We meet Seat’s brand builder – UK MD Richard Harrison

Time 10:59 am, November 3, 2017

SEAT UK managing director Richard Harrison, pictured above at the opening of the brand’s new Westfield store, tells James Baggott about the winning formula that has revived the Spanish manufacturer’s fortunes over here and made others start to sit up and take notice

WE’RE sat in a posh London restaurant. It’s the usual London affair – all mirrors, dark wood and shiny metal. I’m swirling my third fussy coffee around my cup, waiting for the rather late Seat UK boss Richard Harrison to arrive.

He’s on the train to London, but there’s sadly been an incident on the line between Milton Keynes and the Smoke. It’s thrown his plans – and those of his colleagues, who are also due in London for a meeting with the press – into disarray. But while his PR team are panicking that their editors’ dinner date later on is going to be ruined, in walks Harrison, calm, collected and desperate for a hot drink.

Handshakes and quick introductions sorted, we’re soon sat down in the middle of the bustling bar, surrounded by diners finishing their smoked salmon and egg breakfasts, and immediately get down to business. I get the feeling this is the norm for the man at the top of Seat.

Seat UK MD Richard Harrison at the Seat Store

First up, I want to know what an average day looks like for the man who’s leading the Spanish brand’s charge in the sales charts. The VW Group brand has, perhaps unfairly, been seen as a forgotten child of the sprawling firm’s concerns and often left to simply get on with it, but does Harrison think that’s the case and, if so, what can he do about it?

‘There is no such thing as an average day for me,’ he says, relaxing back into his chair. ‘It’s a balance, really. First, I have a really strong team in Milton Keynes – they know the brand well, they’ve bought into the strategy and are running fast to make the most of this transformation period we’ve got going. I spend time with them to listen to their ideas, give them guidance and then let them get on with driving the business day to day.

‘The second area is spending time with my key stakeholder, which is the factory. I spend quite a lot of time talking with friends and colleagues in the factory, planning the long term strategically – where we are going with the next generation of products through to what are the best commercial strategies and activities.’

Harrison knows the factory extremely well. He spent four years based in Spain and became entrenched in the business and its plans for the future. His first role was looking after sales in western Europe, eventually migrating to a global sales role. After a stint as network development director he was asked to return to the UK and lead the brand in April 2015.

A view into the brand new Seat store in Westfield London

‘My wife was back here at that point, so I definitely wanted to come home to be with her,’ explains Harrison. ‘But at the same time, I would have happily stayed out there, as living in Barcelona is terrific – it’s such a lovely place. Working in the factory is very different.’

Taking lessons from the factory back to the UK helped Harrison plan. It also meant that when he had to feed difficult decisions and news back to the top team in Barcelona it was a lot easier – because they knew him and trusted him.

‘You saw in 2015/16 that our volume didn’t really go all that well, but that’s because I wanted to clean it up, sort the short-cycle business and get out of the pre-registration game,’ he explains, still sipping that much-needed drink.

‘I wanted to change that and to take advantage of the new product that was coming. I’m just coming up to my 10th anniversary with Seat and in all that time the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that the brand has been almost undiscovered.

‘Back in 2015, I wanted to do something about that – I invested heavily in brand awareness and its association with Barcelona.’

The Seat MD talks a customer through some key figures

If you were looking purely at the sales charts during this time, you might have wondered what on earth was going on. I for one know that we here at Car Dealer certainly were. In 2014 the brand registered 53,512 cars, but that fell drastically back to 2013 levels in 2015 with 47,654 cars sold, and again a year later it was down by a couple of hundred more cars at 47,456. From the outside, at least, things weren’t looking rosy at all.

But Harrison had a plan. He wanted to inject more Spanish flair into the brand, establish its roots in the minds of buyers and capitalise on the fresh new product coming on stream. These new models are helping and its dealers are now reporting buoyant profit levels.

‘Without giving too many secrets away, there were two aspects to this plan,’ he reveals. ‘One was about making an association with Barcelona, our home city that has all the attributes that Seat has – it’s dynamic, cosmopolitan, cool, youthful, spirited, sunny and design-orientated. I wanted to make that association clear and simple.

‘The second thing was to look where we were spending our money and to invest it in places that would make us really address our biggest problem – awareness.’

Harrison said he ‘adapted his media plans’ substantially, moving away from traditional media and spending marketing money in new, more exciting places. These were ‘commercially sensitive’ decisions and as such he isn’t keen on revealing the details in a widely-read trade publication such as ours – especially as other brands are already sitting up and taking notice.

Seat’s new stores reside in shopping centres, just like a normal shop

‘Our dealers have noticed the change and that’s led to a lot of competitors in the industry asking ‘‘What are Seat doing?’’ Harrison says, as a cheeky grin creeps across his face.
‘That’s quite flattering and it has never happened before – but it’s a formula I’m certainly keen on retaining.’

But has this change meant Seat is now targeting a different type of customer? Some might think Seat’s range has predominantly been aimed at youthful buyers wanting a sporty vehicle, but is this still the case now when its range
is swelling with SUVs and diminishing
in hot hatches?

‘We target different customers depending on the product,’ explains Harrison. ‘You have got to remember we are increasing our product range and not just replacing existing models. With cars like the Ateca and Arona we are entering segments we have never been in before.

‘Seat have the youngest customer base in the UK. Our customers are younger by some margin – between eight and 10 years than the average new car buyer. That comes from the way the brand has evolved over time. There was always the value aspect, but there was a sportier and dynamic element, which appealed to younger people.

‘The products have now grown up to be credible and appeal to a broader range of people. However, we hope they still appeal to younger people, because we’re not targeting an age demographic but a state of mind. When we talk about young, we talk about those who are young- spirited or young at heart.

Harrison pictured with a potential customer

‘It doesn’t matter if our buyers are young, middle-aged or older. There is a market around our Barcelona spirit, where you have something about you which is about retaining a youthful spirit – that is what Seat is about.’

Barcelona spirit? Young at heart? You wouldn’t be wrong if you thought that sounded like marketing mumbo jumbo – but there’s little denying the new models are hitting the right spot. The Ateca has performed well for the brand and the Arona is likely to follow suit.

What’s more, soon they’ll be joined by a bigger brother (think Skoda Kodiaq-size) to take sales on even further.

‘What you’ve seen with the brand is development,’ says Harrison, as he leans back into his chair, getting fully into the marketing swing. ‘You have SUVs which may appeal to an older person – it’s true the average age of an SUV buyer is slightly older. However, with the Ateca we’re appealing to people who say that driving experience is just as important as space. The model is bringing a huge number of people
into the brand who would have never considered a Seat before.’

Seat advisors on hand in the Westfield store

So who is buying these cars and where are they coming from? Is Seat now stealing customers from its sister firms, as well as those of its rivals?

‘They’re coming from all over the place,’ says Harrison. ‘I asked my marketing team to pinpoint it, but we are attracting buyers from a broad aspect of the market, from all SUVs. There is no one car we are taking buyers from – we are taking buyers from premium, compact and volume SUVs. It’s fascinating.’

That may not have answered my question completely, but it did reveal that Seat is winning business it otherwise didn’t think it would.

‘These buyers are considering Seat because of what we did with the brand,’ believes Harrison, again with a smile creeping across his face. ‘We brought the brand awareness up so far in such a short space of time, there are many people who now know about Seat who didn’t before. The plan is coming together.’

Much of the change has been thanks, in a large part, to the support of his dealer network. Harrison has worked hard since his return to engage with his network and get them back on side – and it’s paying off.

‘When I returned in 2015, my dealers were not happy – they were not making enough money,’ he reveals. ‘The interesting thing was that 2014 was
a record year for sales but dealer satisfaction was still struggling – it just didn’t add up.

‘Dealers are happy when they are making money, and when you refine things they get even happier – so it didn’t make sense. I looked deeper into how the business was trading and that was what brought about a change in our trading style. We changed to sensible targets, selling
cars to customers, not pre-registering,
and reduced our short-cycle business to improve residuals. My diagnosis and the strategies I wanted to implement were clearly understood and they were agreed at the very top.

Cars from Seat’s range wait for test drivers

‘There is a huge element of trust and my team and dealer network bought into that plan – we knew it would take a while to get out of the old way of trading.

‘We needed tenacity to follow it through. People get nervous when volume doesn’t come, but I had the full support of the factory, who accepted that volume would stay static for a while until we got the business well structured to take full advantage of the new products.

‘In 2016, while volume remained static, dealers actually recorded a record profit, making more profit on a lower volume than they did in 2014. That, for me, was the key big tick.’

And that success has continued to rise. Harrison says 2017 looks likely to blow 2016 out of the water – and the dealers we’ve been speaking to endorse that. But what next?

‘We need to grow,’ says Harrison. Something many dealers will have heard before – what manufacturer doesn’t want to grow? But doing it sustainably, without putting too much pressure on its dealers? That’s the holy grail…

Harrison says: ‘We are growing the volume in the brand, but at a controlled rate and not just getting greedy with a brand-new car that everyone loves. This is allowing us to grow at a healthy rate and maintain a good balance of channel mix and customer pull.’

And dealers will be pleased to hear this won’t bring with it huge demands on greater space, larger workshops and shinier showrooms – plus when it does, it will be done the Seat way.

Harrison with a customer

‘We are now two-thirds of the way through rolling out our new corporate identity,’ he says. ‘This has been very pragmatic in terms of cost. Very much in the brand’s spirit, we wanted to give dealers a refresh to make the environment more modern and aligned to the new products.

‘It includes exterior styling, which is a brand-new look and a high-impact totem. Then we have the interior, which is new tiles, new design layout, new desks and so on. We told dealers to go at their speed, and we split interior and exterior.’

Harrison says he wants customers to know that they are driving by a ‘new’ Seat showroom – and for it to signal that the brand has changed. However, he insists that he let his dealers do it at their own pace.

‘My dealers have told me the cost of upgrading their corporate identity is extremely reasonable, but that is because for years we have been used to being frugal and selective in terms of what we do,’ he explains.

‘We need to keep things balanced so that when we get bigger we don’t lose that spirit.’

And dealers will be pleased to hear this won’t bring with it huge demands on greater space, larger workshops and shinier showrooms – plus when it does, it will be done the Seat way.

‘We are now two-thirds of the way through rolling out our new corporate identity,’ he says. ‘This has been very pragmatic in terms of cost. Very much in the brand’s spirit, we wanted to give dealers a refresh to make the environment more modern and aligned to the new products.

Harrison says he wants customers to know that they are driving by a ‘new’ Seat showroom– and for it to signal that the brand has changed. However, he insists that he let his dealers do it at their own pace.

The new Arona on display in the Westfield showroom

The current Seat dealer network is 121 strong with only a handful of open points. Harrison is reluctant to substantially increase those numbers, saying he’d be happy to settle for 130 dealers and he’s not looking to lose any anytime soon.

‘We are not looking to lose dealers,’ he says. ‘My investors know that we are going to grow and get ourselves firmly established in the premier league of brands in terms of our place in the market.

‘It’s not about being premium, it’s about being a right-side volume manufacturer with a good balance between brand demand and product.’

Currently the biggest Seat stakeholders by number of sites are Snows Group and plc players such as Vertu, Lookers and Arnold Clark.

‘We have quite a nice balance in the network. We have the big boys but also some local heroes who know and love their local area and do a great job for us,’ says Harrison.

He even gets out to see his dealers as often as possible and rarely turns up unannounced – a favourite trick of his contemporaries.

‘During the spring and summer I’ve been out a lot,’ he says.

‘Every couple of weeks or days, I’ve been getting in my car and going to see dealers. You need to meet people, see what’s happening
and understand the investors and how they
are feeling. I’m not trying to catch dealers out, that’s not what I’m about. We have a pretty good relationship with dealers in terms of where we want to go, because most of my dealer partners have been with us through the tough times and are now going through the good times.’

A customer with Harrison at the Seat Store

So it seems like the good times are back for Seat, Harrison’s hard work has been done and he can now reap the rewards of generating more profitable sales.

But was he really parachuted in from the factory to sort things out?

His brow furrows. ‘I was asked to come back and take on the UK business. The business was not in trouble, it was just trading in a certain style. My view was that it was not the best way to build a power brand over the next five years – it was too risky.

‘There was too much emphasis on dealers registering cars rather than the brand taking responsibility to generate genuine, actual demand. That is my long-term view on how I want to run this brand.

‘When I came back that was in my head, and because of my relationship with the factory I was able to take advantage and make that happen.’

But Harrison had to make some bold choices – surely, back then, his dealers were addicted to pre-registering cars?

‘What I did was take away the commercial pressure, as I can’t dictate and would
never dictate how a dealer should sell and what price they should sell at,’ he explains.

‘The targets that my dealers had in 2016 were lower than in 2015, so what we created was an environment for the dealers to be able to focus on selling cars to customers, rather than having no choice but to register cars.

‘My job is to create an environment to allow dealers and my teams to do their jobs in a way which I believe is sustainable, and when we grow with the product we will be able to stay there and push on further. I know that right now we can sell a lot more cars, but it would be on a short- term basis – why would we do that when we have this opportunity? My franchising team are busier than they have ever been with firms wanting to join us, rather than chasing partners. This is a much healthier place to be.’

Drive away in your new Seat

But with these big changes come long hours. Harrison admits he’s often in the office before 8am and leaves long after his colleagues have shut down their computers.

‘It’s exciting,’ he says. ‘This was a brand that was sleeping and I’ve got an opportunity to wake it up and turn it into something terrific. This is probably the most exciting part of my career and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.’

With that, I leave Harrison to have a debrief with his always-close-by PR man and head to the bar.

I grab another too-cool-for-school swirly London coffee and wait for the arrival of my motoring media colleagues. After my grilling, Harrison is set to take it all on again with a round-table lunch with the editors of the mainstream motoring press.

I remain unusually quiet, sit back and watch a master at work. Harrison certainly knows how to work a room and deliver the right line at the right time. Whether his wizard-like resurgence of the brand can continue remains to be seen – but after 45 minutes with the boss, I can’t see him doing anything different.

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James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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