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10 Mar 17

Gero Goetzenberger, CEO Athlon: “Mobility success requires a diversified approach” 

In his first interview since becoming CEO of new Athlon, Gero Goetzenberger reflects on the impact of the takeover by Daimler Financial Services: “The future of mobility definitely is multi-brand”. 

It was the biggest story in the European fleet and car lease industry last year: Daimler Financial Services had acquired Athlon International, the Netherlands-based leasing and mobility specialist. Gero Goetzenberger, CEO of Daimler Fleet Management, was named CEO of the new Athlon – a merger of the old Athlon with his own Daimler Fleet Management. For the first time, he reveals the strategy behind the acquisition, and the new company's plans for the future.

After acquisition comes integration. How far along in the process are you?
“First of all, let me say how happy we are that after closing our customers continue to experience the high level of service they want and need. In parallel to continuing the service, we are analysing the landscape in terms of customers, locations, processes and people. Our aim is to make sure we have the best of both worlds. This means that only at the end of this exercise will we have a clear view of the details of the integration process.
Additionally, we will also have a look at the individual markets, as the situation is different in each one. Both aspects will impact the order and speed of the integration process. We aim to complete the integration in 2018, but our customers will start reaping the benefits long before then, as the process starts now”.

Where will the process start – in the biggest markets, the most challenging ones, or elsewhere?
“We will start in parallel in all markets together. But differences in market size, complexity and business model will mean integration will be quicker in some markets than in others”.

What are the new Athlon's biggest markets?
“The Netherlands and Germany obviously, as these are our home markets. Next to that: Belgium, France and Italy. It's pretty much in line with the overall size of the economies”.

The new Athlon has inherited from its old self a lot of partnerships in countries where it had no direct subsidiaries. Some, like the one with Lex Autolease in the UK or with Donlen in North America, are likely to remain crucial to the globalisation of the company. Others probably less so. What will happen to those?
“I want to stress that Athlon highly values all these partnerships. Having said that, it is too early to comment on this topic, as we want to discuss the future of these partnerships with the partners themselves first. We haven’t had time to do that yet. So, I will have to get back to you on that one”.

The merged company inherited the Athlon name. Why? And what will happen to the Daimler Fleet Management brand now?
“I firmly believe the future of mobility is multi-brand. It has to be, because it is ultimately about customer choice, optimisation, variety of services, and simplicity in supplier relations. And Athlon stands for exactly that multi-brand offer.
Both companies have a great heritage, each with over 100 years’ experience in the mobility business – and a combined experience of no less than 230 years. But again, if you agree that the multi-brand aspect is crucial, it makes sense to continue under the Athlon umbrella. As for the Daimler Fleet Management brand, it will continue to exist in parallel for now, but in the long run, there will be only one fleet and mobility management brand – Athlon”.

With the emphasis on the multi-brand approach, what will happen to the captive finance and lease activities with and for Mercedes-Benz?
“As said, this business is about providing customer value. So, we aspire to retain what is good from Daimler Fleet Management, and even to broaden that offer. By which we mean: extend the excellence of our captive fleet and mobility services to other brands. Ultimately, however, Athlon will be our one and only brand for fleet and mobility management”.

Which elements of business culture and approach will you keep from Daimler Fleet Management, and which from Athlon?
“We should see this task before us as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Two excellent approaches to the mobility business are coming together, and we have the luck and luxury of being able to choose what will serve our customers best. Which elements precisely we will select from either company has not yet been decided – and can vary for each market in function of market size and business model”.

What in your opinion is the unique element about both companies that makes this such a great match?
“More than anything else, both companies focus on customer satisfaction. Both are willing to go the extra mile in order to service customer needs. Both also focus intensely on employee satisfaction, as part of a people-centric culture. So those elements provide a match, and that match will lead to an even better customer approach”.

You are the new company's CEO, while Athlon's former CEO Frans Janssen is your CCO. Daimler Fleet Management will also deliver the CFO. Does this signal that the new company will combine Daimler’s financial rigidity and organisational structure with Athlon's customer-oriented sales and approach?
“We have a very valid mix in the leadership teams, and both companies are equally well represented in the new management board team. Jean-Pierre Vissers of Athlon will be the new COO. When you look at our country managers and managing directors, many are from Athlon. Plus, the HQ will remain in Almere instead of going to Stuttgart. I don't think you can say Daimler imposed a top-down approach on the new Athlon. And that would have been wrong anyway, contrary to the value we attach to the multi-brand set-up, culture and focus at Athlon. Rather, this approach secures the knowledge we need for a successful continuation of the multi-brand trajectory, and the personnel we need to lead the new organisation”.

Daimler Financial Services paid €1.1 billion for a portfolio of just a bit over 350,000 vehicles, largely in markets where it already had a presence. Didn’t you pay too much?
“You just mentioned Daimler’s financial rigidity. Well I can assure you that also our investments follow a very thorough financial analysis. Athlon is successful, innovative and very healthy financially, with excellent customer ratings. And from a strategic angle, we believe fleet management and operational leasing will stay on a growth course for at least until 2025. Beyond that, in an environment with self-driving cars, our mother company Daimler will have a major part to play. So the investment makes absolute sense – in the short, mid and long term”.

Athlon has a lot of experience in experimenting with new mobility services. Daimler and Mercedes have car2go, moovel and the EQ project, among other mobility initiatives. How will the new Athlon integrate these two mobility approaches?
“The mobility angle has exactly been one of the drivers for Daimler Financial Services’ intent to acquire Athlon. And without a doubt, we will be combining our knowledge to bring new mobility offers to market. Offers in which the car will still be central, but which will include the mobility services demanded by our clients”.

Will the new Athlon be a true generalist supplier of mobility, or more a specialist, focusing on selected mobility services?
“I don't believe that today we can clearly predict what the mobility of the future will look like, and how we will be able to monetise it. However, now is the ideal time to invest and test, to see which products will work best in the future, and to focus on those products that will define the future of mobility. I am convinced that to be successful, you will need a diversified approach. In that respect, we are well set up, as we are able to draw on a multitude of experience”.

Can you offer any idea of how the mobility of the future will be monetised?
“I’m convinced that working with and for customers is what will determine who wins the mobility game. Customers will be prepared to pay for services that were developed with and for them. Fee incomes and provisions from own and third party mobility services will play an important role in monetizing as well.
Already now we see customers increasingly including mobility elements in their tenders, and that trend will continue. It is up to us to seize the opportunity to supply the services that satisfy that demand, and thus monetise the mobility of the future”.

What don't we yet know about Athlon that will surprise us?
“In order to underline our multi-brand identity, we not only keep the new Athlon HQ in Almere, but we also have moved our German country HQ away from Stuttgart to Düsseldorf. This shows that we are consequently striving for the best market-specific approaches.”

Picture copyright: Daimler Financial Services

Authored by: Steven Schoefs