As a service provider, what do you do if you can’t work with good products? Well, you build one yourself! That’s the story of Jérôme Lefebvre (38) and his brother-in-law Jean-Charles Carrette (41) of Westlease who wanted to increase their share of the leased electric vehicle market. They are now launching their own light commercial vehicle, under the banner of Addax Motors.
You may have spotted an Addax in the Sahara desert. These white antelopes are recognisable by their large spiralling horns. They are also remarkable by their capacity to go without water for lengthy periods of time. It was precisely this property that Jérôme Lefebvre and Jean-Charles Carrette thought would befit their new concept of electric light commercial vehicle. It would be able to keep driving without fuel, without maintenance and without worries for a long time.
The antelope features prominently in the Addax sporty logo. But that’s where the comparison ends, since the African animal is threatened with extinction. Addax Motors, on the other hand, is looking at a great, sustainable future.
Addax Motors emerged from the leasing company Westlease. Why did you launch something that is not your initial business?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “Addax Motors is a spin-off which originated from our leasing company Westlease. We actually had about one hundred electric vehicles leased out to customers, but we couldn’t run them the way we wanted. With our customers, we were not entirely satisfied with some of the vehicles supplied to us by foreign makes. The quality of workmanship was often low; the manufacturers offered substandard after-sales and they did nothing with our improvement suggestions. For example, we suggested they built in a 3G connection to relay problems in real time. This would allow us to quickly troubleshoot our customers. But giving us access to their system was out of the question for them.
The niche is also important to Addax. We focus on the light commercial vehicle niche because they make short, daily trips and are not used for the annual long-haul holiday away . Our target clientele includes couriers, the maintenance services of large business parks, urban services and one-person businesses that are mainly active in the city.”
You offer mobility as a service, not as a product. Why is this essential in the Addax Motors business model?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “We started up as a service company through our leasing operation. We found that not everyone feels comfortable driving electric vehicles. Many fear that the battery loses capacity quickly, even though this should no longer be an issue with the lithium battery technology and the current management systems that guarantee capacity for five years.
The hefty price tag associated with buying electric is another challenge. Sure, the cost of investment is high, but the operating cost is low because the fuel is cheap, the insurance premium is lower and there is less maintenance.
We easily overcome these objections through leasing. The costs are spread out over 5 years, and instead of being a risk borne by the driver, the battery is the leasing company’s responsibility.”
Your vehicle is electric, green, economical, always connected … What is your overall selling argument?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “We offer light commercial vehicles that are ideal for urban traffic. This is our niche. The problem was that, until now, we didn’t have a decent product to help us achieve our goal.
Our solution was to start designing and building the vehicle ourselves to suit our needs and those of our customers. This was a joint effort involving several partners. They supplemented the expertise that we did not have in-house at Westlease.
That’s how we designed our first vehicle with an engineering firm. Flanders Make examined and studied the first drawings and Rhenus SML was able to take care of the assembly. This collaboration has produced one light commercial vehicle model allowing different applications. For example, a tipper body, a refrigerated compartment, a sorting system, an open or closed loading platform, etc. may be mounted on the chassis.
The maximum speed is around 70km per hour. The vehicle’s other strengths include a small turning circle of 4m, its width of only 1.40m and the extra-large cab.”
What did you gain from your cooperation with Flanders Make?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “The network that it has built, that’s the major added value of Flanders Make. Their living lab is also interesting. They use it to test new products with the aim of developing and bringing them to market more effectively and faster.”
Both your R&D and production operations are in Belgium. Why in our country?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “It’s true. Our story so far is entirely Made in Belgium. All our suppliers are Belgian. For example, our cab is pressed and built in Belgium; the chassis is welded at a Belgian company… We think it’s crucial that we should contribute to our economy. At the same time, it’s easier for us to discuss matters with Belgian partners than with foreign ones. Sharing the same language and culture does facilitate our collaboration. Quality is assured.”
You are employing five people. What kind of growth are you expecting?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “A year ago, we were two partners and two employees. We now total three partners and five employees. Several freelancers complement the team.
We anticipate that our business will double over the next two to three years. This will also expand our team.
Currently, our challenge is to find people here who are specialists and have a broad profile at the same time. At present, we cannot afford to hire several specialised profiles. On the contrary, our people must be generalists in automotive.”
Rhenus SML is now manufacturing the vehicles. Why did you choose the Limburg based supplier of the former Ford Genk?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “Right from the beginning, we’ve had good relations with SML. Even when we had nothing, they were already interested. They immediately came up with ideas to facilitate assembly.
This is vital. You must know from the get-go how a vehicle can be produced on a large scale. Anyone can build a couple of vehicles in their garage, but it often backfires when scaling up to industrial production.
Our vehicles are produced near the former Ford Genk since the beginning of 2017. There is still a lot of manual work involved in the process. But SML is able to adapt quickly to the growing demand for electric light commercial vehicles.”
Are you also planning to export your success story?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “In our wildest dreams, we produce 1,000 to 3,000 vehicles annually per model. We sell them mainly in the Benelux, but increasingly abroad. At present, there is interest from Sweden, France and the Netherlands for instance.
The fact that many environmentally friendly measures are being taken at the moment certainly fits well with our vision of the future: the low emission zone in Antwerp; Ghent and other cities likely to follow suit; the public’s greater awareness of harmful particles; … This is bound to change the concept of logistics. Our vehicles can play a major role in the city. We hold discussions with large postal operators who are looking for greener ways to deliver parcels and letters. They can, for example, use electric vehicles to deliver parcels. This is a great opportunity for a company like Addax.”
How can Belgium help you grow further?
Jérôme Lefebvre: “I think that we can still do a lot more. Let’s compare ourselves with a project in Germany. At the government’s initiative, the University of Aachen has started the development of electric cars, this together with Deutsche Post. The politicians have ensured that the best heads from the various university departments are cooperating. Each department is contributing its specialty to the development of the car. There is a person coordinating everything. The result is called StreetScooter. Now that the concept is finalised, the vehicle is produced by a spin-off, near the university. This has boosted the local economy. People who are involved in the project continue to work in the area and are spending their income locally.
I miss this kind of approach and vision in Belgium. We do get support, but everything is so fragmented. Politicians are not developing an overall solution. So, even though we have the best experts, they should be brought together in a kind of cluster to work on a far-reaching project.”