Holden 'brand challenge'

The General Motors Cruise AV has no driver, steering wheel or pedals. Photo: Supplied
The General Motors Cruise AV has no driver, steering wheel or pedals. Photo: Supplied
Holden New Zealand is spending a lot of money in this country to reinvigorate its brand. There will be new car models and redesigned dealerships. Holden NZ managing director Kristian Aquilina tells business editor Dene Mackenzie what to expect. 

It's a slightly chilly Dunedin morning when Holden New Zealand managing director Kristian Aquilina makes his first visit to Cooke Howlison Holden.

As eyes rolled when he mentioned Dunedin's weather, Mr Aquilina quickly made right by saying he had recently flown in from Brazil and a 12degC morning was slightly cooler than what he had just experienced.

Mr Aquilina (41) is an Australian who came to New Zealand with his family three years ago to oversee a transition of Holden in this country.

He travels around the world constantly, meeting General Motors representatives as he tries to lock in the best deals for one of Holden's oldest but smallest markets.

The 60-year legacy of Holden in New Zealand was both a blessing and a pain point, he said in an interview. The longevity of Holden in New Zealand presented a "brand challenge" as the company continued to roll out new vehicles with the latest technology.

Cooke Howlison Holden dealer principal Guy Smith said the younger generation often did not look at Holden as their first choice of vehicle.

They saw it as a brand of vehicles their parents drove, he said.

Holden would be spending $50million in New Zealand, to invigorate its presence in the country and signal to potential customers it was here to say, Mr Aquilina said.

Holden and its dealer network had started on an upgrade programme across the brand's 51 locations across the country, including 16 new store builds and major developments.

Dealerships would undergo refurbishment, with new layouts to improve customer experience.

"We will be working on the brand story, the communication about what our changes mean for the future.

"The challenge is to talk about the brands of the future. We need to tell a clear unencumbered story. The fact is the 2018 vehicles are very different from the ones we had in the 1960s and 1970s."

The models from before the 2008 global financial crisis were very different from the first-generation award-winning vehicles being launched this year and next, he said.

One of the problems Holden had faced was the closure of the Australian car plants. When they closed, people believed Holden had closed down.

Holden now sourced vehicles from around the world and part of the new promotion campaign would be telling people what vehicles were on the way.

The new Commodore was made in Germany and the Astra was being manufactured in either Poland, Korea or the United Kingdom, depending on its body shape. The new Equinox was manufactured in the US and a new seven-seat SUV would come from the US. The Colorado was made in Thailand and other vehicles were manufactured in Southeast Asia.

The vehicles arrived by ship, rolled off the dock and into the dealerships.

There was a four-point plan of action to lift the brand in New Zealand, Mr Aquilina said.

The points were: Electric vehicles; who drives the vehicle (autonomous vehicles); ownership of vehicles, shared or otherwise; the connectivity of vehicles and the related infrastructure.

Holden would be releasing 20 new vehicles into New Zealand by 2020 and a lot of money had been invested in the research and development programmes for those vehicles, he said.

The first autonomous Holden would be on the road by the end of next year. It would have no pedals and no steering wheel. A recent trial in San Francisco had an autonomous vehicle with a camera pointing out of the window. No human was involved in the trial as the car drove around the American city, avoiding pedestrians, cyclists and a raccoon, while following traffic rules.

The ownership of vehicles was an exciting new development because of the increasing density of cities, Mr Aquilina said.

The new "shared economy" meant some life rules had changed and a different rule for mobility meant Holden coming up with some solutions.

General Motors was rolling out "Maven", a car-sharing programme, around the world. The company would go to designers to talk to them about the needs of apartment dwellers. Instead of needing to provide parking for every apartment, a garage holding a pool of cars to be shared was often the solution, he said.

The cars were turned over regularly by General Motors.

Connectivity was becoming a major issue for vehicle owners but the connectivity needed appropriate infrastructure.

Late next year, a car would be released in New Zealand featuring the OnStar technology.

The technology would be introduced as part of a GM plan for zero collisions, zero congestion and zero emissions, Mr Aquilina said.

"OnStar technology is a key investment in Holden's very exciting future in New Zealand."

OnStar served nearly 13 million customers in the US, Canada, China, Mexico, Europe and South America. It offered a range of standard, subscription and a la carte services such as a mobile app, advanced diagnostics, automatic crash response and stolen vehicle assistance.

With such a lot of recent publicity in New Zealand about police car chases ending in tragedy, with OnStar, the police could safely immobilise a vehicle, he said.

So far, there was a lot of excitement building from the company and dealers about the technological advances. The innovative business story was easy to sell.

"People want Holden to succeed. To a degree, we are affected by the brand but if we cut through the clutter, people have an open mind to where Holden is going.

"It comes down to getting bums on seats."

He had been with Holden for 21 years and it was not his first "real job", Mr Aquilina said. His first campaign was helping launch the 1997 VT Commodore.

About 160,000 new vehicles were sold each year in New Zealand and Holden had about 10% of the market.

One of the hardest challenges was attracting people to the industry. Working in the car industry was not seen as a desirable job, particularly in the old "grease monkey" role, he said.

However, the opportunities available to engineers and technicians who displayed talent were endless. In China, workers on the production line were tertiary educated and used their degrees to solve technical problems and streamline the manufacturing process.

"They are not the cheapest to employ but the scale effect of their influence makes them desirable employees."

Holden still operated a major design and engineering facility in Melbourne employing 300 staff. There were also similar facilities in California, Detroit, China and Korea.

Every new car designed for the Australian or New Zealand markets was adapted for local road conditions.

The new Commodore, which was a Buick in the US and a Insignia in Europe, were different cars to sit in and drive, depending on which country's roads they were designed for, Mr Aquilina said.

"This is different from Apple, which can launch a new iPhone and ship it around the world. Globally, we adapt each car for the local conditions."

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