Interview – Rob Lindley, Managing Director, Mitsubishi Motors UK

An interview with the Managing Director of Mitsubishi Motors UK

Like so many high fliers, Mitsubishi UK boss Rob Lindley began his automotive career as a trainee with Ford. That was back in 1989, and it led him to become managing director of Mazda Motors in the UK, then sales and marketing director for McLaren Automotive and vice-president and then managing director of HarleyDavidson EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa).

Lindley’s arrival at Mitsubishi last year coincided with the launch of the Eclipse Cross family SUV and an upswing in registrations, while sales this year have been steady. Here, he outlines where he sees Mitsubishi growing in the future and the advantages of the firm’s alliance with Nissan and Renault.

You climbed the ladder in the car industry and then moved into bikes with Harley Davidson prior to starting at Mitsubishi. Why?

“I was at McLaren as part of the launch team for the MP4-12C when I got a phone call out of the blue. I was asked to be head of Europe, Middle East and Africa and it intrigued me. Harley had a great history, a tremendous brand presence and massive advocacy among owners. So it was a really interesting assignment that I just felt I couldn’t turn down.

“But it wasn’t all plain sailing. I arrived in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis, and there was some real pressure. At one point, we had to borrow a lot of money to keep the doors open. But there was a great leader who turned it around. I didn’t expect to come back to cars, but then the phone rang again; there was an opportunity at Mitsubishi…”

What appealed about Mitsubishi?

“It was in a good position, with a strong brand and some decent business. But there was – and is – also huge potential, from the plug-in hybrid leadership it has established to the benefits of being part of the alliance with Renault and Nissan and all that can be unleashed from that in time. I’m 18 months in now and there’s so much to come.”

What are the primary focuses?

“If you’re suggesting the brand’s recent past has been a bit choppy in focus, that’s probably fair. Were we about Evo, SUVs, electric cars or PHEVs? We’ve actually innovated in a lot of successful areas but not been known strongly enough for them; the alliance gives us opportunities to capitalise on some of our leadership.

“I’d describe Mitsubishi as being about SUVs, PHEVs and EVs and having a strong technological capability, especially in four-wheel drive. And it’s around those pillars that we want to grow.”

‘As part of the alliance with Nissan and Renault, we can take advantage of our strengths’

What are the benefits of being part of the alliance?

“Globally, we sell 1.2 million cars a year, which is pretty small in car-making terms, especially given the investment required.

“Now that we have access to a suite of platforms, a range of electrification technologies and more, those problems have solutions. Then you build up the savings from sharing purchasing, infrastructure and technology and it starts to add up to something significant.

“Then, from our side, our experience with plug-in hybrids, SUVs and pick-ups makes us appealing to feed back into the alliance. Our history with small cars and pure electric vehicles also has value. We fit in quite nicely – and now we have a chance to take advantage of those strengths, because we have the funds to invest consistently to a plan.”

Business in the UK has been good since you joined…

“It has, but I’m not taking credit for it all. We had a great 2018, primarily off the back of the launch of the Eclipse Cross, which has done an excellent job of bringing us new customers without taking away from ASX or Outlander. That in itself is quite an achievement.

“This year is harder, but we’re not alone in that, and while a flat sales line is nothing to get the pulse racing, we’re pretty pleased when we look at the opposition and a market that’s down 2.5% – or more, if you believe the scale of some of the pre-registration business that some claim is being done. However, the dip we’ve all seen since April is a worrying trend.”

How big an impact did losing the plug-in car grant have on you?

“We’re still selling cars, but it’s a shame to have turned off an incentive to a transitional technology. I don’t believe the majority of consumers are ready to transition even to hybrid yet, and I do believe the grant was helping people make the decision.

“Plug-in hybrids represent an absolutely brilliant solution, and we have the evidence to prove that people were plugging our cars in – using them as they were designed, to the benefit of the planet. It’s a shame that wasn’t considered, but now we have to make it work, and I still see a positive future for us in that space.”

Are your retailers happy?

“Reasonably. I follow the National Franchised Dealers Association survey and it was a shame to slip in the last one, but I understand that profitability is down and that hurts, and that we’re asking for a new visual identity, which of course requires upfront investment even if we’re trying to not make it too onerous.

“But I also believe the majority of the dealers are optimistic. There’s a new L200 and ASX to look forward to. The servicing side of the business is strong. They’d like more retail business, but new product will help there and we can drive more footfall with marketing activity, be it sponsorship on TV or the rugby.

“Overall, our network is fragmented. We have a lot of different partners and over time perhaps that will consolidate. But there’s no pressure to force that; I can foresee it happening, and I’m more interested in opening new points, especially in metropolitan areas where we have some geographical gaps.”

Will customers embrace online sales?

“Well, we were one of the first brands to go active with an online purchase channel. It’s not been a massive sales source, but it gives customers choice, and of course each sale is facilitated by a dealer, so there’s no real threat. Then we have a store in the Lakeside Retail Park in Essex. That does sell directly to the consumer, but it’s also underpinned by being a brand statement. It gives us great visibility.

“We’re trying the obvious channels, but none threaten our retailers. The truth is that buying a car is complicated. It’s an emotional process, too, with part exchange to factor in. I can see consolidation of dealers, and I can imagine more, smaller dealers, but I can’t see a more efficient model of handling what customers want.”

What do you see as the main challenges for future sales?

“The biggest is probably emissions regulations, for cars and light commercial vehicles. With the latter in particular, there’s been a bit of kicking the regulations down the road; that makes planning very hard.

“Overlaying that is Brexit. We’re used to importing cars from Japan and Thailand, so no change there, but we do have to manage any potential port issues and stock up inventory just in case there are additional issues. Then there’s currency; we buy our cars in euros, and that, as you can imagine, has been hard as the value of the pound has dropped.

“In addition, we’d been hoping to benefit from Europe’s ramping zero-tariff deal to import from Japan. In a no-deal Brexit scenario, we have to assume that 10% benefit will be gone.

“But the ongoing uncertainty is probably the worst thing. These are issues we can’t control but which have a huge impact on us.”

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