Lease or buy? Ask Colin Whelan, and he’ll tell you which is right for you.
Colin Whelan wasn’t exactly born a car guy. But he might as well have been.
He got his first job in the industry as a lot boy for Airways Truck Rental and Leasing in Vancouver at age 18. Now, 35 years later, he has risen to Fleet Manager at Brown Bros Ford, a Vancouver Ford dealer for 70 years.
He has worked in the business in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary, where he managed operations for Airways during the 1988 Olympics.
Success in the business, he points out, is all about attitude. “If there’s something you can do to make a customer happy, then you do it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s all about serving the customer,” he says.
Not looking for a job
Back from Calgary, in 1993 Whelan received an offer to go to work for the leasing arm of another old, established Vancouver dealer, Zephyr Lincoln Mercury in their wholesale lease division, Zephyr Lease. The leasing company, known today as Zeemac Vehicle Lease, still operates, although the Ford dealership lapsed a number of years ago.
Whelan managed Zeemac from 1995 until 2015, when Brown Bros Ford came calling. “I wasn’t looking for a job, but the opportunity came up. It’s hard to make a switch after 20 years. You know the company, and you know your customers. I didn’t really want to make a fresh start,” he says. But he met Brown Bros Ford owner Tim Brown, who impressed on Whelan the family nature of the business, and Whelan decided to make the move. It’s one he says has worked out very well.
Over the course of his career, Whelan has seen a lot of change, the most noteworthy being the rise of the Internet. “It’s tougher to get customers in the door, these days. Instead of visiting a number of dealerships, they’ll shop online and narrow their search down to only a few. When they do come in the door, they’re a lot more knowledgeable about product, pricing, and options,” he says.
In the old days, Whelan would do a lot of retail advertising—bus boards, location retail, radio, that sort of thing. That was the past, he says. Now he does a lot more target marketing—primarily in the corporate and commercial space. “When we learn about a big project coming up, we pitch those people. Typically email followed up by phone,” he says.
Whelan is, perhaps, more optimistic about the lease business now than he has ever been. “More people have become more aware of the benefits of leasing, especially given the cost of new vehicles and green vehicles. People used to want to own their fleet, but not so much anymore,” he says.
The ability to control costs is a major factor. “When you lease you can easily turn the fleet over, keep the fleet fresh, and control maintenance costs,” he says. “A long time ago I saw Jimmy Pattison speak,” he adds. “The vehicles in all of his businesses are leased. His rule is that if an item can appreciate in value, it’s an asset and you should own it. But if the item is going to depreciate over time, as vehicles do, then lease it. I remember that every day.”
At 55, Whelan isn’t slowing down. “I love what I do. It’s a lot of fun. Why would I stop?” he says. “It’s a great industry.”