Interview – Alison Jones Group managing director, Peugeot, Citroën and DS UK

Challenges of building up three distinct French brands

Alison Jones has been group managing director of the PSA Group’s Peugeot, Citroën and DS brands in the UK for just over a year now, having moved from the role of managing director of Volkswagen Passenger Cars after enjoying numerous high-flying jobs within the Volkswagen Group at Audi, Volkswagen, Seat, Skoda and Commercial Vehicles

Her role makes Jones responsible for car sales volumes second only to the VW Group’s in the UK, and she is also a senior vice-president within PSA’s global structure, giving her a unique perspective on the opportunities and challenges of running two mainstream brands as well as an emerging luxury one.

Were you destined for a career in the car industry?

“Not necessarily. I started with the VW Group at quite a young age but left to progress my career, first in fleet management and then manufacturing and distributing scientific instruments worldwide, which was quite different. I loved the commerciality of that role, but loved the scale of the car industry – and that’s what brought me back.

“I did 22 years at the VW Group and worked in sales, aftersales, customer service, finance, customer relationship management [CRM] and digital. What an opportunity. And now I’m here.”

‘PSA has a clarity of direction that stood out even before I started. It allows us to make quick decisions’

Are you living proof of the variety of a career in this industry?

“What’s interesting about automotive is the opportunities it gives you to progress. It’s results-orientated and I learned that I love to fix things, or make things happen, by pulling together the talents of large groups of people.

“As I did that, I got presented with more complex challenges, which I loved. I eventually worked across five brands at VW and took on a board role, as a director of quality. I loved the challenges presented by each, and soaked up different knowledge from each.

“That stood me in good stead for my next roles in group aftersales and customer quality – I love aftersales – and then I got the dream job as MD of VW UK. It wasn’t an easy time because of the emissions situation, but again it went well.

“Then this role came up. I wanted a bigger, more complicated role and it fitted the bill.”

What stands out at PSA?

“It has a clarity of direction that stood out even before I started. As I investigated the role, prior to taking it, what was evident was how clear it was in its priorities, from the president, through the executive board and onwards.

“I spent two weeks in Paris for my induction, meeting more than 70 people, yet they all knew that customer service, profitability and market share were the goals, in that order. That allows a fluency and clarity of decision-making. It is quite astonishing and allows us to make quick decisions.”

Is running three brands exponentially harder than running one?

“The key is knowing what the role required of you is – and it’s worth emphasising that anything that isn’t directly customer facing we do share across all the brands.

“I find that the key is to always switch into the mindset of what each brand wants. I can talk as much as I like about shared efficiencies and so on, but anyone working for a single brand will – and should – only view it from that perspective. I want them focused on their brand values and their customers alone, and I have to see it from that adaptive perspective.

“You have to be really flexible to a point, but you also have to lead. You draw on your team, but once you’ve made a decision, you have to lead it.”

Citroën and Peugeot are wilfully mass-market, yet DS is meant to be exclusive. Does it add another dimension to the challenges you face?

“It definitely is a challenge to grow a brand from scratch in the UK market. In some ways the scale – or lack of it – is refreshing. We can think differently, which is refreshing. We can treat it more like a start-up and push hard to test different approaches.

“And at the end of the day, the goal is still to grow the brand. The issue is that we have to do that while protecting residual values, so we can’t just pump the cars out there. The beauty is that the brand’s global CEO is very clear that we won’t take shortcuts. We will not compromise the long-term vision for the brand by trying to shift units now.

“There’s a process to go through that takes time – and there’s no question that adding electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to the line-up will help us grow.”

‘The answer to almost every question is driven by customers’ desire for an easy experience’

Do the similarities of Citroën and Peugeot make them more complementary?

“Yes and no. What you can’t take your eye off is the fact that they have individual streaks. Peugeot is high-end mainstream, has a wide range of cars and vans and behaves a bit like a company with twice its market share – because that’s exactly what it used to have. It’s mainstream.

“Citroën has quite a different product portfolio and an individualistic approach that has led to it being labelled ‘quirky’, although I’d prefer to see it as a ‘love’ brand. It focuses on comfort, has some very special styling and has a heritage that can charm you.

“There’s a lot of commonality behind the scenes – but how you present the brands to the public really is very different.”

How much of your work involves planning for the future?

“It’s a balance, but it’s much easier to get your head around if you consider that almost every question has an answer that will be driven by a customer’s desire for an easy buying experience.

“You can’t scenario plan everything, but if you lay out the opportunities – say, connectivity, electrification, online sales, many disparate initiatives – and take a five year view, you can draw up the priorities and set out practical plans to achieve them.”

The car industry hasn’t always put ease of buying at its core. In fact, the dealership model today almost wilfully complicates life sometimes…

“Our retailers today are strong. They know the challenges we all face and they are playing their part in adapting. The truth is that some things are just going to have to change to suit customers, even if they don’t suit us. If we don’t change, we’ll find that someone else does and they will take our business away.

“In fact, the car industry is very good at pioneering innovation. You could look at the parking sensor as a small but perfect example. No one asked for it, but anyone who had one couldn’t live without it. Then came the rear-view camera. Same again. Not all of the changes will be quite so small – but we are capable of innovating for customers as an industry.”

Will the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic accelerate change, at an industry and dealership level and elsewhere?

“Our industry, and indeed how we want to live our lives going forward, will certainly change because of Covid-19. Even if we foresee a lifting of the current lockdown confinements in the near term, we expect the measures for social distancing to remain in our lives for some time.

“The public have accelerated their digital experiences significantly in recent weeks, at the same time as industries have accelerated their use.

“For the automotive industry, this will change our retail and digital environments and the way in which we interact with customers, from engagement and enquiry through to the practicalities of buying, financing and taking delivery of a new car or van, and then into the ownership experience.

“The discussions about air quality and examples of environments and nature benefiting since the lockdown began, combined with the public deciding how they want to live in the future, could increase the uptake of low and zero-emissions vehicles and influence demand for private vehicles as an alternative to some forms of public transport.”

What excites you most about the future?

“The most exciting area is engine development. We’re in a great place, because we have a CO2-compliant portfolio of vehicles. The challenge is getting them to customers, both by meeting legislation and growing demand.

“The former is undoubtedly easier than the latter. Engineers can meet legislation, but do real people want to buy the end products? Today, they do in small numbers, but we need a framework that both encourages people to try what we have – because the cars and the charging infrastructure [for the electrified models] are far better than many believe – and which makes it more appealing for more people to adopt.”

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