Interview – Vincent Tourette, managing director of Groupe Renault UK

“How online retail can work has probably been the key learning from covid”

Vincent Tourette was appointed Managing Director of Groupe Renault UK in April 2017 and is responsible for the UK, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta markets for Renault, Dacia and Alpine.

He has previously headed sales and marketing for Nissan’s LCV division, as well as holding senior Groupe Renault roles as CEO in the Nordic region, marketing director for the Netherlands and marketing planning manager in the UK.

Here he talks about making the group ‘crisis-safe’ in the run up to Brexit, the UK market’s global influence, the power of winning What Car? Car of the Year for the Dacia Sandero and his hopes and expectations for a post-covid world.

You arrived as managing director in 2017, by which point Renault had changed quite considerably from your first stint with it in the UK?

“Yes. I had my first opportunity back in 2003 as a planning manager centrally and as a general manager of a dealership in London. It was a golden period for the brand, with 200,000 registrations a year possible and fighting among the top players.

“I returned to a different scenario. In 2017 we had the fallout from the Brexit vote to contend with, and the collapsing forex rates, plus a slow down in the market as a result of all sorts of factors leading to lower consumer confidence. There were a lot of issues to address, and that was my role – to adapt the business model to prepare for and see through Brexit and of course emissions targets.

“Of course, that also became to survive covid, but actually all our work leading up to Brexit and the CAFE emissions target put us in a good position – if I can call it good – to deal with that. We had to be lean to be profitable – and we are profitable.

Where does the UK market sit in global terms?

“Today it’s probably fair to say it is one of the most mature, complex, innovative markets in the car industry. We’ve had a lot of unknowns, haven’t we? A lot of changes and complexity, from the movements of the pound to the euro through to whether there would be a deal, and how it would look. So many challenges.

“But at the same time it’s at the forefront of the industry, leading in many areas. It is a trendsetter in many ways, in terms of its evolution into online, the fleet business opportunities, the way aggregators work. These ideas have been born in the UK and spread over the world. It’s demanding but sophisticated – and I think it’s fair to say that if you understand the British market then you’re prepared for the future for the rest of Europe and potentially in the world.

“Finally – but critically – it is also a leading market in terms of opinion. The fact it is English language and heavily online means the views expressed here are very approachable – and as a result that increases its global importance to car makers.”

On that note, we should touch on the Dacia Sandero winning the What Car? Car of the Year Award for 2021. What does winning mean to you?

“It means a lot – and for many reasons. The first one is simple: if you are in the market to buy a car, then you’ll come across What Car?. And that means you’ll be exposed to the Car of the Year Awards – that’s a huge boost for us.

“Then, you have to factor in that Dacia is a young brand still – just over seven years old in the UK. There’s a job to do around awareness and brand perception, and awards like this accelerate that. Winning the What Car? award bestows trust and confidence, which is important to customers who wouldn’t otherwise know us. It really means a lot.”

Does it sell cars?

“Definitely. I’ve seen two obvious impacts. First internally, we put news of the win on our global intranet for our 180,000 employees in the world to see. That doesn’t happen every day. It was something huge for us.

“Then there is the impact on dealers in the UK, who are of course proud and who can see the endorsement in the product you give. It makes the brand stronger and gives everyone motivation to do better.

“Then there is the external impact. The levels of website traffic have been incredible and immediate – especially when you consider we have not been doing a lot of promotional activity in lockdown, and the car isn’t in showrooms in the UK yet. We have built probably the biggest order bank for any car we haven’t been able to show to the public or allow them to test in our history. So people buy cars on the back of this award even without having been able to see, to touch it, or to drive it – that’s impressive.”

Where does Dacia go from here?

“Honestly, it’s been an incredible success to date – more than I imagined possible. It’s a challenger brand by design, and its positioning is about value, quality, and affordability. So it’s not only about price – it’s about what you get for the price, the value in terms of product concept, roominess, and top quality.

“Some brands start at that point and quickly move on, or upwards. But our objective is to really remain on that level. The big benefit for the group is that it delivers incremental volume, and therefore incremental profit on fixed costs that are there already with Renault. That’s the key element about its success: it has great products and it’s a challenger brand, but without all the fixed costs that would come with a dedicated, separated marque. It’s a brilliant concept: very simple and focused on value.

“What’s next? The idea is to continue the success story, and expand with new products. You’ve seen the Bigster – the big Duster, if you like. That’s definitely the way forward, keeping Dacia’s very strong, clear, simple positioning but obviously diversifying toward more market segments. There’s still huge potential in the brand.”

The Bigster was revealed as part of the massive Renaulution event, which included the new Renault 5 concept. How were those announcements received internally?

“It was a much needed day, because, if we’re honest, there has been some uncertainty around for the past two years following the departure of our former CEO.

“Then Luca de Meo arrived last summer, and everyone was waiting to hear what would come. We needed that long-term view, and what he delivered isn’t just a plan, it is a vision – almost a ten-year plan. Now we have a road map that is crystal clear and that has a huge impact on the motivation of everyone.

“The key with Luca is that he knows exactly where he wants to take the company, and crucially he also has a love for the product – you know, he’s a car guy. He’s reviewed the model line-up and he wants to do attractive cars. The Bigster, the Renault 5… we’ve had incredible feedback already.

“At a local level we have a wonderful opportunity now to capitalise and refocus.”

There was big news for Alpine too, with its expanding model line-up. In the past decade Renault has launched Dacia and Alpine successfully. That’s no small achievement, is it?

“Even today Alpine is not a major brand in the UK. Only one car, only seven dealers. So we’re not talking about huge volumes, but in terms of the perception, the brand is regarded very highly, boosted of course by its incredible reception by the experts and critics.

“One accolade to highlight is the five-star rating from Autocar, a rare achievement, which resonates around the world. That was critical for the brand. It’s a niche offering, but one with absolute credibility as a result of these reviews. That’s a perfect starting point to keep growing and do something with the brand. Growing the model range, looking at electrification and putting the name at the heart of our Formula 1 and motorsport programme is a sign of the ambition.”

How hard is it to sell retro-inspired modern designs like the Renault 5? Such cars risk only appealing to a niche of buyers?

“If it’s done well, retro-inspiration is only a positive. Basically you have a combination of heritage, positive feelings almost everywhere in the world, and it’s famously innovative. On that basis you don’t start from scratch.

“But it’s true, you do need to reinterpret it. It’s a bit like cooking; you need to reinterpret, innovate and modernise in order to stay relevant. The 5 looks spot on to me, especially as an electric vehicle. It has modernity too. It is a great recipe”

As the 2030 combustion engine ban looms, is this the sort of car to carry Renault buyers on the journey?

“Change is coming, quickly. What’s great about Renault is that we already have a good heritage in terms of introducing disruptive vehicles and ideas, from the Twizy to the ZOE. That kind of thinking is only going to have to accelerate.

“But it is a journey. We’ve spent two to three years stabilising for the new reality in the UK – in some ways, by preparing for Brexit, we now feel crisis proof, although I don’t want to tempt fate! We’ve survived covid and – in Europe – for some time we have been one of the group’s most profitable markets. That’s impressive against the tough global outlook Renault has faced. We have adapted our brand to the crisis and are now in a good shape to rebound and to go for sustainable growth on the back of the new product line. I’m very positive.

“What we have now is great – the products are very strong. But even more excitingly there’s more to come. Electrification is one element of the change, and we’ve been at the forefront of it. But also we are switching from volume to value, from B segment dependence to C and D. We are going to have great products there, too. And then there is brand power – in Alpine, Dacia and Renault we have three great brands.”

Is a changing retail landscape also part of that journey?

“How online retail can work has probably been the key learning from covid – we’ve probably been the first to offer, in the UK, a full end-to-end online retailing experience, including part-exchange, finance, and everything, together with click and collect and home delivery. We accelerated those plans in the first lockdown and it’s been fascinating: our virtual showroom has experienced huge demand. So there’s no question that this will continue growing.

“But we want to do all this with our dealers – and they have so far adapted to use it very well. Compare our capability to sell online to one year ago and it is a night and day difference. We want to accelerate that again… but I would add that touching, feeling and testing a car is a key part of the buying experience for many. Dealers are critical in providing that.”

Nobody has a crystal ball, but how do you see your brand specifically, and the market in general, emerging from this lockdown?

“I worry that I am dreaming, but I actually feel very positive. We have a road map from the Government and some clarity now on what’s to come. That gives confidence. We can all see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“In the UK, the way the country is managing the vaccination is a benchmark. That gives me hope that this is the last lockdown. My gut feeling is one of confidence that the market will rebound from April. The customers are there, many of whom need leases renewing. A full catch up on what we hoped for from 2021 is maybe too much, but I believe that there will be a strong period that closes some of the gap – certainly enough that we have a chance to look back on ’21 and say it was a good year.”

To run bespoke brand reports using whatcar.com market data, please contact claire.groves@haymarket.com