Bill Parfitt, who started working life as an engineer in his family's car dealership in South Wales, has been handed one of the tougher roles in the UK automotive industry.
In July Mr Parfitt, 54, was appointed sales, marketing and customer care director at Vauxhall Motors. The former senior Henlys and Lex dealership executive replaced Ian Coomber who took early retirement.
These are challenging times at Luton where Nick Reilly remains chairman but is also sales and marketing vice president of General Motors Europe.
Based in Zurich, Switzerland, he will make occasional trips to Luton where car assembly ends when the final Vectra rolls off the line in March. New Vauxhall managing director Kevin Wale was previously operations director for GM Asia Pacific. His task is to make Vauxhall prosper again – last year's £192m loss followed a profit of £128m in 1999, mainly financing the closure of the Luton car plant.
The Vectra relies heavily on fleet sales. Mr Parfitt, once Vauxhall fleet operations director, said it sold on attractive whole-life costs and was, typical of a model near the end of its life, highly specified.
“Yes, our volume and market share to the end of August was down year-on-year,” he said. “But that is mainly because some of our biggest fleet deals come towards the end of the year. We expect to end 2001 with the same share as in 2000, and in a stronger market.”
Research by Vauxhall suggests the end of car production at Luton will have little effect on sales next year and beyond. It seems retail buyers care less nowadays where cars are assembled.
This year, Vauxhall is aiming for 305,000 car registrations and a 13.5% share. Of those, 197,000 will be to companies running fleets of 25-plus and, said Mr Parfitt, only around 15,000 would not be through the retail network.
“I have fixed the run out for Vectra,” he said. “We need to get that right because, when the plant is closing, there is no flexibility.”
Mr Parfitt believes the rest of the range will enable him to change perceptions in Vauxhall. He was less than wholehearted in his praise for the Griff Rhys Jones campaign which was Mr Coomber's responsibility.
Many in the industry thought the actor in his under-pants was a curious way to use the dashing VX220 sportscar to banish perceptions that Vauxhall's image is stodgy.
“I think Griff did a good job with Zafira,” said Mr Parfitt. “And he certainly raised awareness in Vauxhall, though I think the TV commercial has reached the end of its shelf life.” The new TV campaign is much cheaper, using actors and actresses instead of a celebrity.
Mr Parfitt inherits 322 core sites (some have satellites) and the number of dealer-group owners has dropped. “We remain committed to a franchised network,” he said. “We have a mixture of large and small groups, and some single-site businesses. Broadly, we are comfortable with that.”
Vauxhall Motors Holding will remain a cornerstone of the operation. The manufacturer provides the money to set up entrepreneurs who become independent by repaying the money with interest.
Vauxhall regards the scale of VMH as commercially sensitive but it is thought to have around 35 dealers in the network, on average operating two sites each.
Mr Parfitt said taking the cost out of the distribution chain was one of his top priorities. Vauxhall was also working on ways to make online or dealership visits and purchases work seamlessly together – “we must provide whatever people want”.
He added: “My overall aim is to make sure we have a strong and viable retail network and we are working on a number of strategies.”