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Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

Vauxhall boss Stephen Norman is giving a history lesson on the UK car industry, focusing on drivers tastes.
Travelling salesmens preference for Ford Cortinas in the Sixties and Seventies and how this switched to Vauxhall Cavaliers in 1982 when the pig ugly Ford Sierra was launched might sound a deadly dull subject. However, the way he tells it, its riveting.
Like a professor passionate about this subject, as Norman speaks he strides around the boardroom at Vauxhalls Griffin House base in Luton, which is decorated with Union Jack branding emphasises Vauxhalls Britishness.
In 24 months, Ford went from 30pc of the market and Vauxhall went from 9pc to 16pc, says Norman, pausing from roaming the room to gaze out the window. Before the Cavalier no salesman would dream of asking for a Vauxhall Victor instead of a Cortina - but people piled in to the Cavalier.
Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

The Cavalier delivered a huge sales 'windfall' for Vauxhall
Its an entertaining run-through on the history of the business which Peugeot-Citroen paid ?1.9bn for last August, buying Vauxhall and European sister Opel from GM. The new owners brought in Norman in January to turn things around.
From a decent chunk of UK sales in the late 1980s, Vauxhall had drifted down to 8pc of the UK market in 2017.
He brings the lesson to a conclusion that should make his turnaround easier. This idea that for decades Vauxhall was a brand with 20pc of the market is not founded in fact, he says. He labels the market share jump from the Cavaliers timely appearance as the Sierra was launched a windfall.
But how did Vauxhall go from being a driving force in the UK market to an also ran? Its down to branding, explains Norman. Vauxhall has been underselling itself, he says, bringing up a slide on the boardrooms screen which depicts a broken umbrella lying in a puddle, an image he describes as how the Vauxhall brand has been treated.
Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

Norman describes the early Ford Sierra as 'pig ugly'
Where else could that be but Britain? Norman asks as he leaps up to gesture at the screen. Weve been skirting around the edge of things - Were soft-ish, good-ish, not-too-bad-ish. Weve got to say what Vauxhall actually is. Weve nothing to be ashamed about.
Car aficionados might say its not about the brand, its that Vauxhall built boring cars which caused the decline. This is something Norman - politely, but very firmly - takes issue with, saying The Telegraph had rather unpleasantly called Vauxhall not very inspirational.
At one time Vauxhall made cars that were a reference brand, he adds, using terminology revealing his marketing pedigree. It was a reference for making very good cars for modest people.
Vauxhall through the ages
Under his control - helped by the joining the Peugeot-Citroen empire - Vauxhall plans to regain that reference position. But it wont make the mistake of trying to go upmarket, something Norman says most others would do. Our job is to make very good cars you dont have to pay through the nose for, he says. That doesnt mean they are cheap.
He believes a buyer of Vauxhalls top of the range Insignia car will have certainly considered buying a BMW.
However, they will have decided it is not necessary, he says. Not everyone needs to shout from their rooftops I have a BMW.
Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

Buyers of the Vauxhall Insignia will have 'considered a BMW, but deemed it not necessary'
Its just a case of communicating this, says Norman, who agrees his marketing background which included VW, Renault and Fiat is one of the reasons that Peugeot-Citroen boss Carlos Tavares promoted him into the job.
Its a big challenge, especially after Vauxhall suffered a 22pc sales fall last year, but one that Norman cherishes.
Ive always preferred choppy seas to calm ones, he says. Selling a specific brand to someone who is loaded doesnt give me satisfaction.
A fortnight ago Vauxhall-Opel filed a ?502m first-half operating profit, putting it on track for its first annual profit since 1999. Cost cuts were part of this - dealerships are being trimmed and the parts operation streamlined - but a key contributor was pricing.
Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

The number of Vauxhall dealerships is being reduced

Credit:
Bloomberg
This goes back to Normans point about Vauxhall underselling itself. The company has been too ready to give discounts to move cars and he intends to stop this, saying prices will go from where they were to where we believe they should be.
Its not difficult, he adds. If youre buying a car at 12pc to 14pc discount then you arent really any more likely to buy at a 19pc to 25pc discount. Either you want one or dont.
Part of tackling this is dealing with pre-registering. This occurs where dealers effectively buy vehicles from manufacturers, often at a big discount, to help them hit their monthly targets, then sell them on cheaply.
Norman agrees this is the dirty secret of the car sector, and Vauxhall - he wont disclose a figure - is more prone to it that many others.
Curbing pre-registering will come down to managing demand - not so many cars will be go to fleet buyers who can push for discounts - but also adjusting production to meet demand.
The future of Vauxhalls Ellesmere Port plant which builds the slowly selling Astra could hinge on this. Theres not a lot wrong with the Astra - car critics might say its a little staid - but its a style less in demand than fashionable SUVs. If Norman can improve how drivers perceive Vauxhall, this could help secure jobs at the plant.
Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

The Vauxhall Corsa is one of the UK's best selling cars
New models will also help. The Corsa - a favourite of young drivers - will be replaced next year and Norman says it will be rivals looking up to the new model, not the other way round.
The juxtaposition of young buyers snapping up Corsas and more mature drivers driving Vauxhalls bigger cars highlights what Norman calls as the marketings last myth, one that needs to be busted open.
Weve got to give up on market segmentation, he says. In a digital age were all young in our minds in how we consume things - or we are dead. I dont know if I am taking rejuvenation potion but I dont feel any problem with mixing it up with the young ones. When looking at cars I dont say, Id better have one of those because I am old, I look at the benefits it brings me.
Norman - whose daily driver is an Insignia, but also has a Caterham sports car - says he is crazy about cars, but his love of them has strengthened since returning to the UK after 38 years working in Europe. Driving to work this morning, three permium cars went past at well over a ton. You just dont see that in Europe. I dont condone speeding but it shows the car is king mentality here.
Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

Norman has a Caterham sports car as well as his Insignia company car

Credit:
Malcolm Griffiths
Unusually for a car fan, Norman entered the industry having first unsuccessfully applied to aerospace businesses, before taking a job with British Leyland. In a few years he had moved into marketing in a European role. The move is down to his father, a sales director for Birds Eye. As a boy, at the weekend Norman would roam the corridors of his fathers office while he wrote sales reports.
All the offices had solid doors and no windows and you couldnt see in, he recalls. Then I saw the marketing directors glass office with all the exciting Captain Birdseye figures and marketing material. The name on the door said IG Monk, marketing director. I asked my father - a very tough guy - what Mr Monk did. He looked at me and said, Not much, and nothing important. At that moment I decided thats what I wanted to do, both in terms of what Id seen in that office and in terms of opposition to my father.
It wasnt the only impact his father had on Normans career. Speaking to him on what he thought was his deathbed, the dutiful son told his father: Dont worry about Mum, Ill look after her. Norman says the reply - Dont worry about your mother, worry about your job - played a part in him becoming the crazy workaholic he is, and made Norman senior something of a hero to him.
Stephen Norman, the car industry veteran getting Vauxhall back in gear

Peugeot CItroen chief Carlos Tavares saw the unrealised potential in Vauxhall brand

Credit:
AFP
Hell need that energy to turn around Vauxhall, admitting when he arrived and looked round, although nothing was fundamentally broke - and this was the potential that Peugeot-Citroen chief Carlos Tavares saw in the business - nothing at Vauxhall seemed quite right.
Bidding farewell, Norman stops in front of one of the huge marketing posters in the boardroom, with a picture of a Vauxhall and the words True Brit on it. It encapsulates one of the qualities which will be needed if this Brit - returning to his homeland after 38 years working abroad - is to rev up this once great British brand.
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