No, he didn’t front the Stone Roses, but this chief executive is banging the drum for the car hire sector in his quest to grow Rentalcars. Lee Hayhurst reports
Ask anyone to name an Ian Brown associated with Manchester and they’re unlikely to come up with the boss of Priceline-owned global car rental website Rentalcars.
Brown’s namesake, the Stone Roses frontman, was one of the figureheads that put the northern city at the epicentre of Brit pop ‘Madchester’ culture.
In a much more unheralded way, Rentalcars has been doing a similar job for the reputation of Manchester as a place to successfully base and operate a modern digital business.
Founded as Travel Jigsaw in 2005 with 20 staff, based above a Subway in Peter Street, it now employs more than 1,500 people of 65 nationalities, handles over eight million transactions a year and turns over more than £1 billion.
However, it remains intensely proud of its Mancunian heritage which is reflected throughout its two offices in the city, in particular The Hacienda staff cafeteria in its Sunlight House call centre.
For Brown, who was promoted to chief executive in January 2015 having joined in May the previous year as chief operating officer, the Manchester travel scene is very much a part of his story.
His introduction to the UK travel sector was a baptism of fire when, as a consultant working in the travel and hospitality team at management consultancy firm Oliver Wyman, he was called in to sort out the mess at MyTravel.
In October 2002, the Manchester-based operator, airline and retailer had issued three profit warnings in just three weeks and was teetering on the verge of collapse.
“Philip Jansen, the chief operating officer, approached a client of mine to figure out what had happened. That led to two years of work, effectively sorting out what had been lost along the way,” says Brown. “We sorted out a lot of basics, like flight planning and flight management, and a lot of stuff around the stores.
“We were effectively taking a bunch of principles learned in consumer-facing industries and applying them to travel, at the same time applying a much more rigorous approach to analytics.”
This forged Brown’s links with travel and led directly to him being approached to head Rentalcars after the founders sold up.
Travel Jigsaw, which traded as Carhire3000.com until 2010, had been set up by a group of MyTravel executives including Greg Wills, brother of Amanda, managing director of Virgin Holidays from 2001 to 2014.
Wills and his wife had returned to the UK from the US where they had been directors of broker Auto Europe, the car hire firm bought by MyTravel in 2000.
Brown says Wills was looking for a new challenge and founded Travel Jigsaw.
By the time of the sale to Booking. com parent Priceline in 2010, the founders had already brought in private equity backers as the business scaled rapidly.
“Greg called me and said ‘how do you fancy doing my job?’” says Brown.
“At that point at Oliver Wyman I was travelling way too much, particularly as I had two young children. Greg and I talked for a quite a while and in the end I agreed. I had worked with dozens of businesses in 16 years of consulting but none had the culture and the opportunity of this place. I saw there was huge potential, but also just a great culture of going at a hundred miles an hour and getting things done.”
Brown believes this business culture was key to persuading the famously choosy Priceline to buy the firm and it is something he and his management team continue to work on hard today.
“There are only three founding principles that matter,” he says.
“Number one, put the customer at the heart of everything you do and offer value for money.
“Two, we fundamentally believe in strong long-term partnerships, and that’s as true with supplier partners as it is with trade partners like airlines and OTAs.
“The third is about innovation. What’s important as you get bigger is to stay hungry and humble. That’s a really important cultural thing for us.
“If we have not broken something recently it means we are not moving fast enough.
“There’s no fear of failure. It’s very important, when you have an experiment that does not work that you ask what have we learned about customer behaviour.
“We generally learn more from what does not work than what does. We almost never get anything right first time.”
This approach, Brown says, has put Rentalcars in a clear leadership position in a sector that, outside of the small number of multinational car hire suppliers, remains very fragmented.
The result is it has been at the forefront of efforts to improve transparency by simplifying the bewildering array of agreement policies and additional charges that have caught the attention of regulators.
In 2014, Rentalcars added user reviews and scores to its site and has since continued to work with partner suppliers to improve the service for consumers.
“Can we influence the experience? Yes we can, and that’s something we’ve started to do much more in the last couple of years,” says Brown.
“We started with cleaning up fuel policies and moved on to other charges like one-way rental, younger driver and winter tyre fees. And it’s fortunate we did because the Competition and Markets Authority came along and said to the sector ‘you need to sort this out’.”
Such is Rentalcars’ influence that it sets customer service and complaint standards for suppliers. Brown describes this as the “stick”, with the “carrot” for complying being greater exposure and sales.
“Look at our site now, we have market-leading transparency,” says Brown. “Consumers are trading off price versus quality and there’s a very real incentive for supplier partners to improve service.
“The car rental industry in certain European destinations has not done itself many favours over the years. Various games have been played in terms of advertising amazingly cheap prices online and then recovering margin by adding customer fees they didn’t expect.
“We have set ourselves internally a mission of helping the industry get to a much better place.”
Rentalcars hopes to entice more trade partners to take advantage of this change and to tap into its supply through Connect, its B2B division headed by former Tui Travel director Fraser Ellacott.
It also plans to morph into more of a full-service ground transportation provider by expanding into taxis and transfers with its Rideways brand.
The other Ian Brown’s band famously suffered from second album syndrome with the delayed release of Second Coming.
Rentalcars’ impressive rise to global prominence, however, has shown no such sign of stalling.