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Vauxhall boss: company value "isn't reflected in sales today"

TG chats to new Vauxhall MD Stephen Norman on what the brand needs to do

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In the year just ended, Vauxhall - a mass-market British brand with slim profits per car sold - outsold Mercedes-Benz – posh, foreign, high-margin - by only a tiny number. The tally was 195,000 to 181,000.

Vauxhall today announced a new Managing Director, Stephen Norman. So we took the chance to ask him if that’s good enough, and if not what he’s going to do about it. Clearly he doesn’t think it’s good enough.

“I’m being asked to stop the erosion of Vauxhall sales in Great Britain. I will address all elements of marketing. I can’t be exact yet because I have not got my feet under the desk. I’m British and Vauxhall talks to me directly. I learnt to drive in one and my first car was a Vauxhall – I could still tell you the registration number. It’s an iconic brand with a modest positioning.

“PSA has bought Opel and Vauxhall because of the intrinsic value of the brands. That intrinsic value isn’t reflected in sales today.”

We’ve know Norman a long time, as he’s gone through high-profile sales roles in Rover Group, Fiat (launched the 500), Renault (launched the Zoe and Captur) and latterly PSA, the company that bought Vauxhall and Opel last year.

He’s an eloquent and frank interviewee – to the point of bluntness. He once said to me, “you must have a particularly small circle of friends” when he didn’t like a question I asked. But normally he doesn’t evade.

“There is nothing in this brand that we need to turn our nose up at.” I put it to him that it’s inauthentic to position the Vauxhall brand differently than Opel does in Germany, given they’re the same cars. Shouldn’t they be aligned? “That’s your idea not mine. There is a British ingredient to Vauxhall. You can’t be sniffy about it as just a badge and a steering wheel position. You could say the same for most cars from most manufacturers if we’re honest.”

Sure, Minis are built in Britain and Holland. Some Mercedes C-Classes sold here are built in South Africa, almost all GLAs in Hungary. Difference is they have the same marketing position in every country.

Norman’s branding and distribution initiatives – whatever they turn out to be once he’s settled into the new job - are especially important with the Astra. If he manages to boost Astra sales, the Ellesmere Port plant where it’s made will be safe. “It’s inextricably linked to sales.” Otherwise it’s in doubt.

But he emphasises it’s not a matter of selling all the cars the plant wants to build, as that’s the route to discounting and depreciation. It’s about increasing the desire of the public to buy, and building the number of cars the customers actually want. If that’s above the number that makes money, the plant’s future is bright. “I think it can be done. I don’t yet know if they’re being sold through the right channels at the right price.”

But he says there’s currently no exact threshold for Ellesmere Port because it exports all over Europe. “In the case of Brexit there are several sets of parameters and hypotheses and forecasts,” so any calculations are unreliable until there’s clarity over the final tariffs.

As for the cars that’ll be needed to rescue Vauxhall as a whole, SUVs are crucial. “After the Grandland X and Crossland X, what I’ve seen of the designs for 2022 and 2023 are more SUV-ish. I haven’t yet seen what comes after SUVs.”

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