SOC Roundtable Q&A with VM, JAJ, Colleran, Libbos

Ladies (?) and Gentlemen, let me start with my normal tip of the hat to Saab’s new leadership. As I gathered my notes from my computer and looked at the photos, I again remembered the extraordinary nature of this roundtable discussion on Sunday morning at the end of the Saab Owner’s Convention for 2010. These up-close-and-personal interactions with the corporate brass really don’t happen in the everyday auto maker. In fact, I hesitate to call this group “corporate brass” because they have been so accessible. It certainly isn’t something that I take for granted, even a little bit. These men do not have to spend their summer weekends with a bunch of car geeks, but they do. I appreciate that a great deal.

Secondly, I must compliment my fellow Saab aficionados in attendance during this hour. All of the questions asked were important questions to answer There were no “whiny” questions about product failures, service glitches and the like, and the group was courteously attentive. Again, I do not take this good behavior for granted. We are Saab people, and Saab people are a different breed. We think. I like that.

Muller, Jonsson, Colleran and Libbos Q&A Roundtable SOC 2010

Once again, thanks, guys!!

My notes from this hour-long discussion are after the jump.

(All questions and answers are paraphrased from my recollection of the meeting.  If you were present, please comment with additions or corrections.  Thanks in advance.)

Q:  What are your long-term design plans?

Victor Muller:   At Spyker, we have come to understand “premium” and what it means to create a product that is a premium product.  It isn’t just additional cost; it’s often in attention to detail.  That’s where GM’s volume mentality doesn’t suit Saab.  We must face BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz in a market where they dominate.

Q:   Can you comment on why the Koenigsegg deal didn’t work out?

Jan-Åke Jonsson:  Well, if you look at the buyout process, it started in June and was still unresolved when Koenigsegg backed out on November 23.  Koenigsegg couldn’t understand why it was taking so long.  Additionally, the economics of the deal needed capital from the sale of older intellectual property (9-5 and older-generation 9-3 tooling and engineering data) to Beijing Automotive.  Koenigsegg could not work that deal out and get that money in place.  Joint ventures in China are very complicated, and they simply couldn’t do it. I give them credit for pursuing the idea.

Q:  Why did General Motors so vehemently oppose Vladimir Antonov’s involvement with Saab?

Victor Muller:  We still do not know.  They have never really explained their position.   Antonov’s as clean as they come — we’ve even hired a security company known as IPSA to investigate him.  They have given us a clear report.  How much can he have done in 35 years?

The internet is so efficient, and journalists have become quite lazy. They just copy each other rather than seeking out facts.  So a rumor becomes truth and you can’t stop it; you can’t unring the bell.

When the news got to me, Antonov and I went through several options and we couldn’t find an answer.  I said, “Let’s sleep on it, it will be clearer tomorrow.”  The next day we knew that we could never convince GM of his character in the short time remaining, and so Antonov graciously agreed to divest his portion of Spyker in the interest of saving the deal.

Q:  I’ve seen a modified 9-5 in Sweden.  Is there a Saab 9-5 Viggen version in the works?

Jan-Åke Jonsson:  (Suspiciously) “Can I ask where you saw this car?”  (audience laughter) Although it is an attractive prospect, we have no plans for such a variant.  Our hands are full at the moment with other priorities:  a new 9-3, formulating a design for the new small Saab and bringing the 9-5 wagon to market.

Q:  What are your plans for North American dealers?

Mike Colleran:  We prefer stand alone dealers in major markets, but we will have a mix of multi-brand dealers in mid and smaller markets.  We are opening new dealers in two markets (Indianapolis and Seattle) that were without dealers.

Q:  What are the long-term plans for power plants and power plant suppliers?

Jan-Åke Jonsson:   We have a long-term agreement with GM to continue to use their power plants, and we can even extend our agreement to use the 9-5 platform for the next generation of the car if we choose.  We are looking for other partners, and there are many options out there.  We could do some internal development, too.  One source is not ideal.  Some of the current engines are not perfect for Saab.  We will always keep true to the responsible performance ideal in all of our choices.

Q:  The option for independent service is important to many Saab owners, will you continue to support that choice?

John Libbos:  We must continue to support the independent service with tools and information, yes.

Q:  [From aftermarket parts supplier] 30% of the parts that we sell are cosmetic.  The trim parts that fade, peeling emblems, etc.  What is your plan for those things?

Jan-Åke Jonsson:  If the exterior sucks you in, and the interior makes you want to drive the car, and then the car surprises you with how well it drives, you will buy that car.  It all starts with the exterior of the car.  This issue must be fixed.

Victor Muller:  It speaks to the volume mentality of GM vs. the niche manufacturing mentality that we will have at Saab.  We are finding that if you take the yoke away that people go in the right direction.  We are lifting the limitations that have prevented these small details from being fixed in the past.

Mike Colleran:  It is important to have that “customer experience”.  These are service concerns and must be handled well.  A rise in JD Power measurements will be a key indicator of whether we are making the right changes, and I believe that we will.

Q:  Saab was known for one of the best European delivery programs available.  Will it be reinstated?

Mike Colleran:  It will happen, but there are some processes that must be straight prior to restart.  It is an expensive program and it wasn’t always easy to manage because it was a manual process.

Victor Muller:  It will happen, just not soon.

Q:  What leasing programs will we have for Saabs?

Mike Colleran:  The current residual values are challenging, but ALG improved the Saab residuals recently, and so have many banks.  This will continue to improve as the new Saab matures.

We currently are offering an attractive lease option for the 9-3, and we will continue to refine these as we can.

Q:   Now that it is Saab Cars North America — not Saab USA and Saab Canada — who is the Canadian-specific face of Saab?

Mike Colleran:  We are.

Jan-Åke Jonsson:  Independent importers are synonymous with the Saab brand in those places with independent import partners.

Q:  Green initiatives are all the buzz right now, what is Saab going to do?

Jan-Åke Jonsson:  Well, we were the original “green” automotive provider, and we need to re-take that position.  We’ve always stood for responsible performance — we’ve used turbochargers for 30 years, we’ve pioneered alternative fuels (like the excellent E85 BioPower vehicles), we are championing small-displacement engines (down to a 1.6 l engine for the 9-5 turbocharged diesel), and we’re launching a fleet of  full electrics to see if we can manage those to the point where the consumer would gain confidence in that technology.  Saab has always been a “green” company and we will continue to be.

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