Interview – Jim Tyrrell and Nick Laird, Chairman and Managing Director, Ssangyong UK

Interview - Jim Tyrrell and Nick Laird

An Interview With The Chairman and Managing Director of Ssangyong UK

The saying that only the cars move fast in the car industry is widely known, and it underlines the scale of the task faced by Indian industrial giant Mahindra & Mahindra when it took a majority shareholding in Korean vehicle manufacturer Ssangyong in 2011. While the deal paved the way for massive investment in the brand and growing ambitions for sales, it’s only now, eight years later, that the input is poised to deliver that growth.

Times have also changed at Ssangyong UK, with chairman Jim Tyrrell and managing director Nick Laird appointed in quick succession after a major reshuffle undertaken by the importer’s owners in 2017. With new models being launched at the promised rate of one per year, the pair look ahead to how they plan to turn potential into sales success.

Why is now Ssangyong UK’s moment to succeed?

Jim Tyrrell: “The starting point is product. There’s a huge amount of product investment coming from Korea, which started with the Tivoli launch a few years ago, then the Rexton, then the Musso last year, and we’re about to launch a new Korando later on this year. The whole line-up will be refreshed, and our job is to get people to reappraise what the brand is and what it stands for. We’re in a very different place from five years ago.”

How big is the shift?

JT: “Seismic. A new vehicle every year up to 2023 at least is an incredible commitment from our owner, Mahindra. Our job is to move the perception of the brand along as fast as the quality of the product is improving. We’re in the fortunate position that Korea is now established as a home for high-quality car manufacturing, we’re selling SUVs and pick-up trucks, which are the growth areas of the market, and we have electric powertrains on the way.

“We need to focus on our own goals, from changing brand perceptions to building the right retailer network.”

Do you have enough retailers to meet your ambitions?

Nick Laird: “At the moment, we have about 60 retailers. We’re looking to get that to slightly north of 100, so we’re looking to appoint 40 in new parts of the UK. That sounds like huge growth, but because of where the product is, we have some very high-quality companies talking about working with us. The momentum builds; we should have that target number by the end of 2020.

“Given that we arrived at a loss-making company with a pretty chaotic approach to business, that feels like a positive place to be, and it should prove a virtuous circle.

“The goal is to make a bit of money, invest a bit of money, get some more dealers, make a bit more money, invest a bit more money; success will build success. It sounds trite, but we can already see it in action, as customers tell friends how much they like our cars, so then their friends buy one.”

Does growth not present new challenges, though?

NL: “It does, but if you look on the retail side, we’re just trying to be pragmatic. They need to see a path to sustainable profit, and there’s no point demanding they transform their premises on some hollow promise. What we value is the relationships they have with customers, which is why they win so many service awards.

“They know the customers personally in many cases. Of course, our sales numbers to date help that, but asking them to apply those standards as they grow is just common sense. Retailers are the best marketing tool; by opening more in the right places, we should be able to double sales, just because they’re visible. The television marketing that will follow will help too, though.”

Is television still the most effective way to market a brand in this digital age?

JT: “When you have low brand awareness, there’s still nothing like television to get a reaction. It’s amazingly powerful. What has changed is how precisely you can target it.

“So, we’ll do some national advertising and some satellite advertising, aimed specifically at the regions we know we can do well in. We’ll then back that up by a stronger presence in those localities.

“For a while now, one of the most effective ways we’ve had of selling cars is to get people in them, so we’ll do a lot of country shows and events. ‘I wasn’t expecting that’ is a phrase we hear a lot, and it’s one of the key reasons we changed our strapline to ‘Surprisingly Ssangyong’.”

‘It’s clear that Ssangyong’s product quality is far ahead of its brand awareness’

How far can all this take you?

NL: “Well, we sold 3250 cars last year, we’ll do 4000 this year and the goal is 10,000. At that point, we have a sustainable business. But it won’t be the end; to get there, it will mean Ssangyong has grown globally exponentially, so then it will start to look at new segments, new initiatives and so on, and that will open the opportunity to more growth. The goal is to grow from 150,000 sales per year to 250,000, so we need to work together.”

Can you influence Ssangyong’s global strategy to your needs?

JT: “We talk all the time, and we like to think it’s a two-way conversation. Today, it’s about getting a price point that reflects our lack of brand awareness. That’s hard, because it’s clear the product quality is far ahead of that awareness. For now, our buyers get a bargain – but that’s because we need to start by getting more buyers.

“In terms of influencing product strategy, we have to be realistic: they will always service their biggest markets first. But the point is that the UK usually follows global trends, and if you want a globally successful car, it tends to work for us.

“Ssangyong is a small, nimble company that listens and – crucially – delivers. Its speed of response stands out; it can achieve in three months what some companies I’ve worked for take three years to do.”

Can you take heart from the progress of Hyundai and Kia?

JT: “We can do more than take heart: we believe we have a rightful, respectful position alongside them as a third Korean brand. We want people to recognise that we’re part of that club and that our cars are built in a country that has massive expertise. The associations with Korea are very positive, and we need to be seen to be part of that club, because it will do us a lot of good, in terms of the product, the residual values and more. It becomes a virtuous circle.”

That includes electrification leadership, and you have an electric Korando coming?

JT: “We do, and we have an opportunity to position that a bit differently. Most manufacturers are positioning their electric cars as premium, but we’re looking to do something a bit different. It will depend on the price structure, but there’s an opportunity to play to our roots, rather than needing to push into new price territory. A half-price Tesla has a nice ring to it and is potentially achievable.”

What keeps you up at night?

NL: “As long as we keep moving forward according to our and Ssangyong’s plans, we don’t need to worry. We’re realistic in our goals and know where we want to lead and where we want to be fast followers. Like everyone, the transition from combustion engines to electrification is a worry – not because we aren’t ready, because we demonstrably have the products coming, but because we don’t know the glide path or the levels of investment required to be competitive across multiple powertrains. But every car company would say the same.”

JT: “I’d rather look on the upside. Korea as a whole is a massively optimistic and forward-looking country; just consider where it has travelled in 30 years. I get the same feeling on Ssangyong. They are so driven to be better tomorrow than they were today, and that enthusiasm and determination is infectious.”

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