Family values drive growth of Sixt Ireland car rental business

MD ascended to GE management before bringing his experience back home

“We are not in the car industry . . . we are in the tourism industry,” says Sixt Ireland managing director Bernard Loughran (far right).

“We are not in the car industry . . . we are in the tourism industry,” says Sixt Ireland managing director Bernard Loughran (far right).

 

While size is vastly different between multinational conglomerates and Irish SMEs, the fundamentals of running them is the same, according to Bernard Loughran, managing director of Sixt Ireland.

He should know. He was among the most senior members of staff at General Electric in the United States, before he left to join his family business, County Car Rentals in Dublin.

“At General Electric, I learned there is very little difference between running a large corporation and a small business, except for size. The fundamentals are all the same, so you shouldn’t fear expansion.”

Loughran got a scholarship to study engineering at UCD, before being hired by General Electric in the US. There he worked his way up to the position of management consultant in strategic planning at GE.

GE encouraged him to do an MBA at Harvard but he talked them into letting him do it at Trinity, so he could spend some time at home.

“I was promoted within the company to corporate staff. Everyone else in corporate staff had an MBA. They registered me to do an MBA in Harvard. I had applied to do one in Trinity and got accepted there, so I did it there. I was 26.”

Loughran spent 11 years with GE in the US before returning home in the late 1980s to join the family business.

“I’d never taken my eye off the family business as it was there. I saw the potential of developing it.”

His parents had set up County Car Rentals in 1952, bringing “strong family values of hard work and integrity into the business,” he says. His mother Kay, who is in her 90s, is still a working director in the business.

“My mum has always been very good at figures, and over the years she always looked after the books. There is a wealth of knowledge in older people. It could and should be tapped.”

“She works in administration now. She has two certified accountants and four account assistants on her team. They run all accounts and operations.”

He says the County Car Rentals franchise operation initially targeted traffic coming off the ferry, but later set up a branch at Dublin Airport, and began marketing itself in the long-haul flight markets, winning inbound car rentals from Australia, New Zealand, the Far East, South Africa, the UK and the US.

“We were based in Dún Laoghaire and took advantage of traffic coming off the ferry. Then Ryanair changed everything and we had to move operations to Dublin Airport. We kept our headquarters in Dún Laoghaire but opened up a branch at Dublin Airport.”

In 2012, County Car Rentals won the Sixt franchise for Ireland, something Loughran says gave the company an international brand.

“Our fleet at the time of signing was overwhelmingly out of Sixt’s specification, with many vehicles approaching four years of age. We needed a much larger and newer fleet.”

“We had to bite the bullet and dispose of our out-of-spec fleet and acquire vehicles that met Sixt’s specifications. This required large financing, a difficult task in Ireland’s difficult economic climate.

“We had to convince the bank we are not in the car industry, like car dealerships are: we are in the tourism industry.”

As part of the partnership, all rental offices and operations have been rebranded with a fresh new Sixt Rent a Car corporate imagery.

Marketing Ireland in other countries, Loughran showed photos of Ireland’s motorway system as well as sites such as the Aviva Stadium, Grand Canal Theatre and Croke Park. He says there was a perceived image abroad that Ireland was full of tiny, winding roads – people didn’t realise the country had motorways.

“We targeted Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary. They brought us most of our business. We promoted Ireland as well as our car hire company.”

The car rental business has taught Loughran a lot about collisions and road safety.

“Renters have different types of accidents that non-renters. A lot of accidents that renters have relate to the fact they are not used to driving on the opposite side of the road.

“We put an arrow on the windscreen, with a reminder to keep left,” he says, adding that it has greatly helped to reduce collisions among car renters.

He said the idea came from a project he had previously worked on which was classified at the time. In that project, a “head- up” display was developed for aircraft, to help pilots. It was a transparent display that reminded the pilots without requiring them to look away from their usual viewpoint.

“The patent on that head-up display ran out. I used a simple version of that to tell people what side of the road to drive on. It was an immediate success. We took away the patent we had on ours, and allowed anyone to use it.”

He says other companies copied every aspect of his head-up display.

“I made a spelling mistake in the Italian translation of ‘drive on the left’. Some competitors did the same, funnily.”

Comparing the second half of 2014 with the second half of 2015, he says the rate of serious accidents among car renters was reduced by 66 per cent.

“We work very closely with Sixt headquarters in Munich on everything. They’re a family business too. It’s run by Mr and Mrs Sixt. I learned from them that if I wanted to be successful I had to have a very good team around me, so I did that.”

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