CEO Q&A with Niall Phillips, Managing Director SEAT and CUPRA Ireland

Business, CEO Q&A | Wed 21 Apr | Author – Business & Finance
NIall Phillips, Managing Director SEAT and CUPRA Ireland
Pictured: Niall Phillips, Managing Director SEAT and CUPRA Ireland

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

As Managing Director of SEAT and CUPRA Ireland my primary focus is to oversee and direct both brands across all aspects of the business – sales, aftersales, marketing, finance, fleet,  product planning and general operations.

What are your biggest challenges as Managing Director?

When I started in the role back in 2014, there were many challenges facing the SEAT brand – low levels of awareness, lack of suitable and relevant product and a relatively small customer base amongst others. A lot has changed since then, and over the last five years SEAT has grown significantly and managed to outperform the market which has led to a 70% growth from 2014 to 2019.  This has resulted in the SEAT market share increasing from 1.8% to almost 4.0% in 2020.

In terms of future challenges, the continued growth in terms of market share and profitability of both the SEAT and CUPRA brands in the coming years will be a key focus as well as making sure we are constantly adapting to ongoing changes in consumer demand. 

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated?

It is crucial that people are clear on their roles and what is expected of them. Acknowledging successes is very important as well as openly discussing any issues or concerns, that they may have. There also needs to be a clear pathway for career progression and a strong emphasis placed on training and development. All of this needs to be underpinned by facilitating the right environment – one which is based on collaboration and where anyone and everyone is approachable. 

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

Ongoing uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 continues to pose challenges. Level 5 restrictions have resulted in the closure of our retail network, so this clearly has had a severe impact. Making progress on electrification and the level of infrastructure that goes with it is a challenge for the industry as a whole but also presents a huge opportunity for us. This year, between the SEAT and CUPRA brands we will launch a total of seven EV products and we are hugely committed to growing our EV product range in the years ahead.  

All the while, consumer behaviour continues to change, and we need to stay one step ahead at all times,  anticipate our customers’ needs and ensure we are delivering what they want. Digital technology in particular is critical in achieving this and is already a key area of focus for us. 

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

Electrification will be a huge priority for the industry and is certainly a huge priority for both the SEAT and CUPRA brands. Changes in consumer demand mean people now expect more from their car and so the advantage of connected cars in particular is a growing trend and one which will continue to grow this year and over the coming years. 

Micro-mobility is also moving at a fast pace particularly in urban areas and in recognition of this, SEAT is in the process of rolling out the SEAT MÓ urban mobility range which offers a range of micro-mobility solutions such as eScooters.

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Without question, EV is the future and will form a key part of our future product ranges at both SEAT and CUPRA. And while we wholeheartedly support the move towards electrification and evolution of our industry, a more realistic roll out plan for EVs is needed from Government. 

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

The nature of our industry means that the skill requirements are constantly evolving, and this has accelerated in recent years. Delivering what our customers want requires a clear focus on digitisation and consequently the need for technologically savvy people who can adapt to new and emerging technologies.  

As a company, we’ve always tried to remain ahead in terms of digitalisation. We’re constantly monitoring and trying to forecast what we might need in the future and the future sales model of our business is changing and with that change, comes the adaptation of our structure. 

Have you started to feel the effects of Brexit already?

All of SEAT and CUPRA’s car products are produced in Europe – Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic and Germany and from there are then shipped direct to Ireland. At this point, from a car import point of view, it is having little impact thus far. 

With increased used car tariffs coming from the UK, we hope and expect to see a reduction in the number of used car imports that arrive into Ireland which will ultimately protect our industry which is very much needed.

How has COVID-19 impacted your industry?

Overall, it has had a significant impact with the speed of production and manufacturing dramatically affected. Level 5 restrictions have meant our retail network has been fully closed for prolonged periods on three separate occasions meaning consumers can’t visit dealerships to view or test drive our products.

That said, when I reflect over the past 12 months, I take great pride in how we have adapted our offering and pivoted to digitised services to meet the needs of our customers. We are still ensuring a really positive experience for our customers and supporting them in their purchase decision. Our team at SEAT Ireland have worked tirelessly to achieve this and have shown great resilience throughout. I would pay special tribute to our retail network in particular who have been immense this last year. We are extremely lucky to work with outstanding retail partners across the country some of whom have joined the SEAT brand in recent years and others who have been with the brand over a longer period but all of whom complement each other greatly and are vital to our success.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

Delivering against objectives and KPIs but also knowing that you have done your best and made the right decisions. A happy and motivated team and retail network is also crucial. I love seeing improvement amongst the team and watching people grow and develop and further their careers. 

I also take heart in the success the SEAT brand has had over the past few years growing into a top ten brand in Ireland, achieving record sales and market share and winning numerous awards for our product range along the way.  

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

In today’s world, both privately and in business, there is so much communication in so many ways.  Communicating and advertising brands benefit hugely from this.  So too in many ways do communications between people and between various stakeholders.  But it can of course also lead to miss-communication or wrong interpretations.  Therefore, I would say that my advice, which is also advice I received many years ago from a German boss in my early career, is to always be straight talking, clear, unambiguous in ones messages and most importantly always ensure the recipient of the communication has the same understanding as you intended!!

What’s next for your company?

In the short term, we are very much focused on managing the challenges around the pandemic, supporting our retail network, supporting our staff and keeping them motivated and of course trying to limit the financial impact of COVID-19. 

In the long-term, we need to continue building our EV capabilities and show real leadership in this space. We are really excited at the prospects for CUPRA. It is an exciting new brand that we feel there is a real niche for in the Irish market and we expect it to have a big impact. We will continue to adapt to consumer trends from a digitalisation perspective on how we offer services to customers in the future. And we will also maintain a focus on mobility solutions and continue to adapt to the evolving needs of Irish consumers.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I would hope that in line with progress on the vaccine front and the gradual reopening of society that we can continue the journey of our two brands. 

For SEAT Ireland, we have really made our mark over the past six years achieving record sales resulting in the brand now in the top ten in the industry and market share, and now have a multi-award-winning product range that is resonating with Irish consumers. I want to grow this brand further and continue its success story. 

For CUPRA, meanwhile, I am very confident the brand will succeed this year and really want to focus on building the brand, growing awareness of our CUPRA retail network and establishing our product portfolio. The goal is to have two well defined brands that complement each other well and push one another. Ultimately what is good for SEAT is good for CUPRA and vice-versa.