BMW and its dealers are entering the final stages of preparation for the launch of the new Mini. Thousands of jobs in the UK and thousands of pounds of investment by the company's network rest on the success of the rebirth of this motoring icon.
AM-online spoke to Mini's general manager Trevor Houghton-Berry on the confidence he has in the new car, future derivatives, the development of the BMW brand and the Mini's competitors – plus he reflects on his brief time at Rover.
How keen has the BMW dealer network been to get a slice of the Mini market, to tackle a market segment that is alien to them and a type of customer they may not be accustomed to dealing with?
There has been a 100% take-up for the Mini. Of BMW's 153 UK outlets 148 will have the Mini. Those that won't are where a single dealer group owns BMW outlets in two adjacent territories. Only one of them will get the Mini.
Enthusiasm is very high. A lot of dealers see Mini as an opportunity to test their commercial creativity and do something a bit different. They see it as an opportunity to meet a younger customer and grow business incrementally.
The car is unlike anything our dealers have been asked to sell before, but it will benefit from BMW's reputation for reliability and safety and technological advances. The car also makes you smile. BMW's aren't known for that. So, the Mini will allow dealers to show a different, fun, side to themselves. Mini is afterall an informal brand.
How have sales staff been prepared to sell the Mini?
We've spent a great deal of money and time on training staff. We've used the BMW TV network to inform sales staff of what we see will be customers' expectations and also about the Minis' competitors.
What about the increased volume of trade-ins your Mini dealers are likely to face?
Many dealers are aware that there will be a flood of used cars pushing them into unchartered waters. We're taking a variety of different approaches. Some dealers will retail used cars direct from their Mini sites. There will be a Mini used car programme unveiled in September or October. This is very much a work-in-progress project. But people will have to get used to seeing used Peugeots and Fords on the sites. Another outlet for used cars will be for dealers to pass them on to non-BMW outlets, so for example a used Peugeot will go to Peugeot outlet within a dealer group.
BMW dealers will need guidance in handling higher volumes of used cars, but initially we expect cash sales to dominate.
What adjustments have the dealerships been expected to make for the Mini?
The average investment is £100,000 on building costs, staffing and new facilities.Some are stand alone (Cooper Reading and Williams Manchester), some extensions and others a division of the BMW showroom space. We have had to be very pragmatic about each space. We don't want gin palaces all over the country, but have made sure the Mini and BMW brands are differentiated. We will keep the infrastructure fairly neutral.
We also asked each interested dealer to do a business plan to ensure it wasn't simply an attempt to sell Mini's in the corner of the BMW showroom.
How do you see the Mini centres developing?
We've designed the facilities to be fairly neutral because I see that as the brand develops and becomes more popular more space will be needed for Mini, calling for some relocation.The free space will then be used for the expansion of the BMW range. We will see a Mini diesel in 2002 and Cabrio in 2003 perhaps and therefore the separation of Mini and BMW sales points will become more pronounced.
What advance orders have you had for Mini and what are your sales targets?
We have 2,500 orders in now. They will take some managing because cars won't be available until October or November as we wait for production levels to increase. We knew, however, that with a July launch a lot of people will be looking, but holding off spending until the September plate change. That gives us a window to build stocks. We are also doing a great deal to push the fact that we want buyers to 'tailor-make' their Mini, from a choice of 60 styles and options, rather than take what's available in the showroom. This also gives us a bit more time. I'd love to have a few more cars at launch, but it takes a bit of time to get things going volume-wise.
By the end of this year we expect to have sold 9,500 units and between 20,000 and 25,000 in a full year. We don't get the Cooper S until next April so we expect the total to be nearer 20,000.
The Cooper will be the core of the brand accounting for 50% of sales. It personifies the sporting appeal of the brand and, priced at £11,0000, will be well below competitors like the Peugeot 206, Renault Clio and Volkswagen Polo, plus the Ford Puma and Mazda MX-5.
35% of sales will be for Mini One and 15% the Cooper S.
There are bound to be comparisons to the VW Beetle since they're both seen as motoring icons that have been revamped for a new audience. How do you defend accustion that the new Mini is just the next 'latest thing'?
The VW is a new body bolted to Golf mechanics. It's a studied pastiche. Because the Mini is a design in its own right it's much more substantial. I call the Beetle a fashion statement and the Mini a style statement. Fashions come and go, style is everlasting.
In 1980, 60,000 Minis were sold. I don't have any aspirations to do that. But it does show that the Mini defies convention and I believe will continue to do so.
How will you sustain interest in the Mini once the initial buzz around the vehicle wains?
We will support it with great financial schemes boosted by high RVs. We will offer a PCP scheme, for example, offering a Mini One for £199 a month which makes it so much more attractive to the mass-market. You'll pay about £220 a month for its competitors.
The three years/60,000 mile RV will be 43% range average.
You joined Rover as fleet sales director in January 2000, the most climatic period in its history ie just before BMW sold it. How do you look back on that period?
Two months after I joined Rover the big split took place. I had no idea it was going to happen and for a while after the sale was announced was unsure of what I would do next.
I'd joined the company knowing it was going to be a tough struggle and the corporate sector lived up to those expectations. The 75 was a good car, but its launch was overwhelmed by the political issues that had nothing to do with the car. It was a challenge to keep Rovers' corporate customers together and motivated.
What are your thoughts on Rover now?
I very much hope it can confound its critics and secure a long-term future. Having worked with the company for six months I know there are a lot of people there who are committed to achieving success. And in the toughest conditions they have done all they can to give themselves a fighting chance. I'm impressed by what Rover has done to the MG brand. But the next generation of products will be key to Rover's future