Car park owner plans for world where vehicles drive themselves

Ben Ziff
Ben Ziff
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Ben Ziff is on a mission to improve the reputation of Britain’s car parks. He spoke to Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

HERE’s a vision of motoring that ought to make all car park operators’ blood run cold.

Every morning, your automated car drives you to work. It drops you off and drives home on its own, so you don’t need to fight for a parking space. Implausible? Not according to Ben Ziff. Britain’s car parks are in desperate need of a sunnier, customer-friendly image. We’ve all got horror stories about car parks where most mortals would fear to tread, and few cars leave unscathed.

Mr Ziff is the managing director of Citipark; the new name for Town Centre Car Parks, which is part of Town Centre Securities (TCS). He wants to build a business with impeccable green credentials.

He’s already installed a giant solar farm at the company’s Clarence Dock car park in Leeds, and sees opportunities for growth across the UK and Ireland. Understandably, Mr Ziff feels a powerful affinity with TCS, the property investment and development company which was founded by his late grandfather Arnold Ziff.

His biggest challenge is diversifying Citipark’s income as the UK economy motors towards happier times. The business is being re-built. TCS’s car parking business, Universal Parking once owned 23,000 car parking spaces. It was sold to Dutch-owned Q Park in 2001.

Mr Ziff, who joined TCS as an assistant asset manager in 2008, has overseen the rebirth of the car parking business and its re-branding as CitiPark. He understands the value of eye-catching stunts. In 2013, Mr Ziff attracted plenty of column inches with help from bucket-loads of conkers.

Thanks to Mr Ziff, two busy Leeds city centre car parks – The Merrion Centre and Clarence Dock – allowed drivers to pay for parking using horse chestnuts. Town Centre Car Parks, as the company was then known, told customers one conker would buy them 20p’s worth of car parking. However, when he talks about his business plans, Mr Ziff is in deadly earnest.

He said: “The next step for me is probably hitting Northern Ireland soon and also Scotland. In five years’ time, I’d probably like to be at least double the size we are now, if not more. Currently, we have 7,000 spaces. I definitely want to be about 15,000 spaces by then in the CitiPark business.”

He joined the business at a time when the global economy was falling off a cliff.

“TCS has been through an extremely tough time over the last five years,’’ Mr Ziff said. “I certainly will go through another recession in my lifetime. It’s a family business and we don’t intend that to change.

“Like all other property companies, we weren’t in control of the value of our assets. While you’re in control of your own destiny, you’re not in control of what the market’s doing.”

He wants to make the business stronger by increasing its scale and embracing green energy systems. The cars of the future may well be able to motor along without human intervention, which will take the sector into unknown territory.

“It is going to become a complete game changer when vehicles become automated and driverless,’’ he said.

In the brave new world of automated transport, your car could act as a taxi during the working day.

“If it’s not going to become a taxi what are you going to do with that vehicle?” said Mr Ziff. “Is it going to go and park itself somewhere? Is it going to go back home and put itself on a charger? There are a lot of questions around the longevity of the parking sector.”

These technological changes explain why Mr Ziff wants to find alternative sources of income for the business, such as solar farms.

“The solar farm we’ve got at Clarence Dock is on the roof of a car park. It’s got 428 solar panels,’’ he said. “The car park is zero carbon footprint, in terms of its energy consumption, and we’re also selling to the grid.

“We’ve also looked at installing kinetic plates on the ramps.”

Under this system, energy is created each time a car goes over a pad.

“We don’t have that working yet,’’ he said. “We would need a certain car park of a certain size and churn to make it work. But it’s definitely doable.”

The fight to find a low-cost parking space has grown tetchier in recent years. According to Mr Ziff, people are watching car parking prices like they used to watch petrol prices.

“It’s now got to the point where there are home owners who are opening up their driveways to park on,’’ he said. “The online consolidators are jumping at that. We advertise some of our spaces with online consolidators, it’s part of an important process to be out there.”

Car sharing has inspired a Peter Kay comedy, and could become big business as our roads head towards gridlock.

“Shared car schemes will take off more,’’ said Mr Ziff. “Local authorities will buy into those schemes. There’s a business in France which is already doing car sharing city to city. Their biggest competitor is the French rail network. They’re taking people off the train network and they are sharing the back seats of the car.”

His biggest immediate job is growing the customer base.

“Currently, we are turning over nearly £6m a year and in three years I’d like to be turning over £10m.

“Ireland is still a market where I see opportunity. A great example of our model is the Merrion Centre. We’ve just spent £9m on the car park alone, That is our vision for the future. It’s also our test case.”

The car park has bendy bollards and kerbs built at angles that make it easier to manoeuvre.

“It’s changing from it being a service operation to a retailer,’’ said Mr Ziff. “If I left my car in somebody else’s care. I would expect to return to my car without any issues. That’s what I want to deliver for our customers. That comes back to the brand loyalty and being clean, safe and secure.”