How debt has broken the breakdown recovery business

Both the RAC and AA have been saddled with huge debts by private equity owners. It;s not done them any favours at all.

Broken down car © Getty Images

(Image credit: Broken down car © Getty Images)

I have some properly useful advice for you this week and it's advice you can action right away.

First, don't buy your daughter a pony. I was foolish enough to do so, only to watch her grow out of it in five months, hence my attempt to visit a livery in Fife to buy her another one on a cold October afternoon. On the way there, I smashed the underside of my Mini on the worst potholed road in the West.

Second, if something similar happens to you, don't call the RAC. I called around 4pm (by which time it was already dark). They answered the call in reasonable time, only to stop my heart by telling me we hadn't renewed our subscription. It started again after they found the computer records proving that we had, in fact, renewed our cover, but I then nearly froze after they failed to turn up for a very long time.

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At 4.10pm I got a message confirming that "we've logged your breakdown and now we're finding the right solution for you" promising that "there's no need to call us. We'll update you very soon."

That was encouraging. But as the time ticked by, it became clear that the RAC defines "soon" in a very different way than you or I. After an hour, I called again. I was told that things were very busy because of the floods in the Midlands. A question about how that could affect stranded motorists in Scotland went unanswered.

I called again at 6.30pm and was told that someone had been dispatched at 5.53pm. At 7.02pm a message arrived saying Brian had actually been dispatched. Brian arrived at around 7.25pm. He was great. Hooked up the car. Towed it to Edinburgh. Dropped it just outside our local (long-suffering) garage.

I complained about the wait and in particular the lack of contact on Twitter (at least I had a phone signal). I am not the only one to complain. One Twitter follower told me his wife had waited for eight hours alone on a country road. Someone else claimed to have waited for 16 hours. Online reviews tell a similar story the patrol men and women are brilliant (and 65% of the reviews on Trustpilot are "excellent," presumably for this reason) but the communication is a bit rubbish, and the waits often far too long particularly given the lack of communication.

The next morning, I received an apology call from the RAC and I am told a £50 voucher is in the post. I'd have given a few £50s not to have to wait in the cold for three hours. But I appreciate the gesture and it's better than nothing.

Prior to my horse-related disaster, I hadn't used the RAC for years cars being less prone to breakdown than they used to be. Through chattering teeth, I tried to explain to my daughter that in the 1970s, car journeys were generally expected to involve as much waiting as moving. Large parts of most middle-class summer holidays were spent standing next to an overheating car on the A303 eating hard-boiled eggs. Certainly, no one driving a Citron ever dreamt of leaving without a full picnic on a journey too far away to walk home.

My daughter wasn't convinced although she could have done with an egg in Fife. However, given that I did not enjoy this little reminder of the miseries of the past, I would like to be sure it doesn't happen again. That means, I think, leaving the RAC.

The company is private-equity owned, which may explain some of the low level of service. Private equity loves the regular subscription-based cash flows provided by breakdown businesses. Yet heavy levels of debt and high levels of customer service rarely go together particularly in a fund aiming for a 12%-14% annual return such as the one CVC (the RAC's owners) is holding the firm in.

So what about the AA? I used to have a very soft spot for them (I had an accident-prone Mini when I was a student, too). But their online reviews are no better than those of the RAC and their debt levels are even worse.

The AA is carrying £2.7bn of net debt nearly eight times the level of trading cash profits. Nasty. This is one of the main reasons why the AA's share price has fallen from more than £4 in 2014 when it was listed by its private equity owners (which included CVC) to a mere 45p today.

In an overleveraged world headed for economic slowdown, I don't want to rely on the heavily indebted for rescue. Nor, however much their shares might appear to offer value, do I want to buy in as an investor.

The days of either of these brands containing even a memory of their time as genuine membership organisations are long gone.

On, then, to the lesser-known names.

Readers have suggested Green Flag and GEM Motoring Assist. Green Flag isn't going to be the one for me its online reviews aren't up to the job. But GEM Motoring Assist could be. The reviews are good; it won the Auto Express Drive Power Survey in 2019; and it is inexpensive too I was quoted £96.66 for a straightforward policy (including assistance at home).

The AA charges £150 for similar (less without the home bit) and the RAC slightly more (though it is hard to compare like with like as the RAC has "build your own" cover).

However, the main thought I am left with is that I should have no breakdown insurance at all. We haven't called out the RAC in over a decade. We could have put the £150 odd in an account every year and left it to compound. Even at 1% a year we would have £1,687 by now. With that I could have called a local tow truck, been home within the hour and had £1,200 left over. When I asked friends which service they used, the most sensible answer was this: "There's no need I drive a 14-year-old low mileage Audi." There you have it.

Finally and I'm in danger of entering Rich People's Problems territory here if anyone has a 15-hand-plus pony club all-rounder horse for sale that is not currently located at the end of a long bumpy track in Fife, then I think you know where to find me.

I wrote here a while back about the nightmares of buying a nearly-new car and how I was saved from the hell of Edinburgh's Seafield Road by delegating it to a buying agent. I did the same with our house. I'll be calling the car agent again soon (the Mini might have to give way to a Suzuki Jimny) but what I really want to know is where the pony finders are. There is usually an agent available for everything. Why not this?

This article was first published in the Financial Times

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.