Bringing Founder Passion to a Corporate Role

When I arrived at Europcar in 2008, the business was not performing at all well. We were losing money every month and having to request funds from head office just to pay our bills. We had to make significant people changes in the organization, not to mention strategic changes in sales, marketing, fleet, and operations. It often felt like open heart surgery. At one point, I was running more than half the functions myself while I recruited new executives and rebuilt the team.

Without the right people, you don’t have a business. Some people might think we’re a car business or a logistics business, but we’re a service business, and without high-quality, passionate people, we’re nothing. We do over 60,000 transactions a month in Australia, never mind what we do in New Zealand. We’re serving many customers every single day, and throughout the day there are challenges – cars break down, flights are delayed – so we need our people to be happy, smiling, and sparkly-eyed all the time. When you get the right people with the right experience doing the right thing at every level, the work gets easier.

And whether you’re renting cars, washing cars, checking cars in, or, say, the finance director, everybody is just as important as everybody else, no matter what title they have, what education they have, or how long they’ve been with us. To me, that’s neither here nor there. It’s about the job they do every day, and the passion and commitment they bring to Europcar. That’s why I love to see those people grow and develop throughout the organization. You can start anywhere in the business and have an opportunity to thrive.

I can say that with confidence, because I grew up in car rental. I started my career washing cars, and I’ve built it up over many years, in nine countries on three continents. I worked for Alamo Rent A Car and National Car Rental before I moved to Europcar because of an acquisition. In thirty years, I’ve never gone out and looked to change brands or really taken any interviews. I’ve just had internal promotions, battlefield promotions, and things like that, where I’ve been fortunate enough to have done good work, delivered results, and been recognized for it. So I like seeing people evolve in that way, and I want to see the industry evolve and advance as much as I want to see our people in our business advance. That’s what keeps me motivated and getting up in the morning and trotting to work.

Looking Ahead with New Technology
By 2009, we turned Europcar into a profitable business, and we haven’t looked back. Now, we’re looking ahead. The car rental business needs to change. The industry itself is still not as advanced as, say, the airline industry or other tourism sectors. Renting a car now is pretty much the same as it was renting a car thirty years ago. The industry hadn’t evolved massively in terms of technology, but we’re starting to lead the way.

Recently, Europcar has brought some simple – but groundbreaking – new technology into the market. We now produce our rental agreement on a tablet, with the customer signing on glass on the tablet. Our plan is to attach all the terms and conditions and everything else that needs to go in, like photographs verifying the condition of the vehicle. That may not sound like such a big deal, but for car rental it is – our biggest competitor is still using Dot Matrix printers! We’re rolling out sign-on-glass tablets at every single location. Be it Melbourne Airport, Broome, or Alice Springs, our target is to complete 99% of the rentals on that sign-on-glass technology. We just want to get away from paper. Killing trees? It’s not the right thing to do.

We’re testing even more new technology in Europe. Wouldn’t it be great if you could do your whole rental on a mobile phone? You arrive at the airport, you get a message saying your car’s in bay 25, you turn up to the car, unlock it with your phone, press go, and bang – your rental starts. When you’re done, you come back, photograph the fuel gauge and condition of the car, lock the car with your phone, and off you go. The invoice goes to your email, and there you have it: your whole self-service rental on your phone. That technology is quickly advancing, and in the not too distant future, it’s going to be a reality.

We want to get to where it’s like you’re handing the keys to your friend, and saying, “Here, you can borrow my car.” If we can build that level of trust and confidence in the brand, in the processes, and in the people, I think we can build a lot of brand loyalty and get out of the space where a car rental is all about price. Customers might be willing to spend a few dollars more a day to have that superior experience over something less convenient. At the end of the day, the customers just want it as easy as possible. They want a clean, nice, new car, and they want it quickly. That’s the goal.

Life Lessons
From a personal viewpoint, goal-setting is what it’s all about. When I was renting cars in Miami, early in my career, I always thought, “Why can’t I end up being a vice president in the business someday?” Even though I was renting cars, I had the ambition of going higher in the organization. My view was that I needed to do 110% or more if I was going to get recognized and get further chances. I always tell people, whatever you’re doing, make sure you’re doing it to the best of your capability, all the time. Always be a student, forever. Try to do better every single day. Since childhood, that’s been instilled in me, and I think that to be successful, that drive for constant, never-ending improvement needs to be there.

But you also need to have a clear road map for your life and your business. Don’t leave it to chance. I work with my executive team to write a strategic plan for the business, with actions that I need to undertake, and actions for each executive, and so on. The plan cascades throughout the organization, so that through the management levels, each individual has responsibilities that tie back to the company plan. We perform monthly or quarterly execution reviews, where I sit down with my leaders in the business and determine whether they’re on plan, ahead of plan, behind plan, or on alert. It gives people clarity on where the business is going, what the bigger mission for the business is, and what role they can play in it.

But plans may have to change, because life changes. Markets change, conditions change, competitors change, and you have to react to all of that. You have to ebb and flow with what life brings you. So that three-year plan you wrote twelve months ago might be no good now. Just go with the flow. It doesn’t have to be set in stone. You’re not Moses. You need to react and you need to evolve. It’s this dynamic of constant motion, of action and reaction – and not just in the leadership team but in the whole organization – to me, that’s the fun part of business and of life.

Ron Santiago is Managing Director of Europcar Australia.