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The Leon roars

By / 6 years ago / Interview / No Comments

Neil Williamson is sitting on SEAT’s stylish Geneva show stand, and he’s in a good mood. With good reason. Having been head of SEAT in the UK for just over a year, he’s probably thinking his timing is spot on: last year saw a record-breaking resurgence for the brand, with the new Leon range doing remarkably well.

He says: ‘We’ve seen big growth in the market, which was 11% up overall, but the good thing is we were 18% up in total, which we were delighted with. A lot of that was on the back of strong retail sales but our fleet volumes have been improving with new Leon. This year is the year of fleet and we’re getting stuck into good quality volume. And we’ve put some pretty meaty targets in.

‘The brand sold 45,000 cars last year and fleet was 17,000 of that. In terms of market share we’d like to equalise those numbers. Our market share was around 2% last year and we’d like to not be over-indexed in retail or fleet and this year it pretty much is where we want it. But as with everything, it’s a balancing act.’

Globally, things are going well too, despite the economic pressures in its Spanish home market and some lacklustre sales performances after the downturn. With a major upswing in sales demand and production, SEAT closed 2013 with the highest revenue in its history, having posted a turnover of 6,473 million euros – 6.3% more than the previous year.

With more than 102,000 units delivered worldwide (+44.4%), the Leon is the reason for SEAT’s 2013 sales performance, as overall sales reached 355,000 units, which is an increase of 10.6%. The five-door version, which was the model sold all year, became the brand’s best-selling model in several markets including the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy and Turkey.

Crucially, SEAT is now exporting 83% of its output, compared to 75% in 2009, and with Spain’s economy looking lame for years to come, less dependence on its home market can only be positive for the brand.

This strategy is paying off in 2014. In January and February 2014, Leon registrations increased by 46% globally compared to the same period in 2013 and 18,700 units were sold. Furthermore, more than 20,000 orders have already been placed for the Leon ST since production began in the final quarter of 2013.

So why such a concentration on fleet this year?

‘Well, we have complete range of Leon: three-door, five-door and ST, and the ST has really opened some doors for us,’ says Williamson. ‘We have been pleasantly and relatively surprised by how many fleets have said “right, now you’ve got five door and the estate, let’s talk."'

‘I think the thing is the ST looks great and that estate car segment can look a bit utilitarian, but it carries over many of the design cues of three and five door, and so far we’ve achieved 300% of our targets – three times as many STs as we thought and so we’ve taken more cars from factory. And what it has meant is that fleets which were closed to us before are now open, and I’ve been really surprised at the type of business: single badge and user chooser fleets. The last fleet car we had that had that type of fleet draw was the Exeo and the ST really gives us something to talk about.

‘The key will be doing good quality business. You could accuse us in the past of doing too much short term, but we’re not doing that any more, and while we’ll always do some rental because everybody does, we’re looking to grow our volumes through the leasing companies, user chooser fleets and restricted badge deals. What we’ve seen recently is that we’re pushing the French out a bit, with our broader range of cars.

‘But we still need to get on more lists, but the driver demand for Leon drives demand upwards to fleet decision-makers too.’

Williamson is not averse to doing big volume deals, such as the major British Gas account the firm won, if the figures stack up. He says: ‘If there is single badge stuff and the discount is reasonable, then we’ll look to do some of that as well. The key is two to three year good quality business so that those cars then become good used cars for our dealers.

‘We have a new fleet guy in Peter McDonald who started at the beginning of the year. Peter was in the SEAT team already as head of planning, and I appointed him into the fleet role and he’s really got the team motivated and on a high, and they really see this year as a big one for fleet.

‘And the brand is keen to reinvest on the back of the Leon success story. So there will be more cars in the future, and we’re looking at all the options to grow the portfolio.’

Although sales of Leon are strong, it is a brand in need of more models to reduce its dependence on two or three core products, and SEAT has confirmed it will produce a new compact SUV, which will come to market in 2016. The firm has been working on design and development at its Martorell facility for almost two years, and it should broaden the brand’s appeal in the company car heartland.

As SEAT has proved, when it gets a car right, buyers are won over by the combination of SEAT value and VW Group quality.

‘People want to buy Leons and that’s the driver that has transformed our business. Last year we had our fingers crossed, with the new five-door early in the year, the three-door in the summer and ST later, and in some months now we’re the fourth biggest seller after Golf, Focus and Astra which is brilliant and proves Leon is a proper volume fleet car.’

SEAT’s director Neil Williamson on the brand’s record year and plans for fleet expansion in 2014. By Steve Moody.


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Steve Moody

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