One of the other sessions I got to sit in on last night was a press call for UK media, with Jan-Ake Jonsson and Victor Muller taking questions about various issues with regards to the deal and the future of Saab.
Following is a summary of the issues discussed and the answers given.
On declining sales and damage done to the brand….
JAJ: It’s true that sales have declined and one major reason is the uncertainty with regard to various aspects of Saab in 2009. But there are another couple of reasons as to why sales have declined. One being that the 9-5 was 12 or 13 years old and we’ve only recently taken it out of production. The other issue is the general financial market. It’s not only Saab that has suffered. But we have suffered more because of the uncertainty, no doubt about it.
I will also say that it has been forced a little, from our side, because during the reorganisation of the company we had to significantly reduce our production schedules and in many markets we’re suffering in terms of lack of inventory. Take the US as an example. We have just 450-500 cars in the entire United States as new car inventory and that’s not the way to drive the market from a sales point of view.
So there are a number of reasons, but we believe #1 that the clarity of direction, going forward, will make us a more active player in the marketplace as well as the rollout of the new products, starting with the new 9-5. If you do that consistently over a period of time you will see sales rising relatively quickly to the levels we are used to seeing.
On expectations for 2010….
JAJ: We have said that 50,000 – 60,000 sales is a realistic number. I would say it might be a little bit lower (in that range) because we need to fill our pipeline with a lot of product. We’re short in many, many markets, so sales to customers might continue to suffer for a little while due to lack of inventory.
We feel that in the Spring we’re going to roll out the new 9-5 so we’ll get the partial benefit from that, then in 2011 we’ll get the full year benefit, plus the 9-4x and the partial year benefit from the 9-5 SportCombi.
So realistically 50-60,000 in new car sales, but that will grow with the rollout of new carsin 2011.
On Vladimir Antonov….
VM: The situation is that I have bought his shares today and as such, he has stepped down from the supervisory board. Vladimir Antonov today is out of the company. Very regretfully, I must say because he has been a great shareholder, friend and gentleman, too, and there is absolutely nothing that I could say that is negative about him. I was appalled by the comments made by certain media, basically implying connections with crime, etc. He felt very compelled to do something about it and I can only support that because it was wholly unjust.
Nevertheless, the steps that were taken entail that he cannot become a shareholder in Saab-Spyker unless GM agrees thereto. And this is now something that Saab-Spyker has no influence on at all. This is something between them and we’re just bystanders.
I sincerely hope that he will be successful in getting his reputation restored and that he will one day be allowed to return as a shareholder to the company but for the time being that is, unfortunately, not the case.
On GM’s problem with Antonov….
VM: There has been no official statement by GM on this subject at all, which I must say was a very elegant thing to do. It was only because of the publications in the media, which rightly or wrongly started picking up on it and painting Antonov in a very bad light that he himself chose to seek the media in order to restore his reputation.
So no, we’ve never been given any specifics about the allegations reportedly made against Vladimir Antonov and I think Vladimir is currently preparing a document to counter the claims that he was accused of, which were completely unfounded.
On funding for Tenaci (VM’s private company that paid the first instalment)….
VM: I have signed non-disclosure agreements with my financiers. If a financier wants to make a statement he is absolutely at liberty to do so. I am not. As a consequence I will have to remain silent on my financiers. It’s not that I’m trying to be secretive about it, but it’s a contractual deal that I made and I’m sticking to it.
Question: You say financiers, plural, which suggests more than one….
VM: That sounds reasonable.
Question: And you’ve stated that GM, the Swedish government know the identity of those financiers and are comfortable with those….
VM: Definitely true.
On defying conventional wisdom that suggests only big car companies can survive…
JAJ: If you look historically, Saab has always suffered from being looked at only as Saab Automobile AB, rather than as part of General Motors. We needed Saab Automobile AB because it was part of being a legal entity operating in Sweden. Having said that, this reputation is what Saab has suffered from – unfairly over many years.
It’s easy to make a statement saying Saab hasn’t made any money over 20 years, why would it start now? but my point is that they are basing that question on a false factual base. As I look at the business plan, this is the first time that we have a fully funded business plan, it is the first time that we’ll have the opportunity to develop brand new vehicles that deliver on the Saab brand promise as well as being vehicles that compete with the Audis and BMWs that we know we’re competing with in the marketplace.
And, I would add, that with the new owner in Spyker, we are, for the first time, part of a small organisation that, when we talk about prioritisation of resources, focusing on the business – we are by far the dominant player. If I add all this up, with the crucial element of a fully funded business plan, I see no reason why this is not going to be a very successful business.
On life under GM….
JAJ: We were a tiny player in a big volume operation and there is a tendency that the focus there is on volume. That has never really been the focus for Saab. Instead, what we’re trying to sell is this unique fantastic brand in the premium segment, where elements like margins are more important than the volume aspect.
That means, of course, that when look at when GM went through tough times in 2007-08, there is a tendency to give priority to the volume brands and unfortunately, Saab suffered in terms of stop-and-go on some of the product programs and that’s something that we can now avoid.
VM: The sheer fact that the 9-5 lasted for 13 years says it all, doesn’t it? I think only Lotus, with the Elise, keeps it’s products longer in production and there’s a reason for that, too. So it’s very difficult to get your voice heard if you’re a very small player in a very big pond.
Another thing that would be unusual in other car companies is to launch the premium version of a vehicle after the normal version. The 9-5, which shares a basis with the Insignia but is a premium version, is being launched after the Insignia. Usually, that’s done the other way around.
We could talk for hours and hours on this but that’s looking back and we prefer to look forwards.
Not only have we got this business plan that will be move from plan to process, the assumptions of the business plan are extremely realistic, if not conservative. What most people are concerned about, I think, is that we may not be able to find enough buyers. Well, I am really not concerned about that.
There are 1.5 million Saabs still driving around and there must be at least 4.5 million people who have owned a Saab before. These people have left the brand for whatever reason, but mainly, I think, because they felt that Saab had lost some of its brand DNA. They just couldn’t identify themselves any longer with this beautiful, unususal, iconic brand.
What GM did very well, back in 2006, was it allowed the construction of the Aero-X, this beautiful prototype and that was a kick-off point for the new Saab design DNA, which has been carried over very carefully and very elegantly into the new 9-5 and 9-4x, and you will see it also in the new 9-3 when it comes in two years from now.
So I think that truly, if we can only regain the customers that we’ve lost, Saab has a phenomenal business model. Saab doesn’t need to become Audi and make a million cars. On the contrary, Saab should be different and you shouldn’t see a zillion of them at every single traffic light because that’s something that a Saab buyer doesn’t want. The Saab buyer wants to have a car that is slightly out of the ordinary and that’s what we will cater for.
So we don’t want to build a product for everyone. It’s just not what Saab needs to be. Independent thinking means you build a product for independent thinkers. Those people don’t want to have the car that everybody else has.