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Nobilas Drives Ahead

One year after it became Akzo Nobel’s newest BU, we take a look at the company’s Nobilas business and talk to General Manager, Cor de Grauw.

launched as a separate BU in April 2004, Nobilas is a radical departure from just about anything Akzo Nobel has ever done in the past.

It’s essentially a service provider in a business which it is inventing on the fly. The goal? To create a leading position around the globe in accident management solutions for insurers, and to become the standard for one-stop fleet risk management.

Akzo Nobel may be a company with a legacy dating back to the 18th century, but when it launched Nobilas as its newest business unit, it was, for all practical purposes, launching a start-up. And not just any start-up—Nobilas takes Akzo Nobel off into uncharted territory. It is a company with no production facility. In fact, it makes nothing and sells only service.

But if General Manager Cor de Grauw’s vision is proven correct—and the growth that he oversaw as General Manager of the company’s Car Refinishes business is reason to believe it will be—Nobilas is selling a hot item. The problem is, no one has yet found the one word that properly describes the full range of Nobilas’ activities. 

Nobilas is in the accident management business. But it is also in the risk management business. And it is also in the fleet identity business. So, for insurers looking to outsource all car damage repair management activities, Nobilas offers the ultimate solution. In fact, what Nobilas is offering is the full package of services associated with the ownership of large vehicle fleets—services required by leasing and rental companies, delivery and express mail companies, large retailers, telecommunications and public utilities companies, large and multinational corporations.

Nuts and bolts
about any company that needs wheels to do business, but is more expert in the proverbial “core” business than in the nuts and bolts of managing thousands of vehicles.

Those vehicles require registration, insurance, repair, special paints and decals for corporate identity purposes, and when one is involved in an accident (as anyone will know who has the misfortune to experience it), a tangle of transactions to get the vehicle back on the road.

At Car Refinishes, De Grauw says they realized that there was a better way to manage fleets and handle accident repairs than the ways it had always been done. “Nobilas evolved out of our activities at Car Refinishes to try to steer work towards what we called our ‘Acoat Selected’ bodyshops. We began to approach insurers, fleet owners, and leasing companies, and found that the whole process of repair was very fragmented and unproductive.

“We came to the conclusion that this was basically because of a lack of trust. The result was far too many steps in the repair process—estimates, authorizations, inspections. So we thought it should be possible to simplify the process.

“At Car Refinishes,” he recalls, “we experimented with ways to tie in insurance companies, fleet owners and bodyshops, with the idea, naturally, that more business for bodyshops would be a great way to boost sales. The Nobilas business model grew out of those experiments. We concluded that there was enormous potential in the market and approached the Board of Management with a plan to expand this activity rapidly and to become a service provider, handling all the accident management work.”

But accident management work, it turns out, isn’t all that distracts a fleet owner from the task of moving from point A to point B. “When we started out, it was very much from the damage repair perspective,” continues De Grauw.

“But we found out that in many cases they want a ‘total mobility’ solution. If there was a breakdown because of a mechanical defect, or broken glass, it became clear that our clients wanted that to be included in the service. So this will rapidly expand into a full, one-stop service provider for all mobility issues, and we’ve decided to work with other partners for that.”

In addition to the inefficiencies of the traditional way of managing fleets and accidents, another major problem confronting fleet owners has been the lack of standardization. From country to country, the practices differ, in many cases the contacts are different, and there are no standard software solutions to keep paperwork under control and manage the flow of work. So here too, Nobilas is offering something that has never existed before.

“On average,” says De Grauw, “we have calculated that for each accident, there are about 50 contacts, including the owner, the insurer, the specialist, towing, glass repair, spare parts. To make this a smooth and seamless process, we need IT support. So we are developing that and our ambition is to become the standard of the industry.”

As with any start-up, Nobilas employees need to be a special breed, people who welcome change and eschew routine. “Because we’re constantly learning, we’re constantly changing the organization,” De Grauw explains. “Our people need to be flexible. If you want to know exactly what you have to do this year and next, you won’t fit into our mentality. We need people who have an entrepreneurial spirit. Because we have the ambition to create a new standard, we need people who think differently.”

De Grauw notes that Nobilas has an important advantage not enjoyed by most start-ups—the Akzo Nobel name. That gives the new business credibility and reassures potential clients that a blue chip company stands behind the effort.

(Published: June 6, 2005)

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