Luca de Meo is living la vida loca. Not so long ago, the Italian was sales and marketing chief at VW’s relentless premium brand, Audi; today he’s talking to CAR as the chairman at VW’s Spanish outpost, Seat. From a group profits powerhouse to loss-making ‘problem child’ in no time at all.
De Meo might be only 48, but he’s travelled extensively in the car industry, and is no stranger to challenging times. He left Toyota for Fiat in 2002, when the Italian giant was burning cash, its very existence threatened. But de Meo became one of the young guns who helped turn around the company under Sergio Marchionne, plotting the 500’s launch strategy, resurrecting the Abarth brand, and no doubt writing a few hundred redundant Alfa Romeo relaunch plans.
Then in 2009, then-VW boss Martin Winterkorn lured de Meo to Wolfsburg. ‘For me, a poor Italian without speaking the language, it was like landing on the moon!’ he jokes. ‘But he said you have to build your network, so you know everyone.’ The networking clearly – ahem – worked: six years later, he’s top dog at Spain’s biggest industrial company.
‘This organisation is much better than the image we project outside Spain. Here we are the biggest exporter, the biggest r&d investor, but in markets like Italy and the UK, I know there is an issue of awareness, image, trust. But this is a very good organisation, mixing Latin flair, approachable people, with a kind of German chassis to the machine which makes sure the thing works well.’
In his various VW sales and marketing roles, de Meo was no stranger to Seat’s Barcelona HQ. But he spent his first month kicking the company’s tyres, getting to know the ‘100 to 150 people who move the machine’. He’s quick to credit those people and his predecessor as chairman, Jürgen Stackmann, for helping narrow the post-tax losses to €65.7m by introducing the latest generation Leon, posting Seat’s best sales year since 2002 in 2014, and developing the next product wave.
Four cars are in the pipeline, including the Ateca and the all-new Ibiza in 2017. ‘Two of these four cars aren’t replacing any product, and are coming into the most attractive and growing part of the European market: the SUV segment. We will move Seat’s market coverage from 50 to 80%. The plan to the end of this decade is solid and logical, and these cars will confirm Seat is able to do very good stuff. I’m lucky to be here when these things are coming.’
Seat is known among UK car enthusiasts for its hot hatches: how will de Meo develop the Cupra line? ‘It’s a tradition we will continue to play, but we will have to complement it with other things. Brands are like people, when you have a guy or a girl with only one characteristic, after a few weeks it gets a little bit boring! Good brands have many facets. Sportiness is extremely relevant in the UK, but in many markets it is a little bit going down.’
De Meo says he has plenty of ‘gut feelings’ about how to develop the Seat brand. He predicts that the profound change engulfing the industry – connectivity, autonomy, the digital economy, electrification – is a great leveller: even brands as strong as Mercedes-Benz or Land Rover are starting from scratch in these areas, as are challengers such as Seat. But it’s hard to see how Seat can lead in one of these areas, given its relatively modest resources and lower standing in the VW Group.
And what of the brand damage from being embroiled in VW’s dieselgate scandal? One of de Meo’s first requests was for an analysis of the impact, which suggested only 30-40% of consumers understood the link between Seat and VW. ‘Whether it’s an opportunity or a pity, I would say it’s more of a pity. The heat is taken by the VW brand, our role is below the radar. But of course it’s not a good thing for anybody. Our focus is to ensure people driving Seats know we are finding a solution, that they will not have to pay anything.’
De Meo admits Seat needs to better differentiate itself, but he won’t be changing the logo or brand message on a whim. ‘What’s relevant is the substance you put in, the real discussion is what are we going to do as an organisation over the next few years in terms of product, services, quality, processes, to give the company its own position in the market?’
So will Seat become profitable on de Meo’s watch? ‘I hope so,’ he laughs. ‘I can’t tell you dates but if nothing happens in the market, I think we’ll be able to show for the first time in many years some positive result. We see light in the tunnel.’
Tells us about your first car…
‘It was a very basic, light blue, Fiat Panda. Nothing special, but for me it meant freedom.’
Which achievement makes you proud?
‘Being able to get accepted at so many different brands – Renault, Toyota, Lancia, Fiat, VW, Audi and Seat. That’s a lot of different cultures: French, Japanese, German and now Spanish.’
What’s the best thing you’ve done in a car?
‘Driving the new 500 Abarth was a special moment. Reviving the Abarth brand wasn’t the biggest project I was involved in during my time at Fiat, but I did become deeply attached to it. Funny story: I entered Marchionne’s office and asked him for a few hundred thousand euro, to buy back the outsourced racing team of Fiat. If you allow me to buy the guys back – they had built Lancia Delta Integrale world championship, Alfa 155 DTM – these guys were white haired but 150 very good people! If you allow me to buy this back, I will build a business around this, produce race cars, accessory tuning, and in three years we get to break even. In fact, I think we did it in 18 months!’
Tell us how you screwed up…
‘I can’t remember all the mistakes I’ve made, I’m sure I’ll make one tomorrow! The important thing is don’t do it twice. Normally they come from my optimism. My most recent example was when I overestimated Germany’s emotional bind to the Beetle…’
Supercar or classic?
‘Simple: Ferrari 250 GTO!’
Company curveball… VW once considered buying Alfa Romeo to replace Seat. Could you introduce some Alfa brand elements?
‘Benchmarking can work in engineering, but in branding it doesn’t work. It means you get into a position where someone else already is. Branding is about differentiation, relevance, trust. I can understand the aspiration but in my opinion, for a brand to position itself based on the position of someone else is the wrong thing to do.’