Car dealers are notoriously honest so when I chatted to a clutch of Stellantis franchisees ahead of my interview with the firm’s new boss I asked them what was really going on out there.
They didn’t hold back. Under a veil of anonymity they let rip about a frustrating few years representing brands including Peugeot, Citroen, DS and Fiat.
I spoke to three dealer group bosses ahead of my interview with Maria Grazia Davino (pictured fourth from right) and the feedback I received from them was pretty shocking.
‘Ask her why we haven’t been paid our bonuses,’ said one.
‘We’ve been waiting far too long for money we’re owed and it just isn’t on. The management is an absolute joke.’
Strong words, but they got worse.
‘I want to know if she thinks there’s any point continuing with some of these Stellantis brands in the face of competition from the Chinese etc,’ said another.
‘It’s embarrassing that the likes of Kia and MG have been allowed to leap ahead in sales while previously strong brands like Peugeot are struggling.
‘Is there really any point continuing to sell Fiat, Jeep and DS? They sell next to nothing, the products aren’t very good and they’re expensive.’
Like I said, they didn’t hold back.
Davino (above) has been on a tour of Stellantis car dealers in the first few weeks of her tenure as group managing director.
Appointed by Carlos Tavares with a mandate to fix the problematic UK market, she has been given very clear objectives on what the demanding global Stellantis boss expects.
Davino took over from Paul Willcox in September, but admits she was already getting stuck into the business over the summer.
Willcox presided over the sacking of 138 dealer partners – some of them family businesses who had represented Stellantis brands for decades – and was accused of not talking to the network.
This time last year, Car Dealer reported on a debacle that saw Stellantis dealers forced to register cars still stuck in ports with some customers asked to stump up monthly finance payments for cars they hadn’t even seen yet.
That was a straw that broke the camel’s back for many. It ruined relationships with their customers and caused weeks of pain. It was no surprise, then, that when I called them they were ready to vent.
‘To be fair to her,’ said one. ‘At least she’s been out and met the dealers and listened to our concerns.
‘We didn’t get that from previous management. But she has a lot to sort out – I certainly wouldn’t like her job.
‘It’s been an awful few years and many of us have been wondering what’s the point in keeping these franchises. If they don’t make money, aren’t competitive and we don’t get paid what we’re owed, then what’s the point?’
It was against this backdrop that I began my Zoom chat with Davino two weeks ago. We agreed with Stellantis to hold the interview back until today.
Sadly, we weren’t allowed to publish the video recording along with these stories. I’m not sure why, because if we had you’d have seen how well she handled some frankly horrible questions.
‘I’ve had a lot of conversations with a number of your partners over the last few days and, if I’m honest, and I can say this because I’m not one of your partners, they’re not very happy,’ I said.
‘I’ll go through a number of their topics today, but firstly, the most important one that they all raised is that they’re simply not making any profit. How are you going to fix that?’
The straight talking Italian was honest with me – she’s got a lot of work to do.
During our 53-minute interview she apologised to dealers for what they’ve had to put up with and promised to fix it. She asked for six months and hopefully then they’ll start to see a difference.
To prove she was listening to her partners she said she will postpone the unloved move to a fixed-price, haggle free agency model for all Stellantis brands until at least the end of 2026.
That’s quite a step considering she was in charge of the transition across Europe in her previous role as sales and marketing director for the region.
Asked if she wanted to say sorry to dealers, she jumped at the chance.
‘I do apologise sincerely, but people don’t care about apologies, they need actions, so I am putting myself in line to lead by example because we need to fix this,’ she said.
I’ve interviewed quite a few manufacturer bosses in two decades of writing about the motoring industry and I can count on one hand the times a manufacturer boss has held up their hands like this and admitted they got it wrong.
It just doesn’t happen. There’s always an excuse. But not this time. Davino was honest, open and frank about the problems the brands have been facing.
I came away convinced she was focussed on listening to dealers when it comes to fixing the problems. And for that, I have the utmost respect for her.
My questions would have got the backs up of most car maker chiefs – in fact, I can think of a few who would have ended the interview – but she took them all on the chin, said sorry and explained her priorities to put things right. Perhaps this is the new dawn Stellantis so desperately needs?
You can read the full interview here.