During his tenure at Zenith, Tim Buchan has had to deal with his share of headwinds.
Since becoming chief executive of the vehicle leasing business in 2010 he has had to deal with the tail end of a brutal economic recession, Brexit, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the rise of electric vehicles and two years of Covid.
However, despite this Zenith has grown exponentially during this period to become one of the region’s largest firms. It’s fleet now runs to 158,000 vehicles and its turnover lies in excess of £400m.
As the anchor tenant at Leeds’s Kirkstall Forge, it employs a workforce of more than 1,000 people and runs operations 24 hours a day.
“It’s been a really interesting period,” says Mr Buchan.
Mr Buchan joined Zenith in 2005 when it was still based at Holly Park Mills in the Calverley area of Leeds.
Having enrolled in an apprenticeship scheme upon leaving school he had worked in a variety of roles around the automotive sector prior to joining Zenith.
“Having that long, in-depth knowledge of how the automotive sector works has stood me in good stead for the role that I do today,” he says.
His arrival at Zenith came at a time when the business was beginning to grow rapidly.
Having been founded in 1989 by renowned Yorkshire entrepreneur Andrew Cope, Zenith began to go through a series of private equity transactions before Morgan Stanley stepped in in 2010 to buy a part of the company.
It was at this point that Mr Buchan moved in to run the business. Further investment came when Bridgepoint came on board and Morgan Stanley exited.
Mr Buchan said: “In 2005 if somebody had said to me that the 80 employees that Zenith has now, by 2021 will be somewhere circa 1,100 I would have said that was not possible but it has been achieved by organic growth. When you look back you are quite humbled by the job creation. I don’t think I could ever have envisaged that pace of growth.
“But we were always very driven to grow market share. The strategy as a team has delivered that.”
Mr Buchan’s firm is now embarking on a fresh challenge as it seeks to phase out fossil fuel powered vehicles in favour of electric.
A green bond was launched at the start of the year and Mr Buchan said the direction of travel toward electric vehicles was now clear.
“We want to create the right conditions for our customers to go to electric,” he said.
“We started to measure our ambitions in different ways. Our ambition for 2030 is to have the fleet electric, notwithstanding the big trucks.
“We would like to be in a position that all the vehicles we are running are electric vehicles. We measure things not just in numbers of cars but in that transition. Our growth will follow that ambition. We believe that we can do it.
“We believe that if we do the right thing and help our customers transition then our business will grow.”
Zenith’s leasing structure follows a wider pattern of market behaviour to favour consuming goods through subscription models rather than outright ownership.
With costs for an electric vehicle still somewhat prohibitive for many, Mr Buchan believes that the transition towards electric will be enabled by the leasing model.
“When we talk about helping to transition the business, our strong belief is that electric vehicles will be done by a lease rather than a buy,” he said.
“The ownership model is not a barrier to this transition. Globally, we have a semiconductor issue which we will fix in time and help ease that transition by making the production more readily available.
“And we have Government legislation which by 2030 says vehicles have to be battery electric. And then we need to see the evolution of the charging networks.
“The average vehicle travels 15 miles a day. Most of the battery technology now will do 200 miles on a charge.
“So the question we need to ask ourselves is do we have to lay down a charging network everywhere or are people happy to once or twice a week go off and use a fast charge for half an hour?
“Other than people spending a lot of time every day driving up and down motorways, the charge networks will be laid down and the demands won’t be so much of an issue as they are at the minute.”
Zenith’s decision to relocate was a straightforward one to make, given it was rapidly outgrowing its former home in Calverley but the move to Kirkstall Forge, rather than a city centre location, was eye-catching at the time.
Others followed suit. The building it bases itself in is now full with developers CEG beginning work on the second phase of commercial development there.
“If I say so myself, it was quite a big move,” said Mr Buchan.
“Being a car company that bases itself next to a railway station and encourages people to come by train was quite a bold move. But we saw it as something bigger.
“We are very pleased with the facilities we have got and I think it creates the best environment to recruit the best people.”
Like most tech-orientated businesses and large corporations the battle for talent is an ongoing struggle.
Mr Buchan does not pull his punches on this score, characterising it as “a headache”.
“This business has got enough work to run 24/7,” he said.
“It is going to be quite difficult following Brexit and the migration of that labour. I don’t think we have enough people in this country who are coming through to be able to support the growth aspirations of the country.
“So what we are going to have to do is go harder and deeper into growing our own apprentice-ships.
“That is what we do today and is what we will continue to do.”
With a focus on greener vehicles, a growth sector, and a strong Yorkshire base, Zenith is frequently lauded as being one of the region’s leading enterprises.
So I pose the question, would Zenith ever consider becoming a publicly traded company? Mr Buchan’s answer is emphatic.
“We are happy where we are,” he said.
“I think the company is well structured. We will continue to look to grow the company and deliver on our ambitions.”