“Uber and others have moved the dial and car clubs and car sharing mean the market is changing. People are no longer product led,” says Graham Benson Rentalcars.com CIO. “As consumers embrace technology more, they have become open to other ways of ground transportation through car and cab rental,” he says. Since 2012 economists and market watchers have been charting a trend known as “Peak Car”, with statistical evidence showing car ownership is declining in the developing world. The car remains, at times, a practical transport method, which has seen car clubs and the car rental sectors rise in the consciousness of consumers. Benson’s organisation, Rentalcars.com brings the price comparison and purchasing aggregation model commonly seen in personal insurance, mobile phone tariff and travel markets to renting a car.

“You give the customers what they want, not what you’ve got,” Benson says of the new era of consumerism and travel choices. Benson, always excited about the possibilities of technology and the internet, joined Rentalcars.com in February 2015 from retailer M and M Direct as he saw the disruption hitting the travel sector.

The traditional car industry needs to react to changes in consumer behaviour and society’s model of car ownership and usage is proving economically unsustainable to an increasing number of consumers.

“People’s transport needs are changing and their expectations of the services they can use when they travel are evolving therefore ancillary products like mobile data, Wi-fi and telephony are real add-ons to the travel propositions and they need to be integrated,” he says. The Manchester headquartered business owes its heritage to spotting changes in people’s expectations; it was founded in 2004 (as TravelJigsaw Ltd)  at the height of the aggregator boom and online giant Priceline Group acquired the business in 2010.

Today as Rentalcars.com the organisation is considered to be the largest car booking service in the world and sits in Priceline Group of online assets alongside Booking.com for hotels and OpenTable for restaurants to name two.

“We are a value added aggregator starting with price and product search but ultimately aiming to deliver a great customer experience. You have to add something else to differentiate your proposition,” Benson says. “Priceline Group gives us the financial clout and we are the largest technology business outside of London,” he says with pride at the Manchester headquarters.

Benson joined Rentalcars.com to be part of a major acceleration of growth. His approach to delivering the power for this acceleration isn’t to ensure there is more horsepower under the bonnet in the form of lots of technology. Instead Benson has focused on people and put his time into creating a great culture that will out corner rivals as if it were a professional driver like Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button.

Culture vulture

“We tolerate down time which is inevitable given the pace we are working at; we mustn’t repeat the same mistake twice though !” he tells me whilst sitting in a deck chair in the Beach Bar and in earshot of  some colleagues who are playing pool on a table embedded into a miniature Ford Mustang. “The attraction and the challenge for me was that in some ways this is an over-grown startup. All businesses need to retain their core culture of innovation, yet also recognise that some discipline and rigour is necessary as they scale”.

“You normally see this when you go from being a big small businesses to a small big business. Like puberty, the transition from child to adult. It is great fun and a challenge,” he says. As we tour the building and its various meeting rooms that all take inspiration from motoring movie legends, Benson explains that just as with successful people, organisations that retain that sense of daring encapsulated by youth remain the most dynamic into maturity.

“You must respect legacy; that is what built the business, it is cultural as well as system legacy. The Model T was perfect for that moment in time,” he fittingly uses a motoring analogy. “A lot of people in change management forget that and it’s a guaranteed way to stop people wanting to change. What the founders built here is truly amazing.  We must always remember, respect and celebrate that!”

Benson’s approach is to embrace the things that built the foundations of the organisation and given it the chassis from which it can accelerate and is working with them and new recruits to ensure the organisation can handle the changes coming its way in today’s economy. Whilst other organisations fail to indicate and turn down a dead-end road that in the short term looks like it will reap rewards, Benson and the leadership at rentalcars.com are studying the map and the team of drivers to ensure it reaches a sustainable destination.

“We are ensuring that we are appropriately skilled as we are rapidly growing,” he says. Benson, unlike business leaders in other sectors, is worried that teams can become stretched and narrow in their abilities as business accelerates. The CIO is looking at how he can bring in deep skills to the organisation.

“I have focused on the team as I always lead on ensuring that we have the right people and culture, then we will be well positioned to do the technology piece. So we will not produce a technology strategy until nearly a year after I have joined,” he says. Benson has seen other organisation running just to stand still because of a lack of cultural respect or alignment to the business and wants to ensure the he has the right people in place first.

“I don’t yet know how the systems fully work, my priority is to get the skills strategy right and then I will focus on learning the technology more thoroughly - I want and need to know how things work better than I do at the moment!”

The pages of this title have discussed at great length over the last two years the skills shortage in business technology. Benson, like all CIOs is facing the same challenge.

“I can’t change the world, but I can influence change in my organisation by creating an environment which will make us Manchester’s Tech “employer of choice”.  I want to be in a position where I don’t have enough jobs for the people who want them here.” It seems to be working too; the workforce at Rentalcars.com is diverse as the organisation has attracted skills from across the UK and beyond our shores to Manchester.

At fashion retailer M and M Direct Benson was praised by this title’s CIO 100 for his approach to getting the whole organisation to be interested in technology innovation and testing. A simple programme built around a venerable tube of coloured sweets invigorated the organisation to not only “eat its own dog food” but also enjoy a pack of Smarties.

“It’s about engaging your colleagues.  I genuinely believe that people come to work to be successful and happy,” he says. “They don’t want to come to work, be miserable and fail. If we can free people to be creative, they will have the ideas then we need to ensure that we follow through on them.”

Benson recently tied with fellow CIO 100 leader Phil Jordan, Group CIO of Telefonica ‘Most Disruptive CIO’ award set up by recruitment firm Talent International.

"Rentalcars.com is an innovative player in the fragmented car rental market and offers a unique customer proposition.  We are built on being disruptive and therefore we encourage and embrace innovation throughout the business, actively investing in creativity throughout the organisation. This accolade is testament not to me but to the great technology team that we have within the business coupled with the vision and leadership shown by the Leadership Team in embracing disruptive change."

Pub challenge

Part of that culture change was to take the team down the pub. What’s so innovative about that you ask? 

Benson asked for volunteers to join three SWAT teams to address issues highlighted in the staff opinion survey – issues were divided into People, Process and System.  Each of the SWAT teams took up residence in a pub for one day a week for five weeks from 3-7pm with an open bar to address these issues for example the Process SWAT focussed on a call-out process that wasn’t working and designed a new one.

The meetings, process, execution and outcomes were entirely led by the team, no managers or team leaders were present as “I wanted to ensure that people felt liberated to speak” Benson says. He admits the process took longer than five weeks (pub discussions do have that tendency). The whole process was very low cost and high value;  what Benson was looking for was to get the team into a different culture to solve the problem themselves as the problem affected them in their roles.

“You have to work people out of the work environment. A five minute walk to the pub puts people out of work mode. There were games too that got the team into a creative mindset; including room lock-ins and he jumbled up the teams so that the team built up new relationships.

“They all enjoyed it as well, even though by volunteering they gave up some of their own time.  Eating together helped; there is something about food, it helps creates trust, that’s the lizard brain working again I guess,” he says of how old fashioned food as a reward inspires collaboration.

If CIOs are harnessing the lizard brain to deliver change, which element of the psyche do CEOs need to influence amongst CIOs?

“If organisations say they need a separate digital strategy they are in trouble. It’s just a channel that is one of many customer touch points and a holistic business strategy embraces all touch points. Be channel agnostic so that you have a unified customer experience.

“We are creating the rentalcars.com experience regardless of the touch point, as people want to device hop.”

Although Benson isn’t planning a technology strategy until towards the end of his first year, he has strong views on his approach.

“Future proofing can be over-rated. I believe, where appropriate, in disposable systems with built in obsolescence.”

Technology is by its very natures disposable, such is the rate of innovation; society too is innovating and throwing off old fashioned notions of ownership in place of freedom and flexibility.  Perhaps ironically, only with a solid culture can an organisation drive towards innovation and flexibility.