Selling electric commercial vehicles to SMEs might not get everyone’s blood pumping but, for Innovation Automotive, it is a cornerstone of transitioning Britain’s businesses to EVs.
However, compared to traditional rivals, Innovation Automotive is offering a new direct-to-consumer business model designed to help companies understand that EVs are actually viable.
The business won’t fully launch until later in the year but, with Chinese manufacturers, DFSK and Skywell already signed up with more on the way, Innovation Automotive certainly seems bullish about its future.
We spoke to Paul Brigden, soon to join Innovation Automotive as CEO, and Lucy Collins, Product & Marketing Director, to get the inside scoop on the business’ plans and ambitions.
What is Innovation Automotive?
Paul Brigden: “We’ve set about creating a strategy to become the UK’s first multi-brand, pure EV, importation, distribution, and sales business.
“Our goal is to make the transition to pure electric vehicles, accessible, simple, and sustainable for all of our customers and to help them along that path. We have a great team of people that have come with a wealth of experience to help us to develop that model and to help our customers make that transition. We are focusing primarily on SMEs and smaller businesses and local authorities and helping them with the plethora of information out there to help them make that switch.”
Innovation Automotive isn’t selling through a traditional fleet model – why?
PB: “We think that the way we can best look after our customers in a consistent way is to have a direct sales relationship with them.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t need a support infrastructure of after-sales. So part of what we’re working on at the moment is talking to potential customers and users and operators to understand what they wanted from us so that they can help us shape our business going forward.
“We’ll have a full company launch towards the end of the year where we’ll announce all of our plans, pricing, and full specifications, as well as our after-sales and support. But our job is to make that transition, simple, accessible, and sustainable for everyone so they know that they made the right choice and don’t feel that there are abandoned once they’ve bought the vehicle.
“We’re working talking to a number of potential suppliers and partners about what that after-sales offering will look like, so that our customers get supported from enquiry, through the purchase, all the way through in life sp that they have a great great experience.”
Lucy Collins: “The ability to support them right away through the process is really important. But I think we are in a unique position to offer customers given our size and that we have multiple brands to offer customers. So hopefully we’ve got a solution that works for everybody as opposed to only offering one electric van and trying to pigeonhole customers into it.
“Our ability to support businesses is really important – we’re not just trying to sell some vans. But we can understand the infrastructure, what businesses need, how they’re planning to use the vehicles and, by being direct-to-consumer, we’re able to have those conversations one-on-one or in smaller groups.”
PB: “We’re supporting them on the transition to EVs, making it accessible, simple, and sustainable – not just for our customers but for everyone because this has to be the direction of travel and if we can convince people to make the switch, then we’re making a real difference.”
IA is only offering vehicles from Skywell and DFSK at the moment – is that likely to change?
LC: “At the moment they are our two brand partners but we are looking at other opportunities to offer our customers a range of brand partners.”
PB: “We’ll be planning our offering with those two but the ultimate strategy is to develop that portfolio of brands so that we can offer all our customers that spectrum of choice.”
How did the relationship with Skywell and DFSK come about, given that they are both Chinese companies?
PB: “It came about through talks we’ve had in the past about potential opportunities to bring brands to the UK and they’ve developed into this opportunity with Skywell and DFSK.
“We were, and we still are, talking to a number of Chinese brands and these were the first two that were really excited about what we were trying to achieve and they were really enthusiastic about coming on board.”
Why did IA choose to offer Chinese vehicles?
LC: “China is, at this point, the biggest producer of electric vehicles and has a huge domestic market with lots of different brands with lots of experience. We’re also starting to see in the market more widely that more Chinese brands are coming. But we felt that the offering from DFSK and Skywell was a good fit for the market right now.
“DFSK is a really well-established brand in China and is one of their ‘big three’ and has been established for over 40 years, with a huge product range for us to look at and evaluate, with lots of options that we thought could do really well. Skywell is a really good compliment to DFSK, it’s a newer entrant to the market but it also has access to some more established commercial vehicle products.
“We felt that the timing was really good to bring Chinese brands to the UK in particular with the direct-to-consumer model.”
Do you think your customers will respond well to this new approach to selling?
PB: “I think that consumer sentiment overall, not just in the vehicle space, is migrating to a more digital journey.
“As long as you can support that digital journey with some physical presence as well – making sure people can get a test drive when they want one – I don’t see that customers will object to it.
“We’ve also taken learnings from previous employment about that digital journey in that e-commerce section and I think customers are more than prepared now to have the kind of purchasing experience. And, actually, some will welcome it because it will be more convenient for them.
“That’s not to say that the traditional model won’t be around for the years to come, it’s just we believe that our business strategy and the product offering we have is better suited to direct to customer sales.
“It’s also fair to say that, initially, most of our sales will be B2B, they won’t be B2C, and most B2B sales are conducted directly, anyway.”
Why did both of you choose to join Innovation Automotive and take a risk with a new company?
PB: “Lucy and I worked together on the Chinese brand exploration and opportunity for a previous employer. So for me, it was a chance to do something really different and make a difference with a great team of people. We’ve got a team of people assembled, a lot of people from coming over from Mitsubishi, we’ve got some people from outside Mitsubishi.
“We all felt this was a chance to do something really different and make a real difference and build something innovative instead of just sticking to the traditional model. The traditional model isn’t broken, but we believe this is the right time to try and make a real difference.”
LC: “The time is now for electric cars and it’s exciting to be a part of that and to know we’ve got a product offering that is really competitive. It’s a really exciting place to be.”
PB: “We are now in that phase with the EV market where we are going to see massive growth so it’s a huge opportunity.”
How big are all the ambitions for Innovation Automotive and what do you see the electric market looking like in the next kind of five to ten years?
PB: “You only have to look at the way the market is moving and how it is accelerated through legislation to understand that in ten years’ time, the landscape of new vehicle registrations in the UK is going to be completely different and the space is going to be occupied by ultra-low mission vehicles.
“The opportunity is huge and we want to play our part, as every manufacturer has to. Every manufacturer has a duty to improve air quality and we’re a part of that, we’ll offer our customers another choice.”
Do you think the infrastructure is there to support the vehicles that you’re selling at the moment?
LC: “It’s a good question and I think there is lots of discussion about whether it is or it isn’t there.
“Our view is that a lot of charging needs will be around home and workplaces as well as obviously some public charging. We’ve got a job to do to listen to our customers’ needs and to understand whether the infrastructure that’s available is sufficient or whether they need something else.
And, hopefully, with lots of other players doing the same thing, we will start to tackle the infrastructure challenge. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it’s exciting.”