Interview – Richard Harrison, Managing Director, Seat UK

Interview - Richard Harrison

An Interview With The Managing Director of Seat UK

Even in these hard times, Seat UK managing director Richard Harrison is riding the crest of a wave, propelled by a hugely credible model line-up, including sometime class leaders in the Ateca and Arona SUVs and Ibiza small hatchback. Now Seat is looking to branch into electric cars with the upcoming Mii Electric city car and a production version of the el-Born family hatch concept.

Harrison forged his reputation at Renault before joining Seat, first as sales director for the UK arm and then in global sales and dealer network roles for the parent company in Barcelona. In 2015 he was asked to return to the UK to run the brand, with sales success swiftly following.

How would you describe Seat’s journey under your tenure?

“Back in 2015 and 2016 we set out some ambitions on where we wanted to be in three years’ time – today. The happy news is that we pretty much hit them all. The challenge is that many of those goals were related to growing up and becoming an established player in the market. There are plenty more chapters to be written. We’re out of the shadows now, our retailers are making good money and we have a great long-term strategy to execute.”

Are you at the start of another three-year plan, then?

“Yes, in a way we are – and I think the reference to chapters is relevant, because we’re moving the game on each time. We’re successful today, but we can see with some clarity how to be even more successful. If we’d sat down three or four years ago and talked, I think we would all have admitted there are very few opportunities for people to actually create a proper brand, but that’s what we’ve done. We started with almost nothing and created a really powerful brand.”

You must have a lot of confidence if you’re planning to keep growing at a time when the industry is facing so much disruption…

“We’ve got momentum and, despite all our growth, we’re still lean enough to be agile – and I think those two things are what make me so excited.

“On the first point, just look at what my team and the retailers have achieved; we all have a truly profitable, sustainable business to work in.

“On the second point, just look at what we’ve achieved in a short space of time. Is there any space that Seat couldn’t move into with credibility? I don’t feel there’s any legacy baggage in the brand.”

It’d be easy to get carried away with the success, though…

“It would be, but I believe we’ve always been quite pragmatic and will remain so. When you’ve spent years scrambling around for sales and profits, you tend to remain realistic. Just because it has lit up, it doesn’t mean that we’ll lose sight of what’s important just to make a few headlines.”

What things are important?

“They’re still being decided, but the challenges we face around digitalisation, electrification and so on are well recognised. Our job here is to distill it down and select the opportunities we can do brilliantly well, and accept that there’s stuff that we won’t do or that we’ll have to do later. We won’t succeed if we try to do everything, and recognising that is as important as choosing where to focus.”

Don’t first movers get an advantage, though?

“They can do, but it doesn’t always last. I can’t pretend we were at the forefront of launching a family of SUVs, but look at the success we’ve had since we launched them. It’s okay to arrive late at a party, as long as you bring a good bottle of wine. If you have the best product, it will usually sell.”

‘It’s okay to arrive late at a party, as long as you bring a good bottle of wine’

So what will you focus on?

“It’s a three-year plan, so I’m not going to tell you everything. But it’s no secret that the opportunity we’re going to put front and centre is electrification. That may sound simple, but it isn’t actually very easy to execute. You’ve seen the Mii Electric and el-Born, so you know what’s coming in terms of new car launches. But this isn’t just about launching new cars; it’s far bigger than that.

“Our team here now is exceptional at launching new cars; we’ve proved time after time that we can enter new segments and enjoy success. We understand the rhythm required to do it well. But with the electric cars, we’ve actually got to educate buyers as to why they should choose one. We need to do a deeper job in qualifying people’s needs and whether they actually want an electric car or a petrol or diesel. If it’s the latter, that’s fine – we have the right cars for them too – but we also need extol the virtues of electric motoring.”

Aren’t EVs automatically more complicated for most people just because they’re new?

“This industry habitually makes things more complex than most people are going to understand. If you don’t believe that, consider your private chats about work subjects and think back on the things you have to explain multiple times to make them clear. It’s not uncommon to be in a room and have four out of five people turn round and say: ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’.

“That’s the reality of the complex issues we deal with, but the answer has to be to break down what you’re saying. I think ‘normal’ people interpret things differently to ‘car’ people. We live and breathe this stuff. One of our key objectives is to simplify things.”

You mentioned digitalisation…

“I did, and there are ways it can be integrated to make choosing and buying a car simpler. But I do look at how fast some of our rivals are running into online car sales and, well… I’m not so sure it’s the first challenge I need to knock down. I know it doesn’t sound progressive, but I don’t have a particular need to be at the forefront of online sales. I can see how it might appeal to some customers, but I also know that the majority will still want to interact with our retail network.

“Of course, a website is a crucial online showroom. But the primary objective there is to bring people to our brand and give them a higher affinity for shopping with us. The retailer remains the crucial part of the equation, though, from the speed of their reaction to a request to qualifying that customer and giving them a great experience. Get that right and the value to the customer is huge. Online transacting can’t deliver that – and actually there’s a train of thought that the end result of digitalisation is to commoditise all brands. That would be a disaster.”

How strong is the Seat brand?

“Strong and getting stronger – and definitely a point of difference we’re proud of. Within that, our retailers are stronger than ever, and I see an opportunity for them to be an even greater differentiator going forward. Customer service is our greatest asset.”

Is it all about growing sales?

“No. The next job is to refine where we sit in the VW Group. We’ve become more confident in communicating who we are and what we stand for, but we can do more. We can be positive disruptors. We can talk happily about a future that’s completely different from the past, because we don’t have to look back to justify our position.

“We have what I believe is the youngest customer base in the industry. A large proportion of our customers are millennials. They have different value sets and they want different things out of life. We can align with those by being that bit clearer about our value set.”

You started by talking about a new three-year plan, but with so much change, can you really plan that far ahead?

“It’s true that writing longer-term plans becomes less relevant. What’s more important is being close to your customers and close to technology changes. If you keep your ears open and your eyes on your business and what’s happening, you can be agile for change and adapt to it. That’s the new normal, and that’s how we’ll succeed.”

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