer of our size, particularly with a large millennial workforce. We really work on employee engagement, too, and have been a Times Top 100 employer for four years in a row.”

Employee engagement, according to Buchan, involves listening to staff and understanding their needs; being flexible and allowing agile working; and operating a well-thought-out share scheme, under which more than 50 per cent of staff own shares in the company. “It really aligns people with the business and gives them a much greater focus on delivery,” he says. 

Encouraging communication 

The new headquarters in Leeds helps, too. Strategically located next to a train station – providing easy access to several key cities in the north of England – the offices have been carefully designed in line with the latest aesthetic and functional trends. “I wanted our new HQ to have a really modern look and feel,” says Buchan. “Everyone has lockers rather than individual desks, people can log in anywhere and there’s lots of communal space to encourage people to move around and communicate. It’s created a completely different way of working and it should stand the company in good stead for the next 10 years.” 

There are informal seating areas, outdoor terraces and quiet rooms for people to sit, think and have the odd nap. Meeting rooms are named after Formula One races and drivers, and the entire space would not be out of place in Silicon Valley – which suits Buchan well. “My ambition is to be the Apple of our industry,” he says. “I want us to sell the best products, be the most innovative and offer the highest service levels – but not necessarily the cheapest prices.” 

Targeting consumers

The company’s latest innovation was launched at the beginning of this year. ZenAuto is a state-of-the-art online service that allows individual consumers to lease cars flexibly, swiftly and with consummate ease. 

“Having focused on the corporate market and built up the infrastructure, the expertise and the supply chain around that, we asked ourselves a strategic question: should we be in the consumer market too? Given the size of the addressable market – around 800,000 vehicles operate under lease finance today – we thought this was a huge opportunity for us,” Buchan explains. 

Personal contract purchase deals, or PCPs, have become extremely popular in recent years, allowing customers to pay a monthly rate over a number of years, at the end of which they have the option to buy their car outright.

Spotify for cars

ZenAuto operates in the personal contract hire space, which is simpler, cheaper and more straightforward.

“It’s like Spotify for cars, so it really responds to the needs of the subscription economy. And you can make choices based on cost, colour or special features, as well as make and model,” says Buchan. 

There is also the option to lease electric and hybrid vehicles, a choice that he expects to become increasingly popular. He says: “I think people are going to feel a lot more comfortable leasing electric vehicles instead of buying them. There is still a lot of uncertainty around battery life, real or unfounded, and the technology is moving so fast that leasing will allow you to upgrade easily as new features emerge,” he says. ​

European potential 

The name, ZenAuto has been deliberately chosen, too. “Auto is a worldwide name for car so, if we wanted to expand into Europe, the brand could easily be exported. For the moment, with 38 million vehicles on the road in the UK, there are plenty of opportunities here, but the international option is there,” says Buchan. 

Zenith has come a long way since Buchan joined the business, moving from 12,000 vehicles and 80 employees to 120,000 vehicles and 680 employees. A considerable achievement, Buchan suggests that his background in the industry has played a critical role: “I started out as an apprentice in a dealership, so I knew how to repair cars and manage customers at a basic level. I worked in a leasing company, which gave me another perspective on managing costs and the supply chain. I worked with corporate customers, so I had a really good knowledge of the industry and the roles that people play. And I was a consultant, where I learnt about presentation skills and how to put forward a business case.  Having covered so many areas has given me a real understanding of the industry and I think that has contributed to Zenith’s success so far.” 

Leaving school at 16 and working his way up from the bottom provides inspiration to employees, too. He says: “I hope that it shows our staff that anyone can do anything – with the right attitude and focus.” 

Back to articles

Name: Tim Buchan

Nationality: British

Age: 54

Education: Little Heath School

Family: Wife and one daughter

Car: A black Range Rover (mainly) and a Land Rover Defender (for a bit of fun)

Hobby: Skiing

Greatest achievement: Turning Zenith into a company that can serve every aspect of the automobile car park

Perks of the job: Driving all the latest products, most recently the new Jaguar E-PACE on the Jaguar Land Rover track in Warwickshire

 

Being an Alfa Romeo apprentice gave me a really good grounding in the automobile sector. I learnt about selling cars, maintaining them, providing parts and dealing with difficult and demanding customers”​

ZenAuto is like Spotify for cars, so it 
really responds to the needs of the subscription economy”​

There are 38 million vehicles on the road in the UK today, from the largest truck to the smallest car. We want to be in each of those markets”​

Cars are in Tim Buchan’s blood. His father ran automotive dealerships, so Buchan junior often helped out during the summer holidays. Shiny new cars with exciting gadgets were a perk of the trade and they became a regular feature of the Buchan household. An enduring passion was born.

“There was a family history of being involved in cars, right back as far as I can remember. So that was all I knew when I left school. Academia was not my strong point back then. I had more of a practical focus, so I started out as a motor vehicle technician in an Alfa Romeo garage,” says Buchan. 

This was in the late 70s and early 80s, a time when Alfa Romeo was an aspirational brand whose technical ability did not always live up to owners’ expectations. 

“Being an Alfa Romeo apprentice gave me a really good grounding in the automobile sector. I learnt about selling cars, maintaining them, providing parts and dealing with difficult and demanding customers, who often had lots of money but were disappointed with their vehicles’ performance,” he says.

Valuable lessons

After a few years with the Italian luxury marque, Buchan moved on to Avis Assistance, where he worked a night shift, repairing hire cars and dealing with customers’ problems. Now in his early 20s, 
the job provided him with another opportunity to learn some 
valuable lessons.

“Because it was at night, I was often on my own, so I had to think on my feet, be agile and find solutions to common problems: people breaking down, losing their keys, leaving the lights on, forgetting where they parked, being towed away. That was 30 years ago, but we still face many of the same issues in our business today, so it was another really good experience,” says Buchan.  

Night work is only palatable for so long, so he then moved to car-leasing group LeasePlan UK, where he worked initially as a technical controller, in effect sanctioning garage expenses when cars were sent off for maintenance or repair. ​

Name: Tim Buchan

Nationality: British

Age: 54

Education: Little Heath School

Family: Wife and one daughter

Car: A black Range Rover (mainly) and a Land Rover Defender (for a bit of fun)

Hobby: Skiing

Greatest achievement: Turning Zenith into a company that can serve every aspect of the automobile car park

Perks of the job: Driving all the latest products, most recently the new Jaguar E-PACE on the Jaguar Land Rover track in Warwickshire

 

Driving down costs

“LeasePlan is still a competitor of ours and the job of technical controller is an important one at Zenith too. Garages tend to inflate their expenses, but we can use our scale and expertise to drive down costs. Even today, then, our technical controllers save £21 in every £100 of costs requested,” he says. 

While at LeasePlan, Buchan moved into an account management role, working with corporate customers in the City. “I was helping high net worth individuals with their cars – people with demanding jobs who expected someone to do everything for them. It was a great grounding in account management,” he says. 

Over time, Buchan became head of account management and new business and, by 2000, he felt it was time to branch out and run his own business. With a group of colleagues, he founded a company offering fleet-style solutions to individuals. 

Dotcom bubble victims

“It operated under a subscription model, where customers paid a monthly sum, in return for which we would manage their cars for them – repairs, maintenance, service and such like. It would have been perfect for now, with the subscription economy coming along, but we were probably a bit early,” he explains.  

Within a couple of years, the business failed. Victims of the dotcom bubble, Buchan and his colleagues were unable to secure sufficient funding. “I was bitterly disappointed, but it was a real learning curve. In particular, I realised that you need a level of financial backing if you are going to build a serious business,” he says. 

My ambition is to be the Apple of our industry. I want us to sell the best products, be the most innovative and offer the highest service levels – but not necessarily the cheapest prices”​

Zenith has come a long way since Buchan joined the business, moving from 12,000 vehicles and 80 employees to 120,000 vehicles and 680 employees”​

ZenAuto is like Spotify for cars, so it 
really responds to the needs of the subscription economy”​​

Zenith has come a long way since Buchan joined the business, moving from 12,000 vehicles and 80 employees to 120,000 vehicles and 680 employees”​​

Being an Alfa Romeo apprentice gave me a really good grounding in the automobile sector. I learnt about selling cars, maintaining them, providing parts and dealing with difficult and demanding customers”​​

There are 38 million vehicles on the road in the UK today, from the largest truck to the smallest car. We want to be in each of those markets”​​

Wider skill set

Out of a job in his mid-30s, Buchan joined a small consulting firm, which specialised in the automobile industry. He says: “I’d never done consulting before and I worked on all sorts of projects, so it gave me another skill set, which has proved really beneficial to this day.” It was at this stage in his career that he met Andrew Cope, founder and then CEO of Zenith. Cope asked Buchan to join Zenith, but initially the conversation did not go well.

“Being a Yorkshireman, he negotiated hard and I could not really see an opportunity for me. But a few months later, he came back, we came to an agreement and I started as sales and marketing director,” says Buchan.

That was in 2005, when Zenith operated from a mill building, had 80 employees and a fleet of 12,000 vehicles.

Over time, Buchan’s role expanded, as he took over more and more functions within the company. In 2010, he became CEO and in 2014, Zenith merged with Leasedrive, a transaction which doubled the size of the business. 

Transformative takeover

“We did our first acquisition in 2008, but the deal with Leasedrive was really transformative. We integrated it successfully, added new products and services and in 2017, Bridgepoint invested in the business,” he says.

By this stage, Buchan and his team had a clear mission – to ensure that Zenith covered every part of the automobile sector. He says: “There are 38 million vehicles on the road in the UK today, from the largest truck to the smallest car. We want to be in each of those markets.”

To that end, Zenith acquired truck-leasing specialist CVL shortly after the Bridgepoint transaction. The move gave the company access to a new segment of the automotive sector and took the fleet size up to 120,000 vehicles.

Different dynamic

“The CVL deal was really important for us on several levels,” says Buchan. “The dynamics of the truck market are very different from ordinary cars: the sector is highly regulated, trucks are serviced every six weeks and they form a large part of the 38 million vehicles on the road today. 

“Also, we can now go to large corporates and service all their automobile needs, from heavy goods vehicles to home delivery vans and company cars to short-term hires and a wide array of special services around personal leasing to employees. No one else in the UK can do that.”

Growth in mind

Mindful of his start-up experience, Buchan also devoted considerable time and resources to building up Zenith’s infrastructure so that it was well positioned for future growth and could accommodate the CVL acquisition. 

He says: “We have invested heavily in the business over the past four years. We moved all of our technology out of physical servers and into the cloud, which gives us much greater security and resilience. And we moved into a new headquarters last year, which is much more suitable for an employer of our size, particularly with a large millennial workforce. We really work on employee engagement, too, and have been a Times Top 100 employer for four years in a row.”

Employee engagement, according to Buchan, involves listening to staff and understanding their needs; being flexible and allowing agile working; and operating a well-thought-out share scheme, under which more than 50 per cent of staff own shares in the company. “It really aligns people with the business and gives them a much greater focus on delivery,” he says. 

Encouraging communication 

The new headquarters in Leeds helps, too. Strategically located next to a train station – providing easy access to several key cities in the north of England – the offices have been carefully designed in line with the latest aesthetic and functional trends. “I wanted our new HQ to have a really modern look and feel,” says Buchan. “Everyone has lockers rather than individual desks, people can log in anywhere and there’s lots of communal space to encourage people to move around and communicate. It’s created a completely different way of working and it should stand the company in good stead for the next 10 years.” 

There are informal seating areas, outdoor terraces and quiet rooms for people to sit, think and have the odd nap. Meeting rooms are named after Formula One races and drivers, and the entire space would not be out of place in Silicon Valley – which suits Buchan well. “My ambition is to be the Apple of our industry,” he says. “I want us to sell the best products, be the most innovative and offer the highest service levels – but not necessarily the cheapest prices.” 

Targeting consumers

The company’s latest innovation was launched at the beginning of this year. ZenAuto is a state-of-the-art online service that allows individual consumers to lease cars flexibly, swiftly and with consummate ease. 

“Having focused on the corporate market and built up the infrastructure, the expertise and the supply chain around that, we asked ourselves a strategic question: should we be in the consumer market too? Given the size of the addressable market – around 800,000 vehicles operate under lease finance today – we thought this was a huge opportunity for us,” Buchan explains. 

Personal contract purchase deals, or PCPs, have become extremely popular in recent years, allowing customers to pay a monthly rate over a number of years, at the end of which they have the option to buy their car outright.

Spotify for cars

ZenAuto operates in the personal contract hire space, which is simpler, cheaper and more straightforward.

“It’s like Spotify for cars, so it really responds to the needs of the subscription economy. And you can make choices based on cost, colour or special features, as well as make and model,” says Buchan. 

There is also the option to lease electric and hybrid vehicles, a choice that he expects to become increasingly popular. He says: “I think people are going to feel a lot more comfortable leasing electric vehicles instead of buying them. There is still a lot of uncertainty around battery life, real or unfounded, and the technology is moving so fast that leasing will allow you to upgrade easily as new features emerge,” he says. ​

European potential 

The name, ZenAuto has been deliberately chosen, too. “Auto is a worldwide name for car so, if we wanted to expand into Europe, the brand could easily be exported. For the moment, with 38 million vehicles on the road in the UK, there are plenty of opportunities here, but the international option is there,” says Buchan. 

Zenith has come a long way since Buchan joined the business, moving from 12,000 vehicles and 80 employees to 120,000 vehicles and 680 employees. A considerable achievement, Buchan suggests that his background in the industry has played a critical role: “I started out as an apprentice in a dealership, so I knew how to repair cars and manage customers at a basic level. I worked in a leasing company, which gave me another perspective on managing costs and the supply chain. I worked with corporate customers, so I had a really good knowledge of the industry and the roles that people play. And I was a consultant, where I learnt about presentation skills and how to put forward a business case.  Having covered so many areas has given me a real understanding of the industry and I think that has contributed to Zenith’s success so far.” 

Leaving school at 16 and working his way up from the bottom provides inspiration to employees, too. He says: “I hope that it shows our staff that anyone can do anything – with the right attitude and focus.” 

Back to articles

My ambition is to be the Apple of our industry. I want us to sell the best products, be the most innovative and offer the highest service levels – but not necessarily the cheapest prices”​​

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  November 2018  |  Issue 34