Autoline After Hours Interviews Tim Colbeck

Last night on Autoline After Hours, not to be confused with the more formal Autoline Daily, John McElroy and guest Peter M. De Lorenzo sat down with new President and COO of SCNA Tim Colbeck to discuss how his first month on the job went and what the future has in store for Saab, especially in North America. I really enjoyed the loose casual format of the show which gave Tim an opportunity to open up and express his passion for Saab clearly and without too many constraints. He did a great job, despite a dog being on set who every now and then wandered into shot. He also slipped some breaking news (that I hinted at in comments but wasn’t sure I was officially allowed to say) that the first production 9-4Xs left the factory at 5:30 PM yesterday on their way north.

Feel free to skip to 28:35 to jump over the intro sections, that’s when Tim comes on. I summarized a few key points which you can read after the break, including some paraphrased quotes I tried to get. I apologize in advance as they’re not 100% verbatim, but I did the best I could at 3:00 AM and I think it captured the gist of what was said. Needless to say this isn’t the last you’ll hear from Tim Colbeck, as I’ll have my own interview with him on the site in the next week.

On making the switch from Subaru to Saab:

“Subaru was a great experience, I was there for 25 years, lastly as Senior Vice President of Sales. When I joined the team at Subaru people would say ‘this is the best kept secret in the industry.’ It took us 20 years to get the message out and the last 5 we’ve been doing really well with it.

When I heard about the Saab opportunity I saw an iconic brand, with great products and a good portfolio coming, loyal customers– a lot of the ingredients that Subaru had before they figured out how to be successful. It looked like such a challenge, [Saab is] an entrepreneurial company. I thought if I ever left Subaru I’d go to work for an entrepreneurial company, and then I get a call from an entrepreneurial car company, so I thought wow this is right in the sweet spot.

“I think the brands share a lot in sprit, their owner bases are very similar in terms of spirit. But I think in the Saab case you have an even more independent thinking owner base and independent brand, so that’s the challenge. It was the challenge of taking a great brand back where it needed to be.”

On recent financial trouble and the Pang Da deal:

“What’s interesting is that Pang Da is a distributor much like AutoNation in the US.

“There’s a good product pipeline and I think you’ve talked to victor about the short term development plan. The 9-4X coming out right now. Our short term plan with the 9-4x is solid, it was developed as a Saab and then customized to be a Cadillac. [It’s good that as the] final step in the metamorphosis at GM, they actually invested itself into Saab right before they ditched them…[the premium CUV segment] is a good segment to be in…

“Then we have the 9-5 combi, 9-3 refresh in advance of the 9-3 replacement…we need to secure additional investment for other models to rollout…

“Subaru shows us that you don’t need an entry in every segment, you just need success in the segments where you compete, and that’s where we need to improve– we need to make sure our cars are winners in the segments they compete, and that’s why i’m optimistic about the new 9-4X.”

On Saab getting back on it’s feet:

“Saab started producing cars last week, and we keep producing Saabs now. Also I can reveal that at 5:30 PM, the first 9-4Xs were shipped out of Ramos Arizpe, Mexico plant.

We have to buld more confidence in Saab. The way to do that is by doing things to show that we’re going to be a successful car company. There’s a couple layers of confidence building, not just for industry insiders [but all customers too].

  1. We have to do things to show Saab will be a success, launch new models, market to owners in a Saab-like way (That’s a Curvin “Intelligence Campaign” shout out if I ever heard one!)
  2. Be ourselves, not someone we’re not. Connect to our owners and potential owners in ways that they communicate (SaabsUnited shoutout I hope…)
  3. Invest in our dealer network to ensure a great customer experience.

An interesting thing I’ve heard in just under a month with the company, ‘What a great brand! But what are they selling now?’ We’ve got a different kind of awareness issue, what is saab today? Our goal is to make the Saab today better than the Saab they remember.” (Strong words Tim, we’re holding you to them.)

On Saab’s existing dealer network in the US:

“We have great loyal dealers (199) and we’ve been through a rough period that comes with being a startup. There’s a chunk of 97 that share their lots with GM, and then a fair amount of independents and some more general dealerships. All in all a very loyal group, they want Saab to be successful and we want them to be successful… and at the Denver dealer meeting we’re going to talk about how to partner to accomplish the mission for Saab.”

What lessons learned at Subaru can be applied to Saab?

“There are similarities and differences. A lot of the main principles- of being yourself, recognizing things that really don’t fit the brand, and being laser focused on what it is to be Saab and what makes a Saab a Saab. People are say are you going to market to your owners and In a way I say yes, we want them back and we think they’re loyal, but there’s a lot of people like them, and when you do things that are interesting to the people who like your brand and you do them well, more people come in. That’s one of the important things i learned at Subaru:

  1. Great Products, that meet where the market wants them
  2. Great Dealer Network and good customer experience
  3. Communicate who you are in a way that people want to do business with you”

An interesting timing note (the first update I’ve heard) on when to expect to buy the 9-3 in the US:

“End of 2012 Saab starts producing and beginning of 2013 we receive the new 9-3.”

On Quirkiness:

“Quirky is the negative side of interesting and engaged. Also fascinating to me is I looked at the customer profile of Saab and they’re very similar in mindset (to Subaru). They’re people who are engaged in life, who like to collect experiences than collect things in life. They’ve been labeled quirky because they’re different, and part of our mission is to make the quirky not so quirky, to make it interesting these are interesting people, they lead interesting lives and do interesting things, and in a way that’s very aspirational. I’d say today independent thinking is becoming more and more the norm vs. the abnormal and thats really what we’ve got to tap into.”

Will there be a new marketing message?

“It’s not any one thing, it’s a combination of doing a lot of things right. Finding the right things that work for your brand. For us we’ve got to really understand exactly who we are… and I think that impacts how you design your products, marketing, dealership setup and dealership experience. The number one priority for us is focus and consistency. I don’t think it’s reinventing Saab or finding a new way of talking about Saab I think it’s understanding Saab and communicating that in a way of communicating  that others can latch onto that. What’s been interesting my first month asking people ‘What is Saab?’ I ask engineers from Sweden or [others[ and everyone has a clear picture that’s fairly consistent. A lot of times people come from the brand pillars…it’s great Scandinavian design, real world performance and safety, design with the driver in mind. But asking the head of product engineering Peter (Dörrich), Saab cares about the driver, everything we do is with the care driver in mind. And to me, that’s a bit of the essence of Saab. That and the independence, thinking that we don’t have to do everything others are doing, we have to do what’s right for our drivers.”

On the big challenge of getting back on the consumer radar screen (big ticket events, picking something to latch onto):

“We’ve got to be involved in things that are meaningful and authentic to [Saab]. You can get involved in something inauthentic to your brand. The other thing I find interesting is who wants to partner with the brand. We’ve got a [Google partnership, BMW partnership, Hirsch partnership]… a lot of time people talk about what a great brand Saab was, and it’s our job to get back onto the radar screen, a reason to believe. We have a bit of an advantage, people have an image of Saab, and it’s an a warm image of where Saab used to be, and we have to remind people not just of who we were but where we’re going.”

Are 199 dealers the right amount?

“We want the dealers to get the throughput to be profitable and get the right return on investment Rationalizing markets and making sure they’re in the right markets.”

McElroy’s reader question: You want to categorize Saab owners as interesting, does this mean you’re going to use the most interesting man in the world tagline?

[We’re going after] an independent thinking, engaged in life person.

Saabs have always been a little bit quirky, how do we make them quirky again?

“I think the goal is to recapture some of the connection the brand used to have. It’s more interesting than it is strange.”

When are we going to see a small Saab again?

“It’s on our radar screen. If we’re going to extend the line we’d rather go smaller than any other direction and it’s something they’re working on.

“First we have to tackle the foundation and get it strong. We think we’ve got what it takes to get us to that level. To drive a future extension for investments.”

It’s nice to see that John wants to see Saab survive. He’s skeptical about their future, but he admits that just about everyone is pulling for Saab even though they think he’s crazy or going. Tim thinks that the team in place, especially at SCNA is incredible. There’s a lot of reason to be confident.

After the wrap at 1:04:42, there’s a bit of what Tim probably thought was off camera banter, but was actually recorded. It’s a great exchange.

Asked what he drove to the broadcast:

“I’m driving a 9-5, and as I’m driving over, there’s a fair amount of traffic. A guy in a Corvette with the top down is looking [cranking his neck, obviously the 9-5] is styled right. It drives great, it looks great. We’ve gotta get [John] a 9-4X to drive…that car, I come from Subaru, but going from a Tribeca to a 9-4X, it’s night and day. This car just drives and handles. We’ve got good products, and ya if the products weren’t good, you could stick a fork in it. But these products are too good. There’s a lot of people rooting for it. Good products, right price, we’ve gotta do everything right, that’s our goal. To realize the future that everyone is skeptical about, we know we have to fire on all cylinders.”

15 thoughts on “Autoline After Hours Interviews Tim Colbeck”

    • I agree.

      Tim has a lot of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude), and I like his references to Subaru. There is a lot of synergy between Saab and Subaru in terms of vehicles that are different to the mainstream.

      Subaru seem to have got there marketing right, so all being well Tim will be able to direct Saab down the same route.

      I hear a lot of complaints regarding Saab interiors not being up to the best of the German brands, but hey the Subaru interiors are very much on the cheap plastic side (e.g. the outgoing Impretza). Yet the auto industry journalists don’t make issue of it.

      I look at Saab cars as well built practical machines that are designed for people with real lives (another reference to Tim’s comments). So to me, multifunction electronic gadgets, deep pile carpets and a whole heard of cows skin inside the car are unnecessary and impractical.

      Saab needs to change the mindset of the motoring Journalists. They seem to position Saab in the upper luxury sector then complain that the build and kit doesn’t compete.

      Saab’s must come across as a well built and well appointed practical cars. Cars that you can use for work, home life and leisure and yes the Golf Course too.

      I always got the feeling that GM and Ford misunderstood their European acquisitions (SAAB, Volvo and Jaguar). Ford didn’t understand Jaguar and made the X type based on a Mondeo (and it showed). Ford and GM pitched Volvo and Saab at BMW, Mercedes etc and ditched the hatchback to compete on cabin noise figure levels. At a stroke they lost a lot of customers.

      Most real people just want a hatchback, a booted car is impractical for those occasional awkward loads (trips to Ikea) and an estate (wagon) is too big for everyday life. So people who liked the well-built and durable Saab and Volvo hatchbacks went to Ford, GM, Renault, Citroen etc because all they wanted was a medium sized hatchback.

      I get the feeling Tim knows this and if, as most of us hope that, the new 9-3 is going to be available as a hatchback, then the former Saab customers mentioned above will return in droves.

      • I think you are correct Sir.
        Saab is still a cut above the more mundane brands and just below the german heavy weights-they do still occupy that niche at least…all they need now is the product differentiation they once had -in terms of decent practical body designs (yes I mean big hatchbacks as practical as estate cars [almost] but sportier/prettier)

        if they can do that and maintain a marketing presence so people know they are producing product-then they will have a wining formula

  1. Estate depends on size. Todays 9-3 sc is perfect….to me.
    Had a Subaru Outback -07 before and its the similar size. Todays Outback is bigger. So I switched to 9-3X. My first saab.
    Big diff on prices between saab and subaru in sweden.

    • All my Saabs over almost 30 years have been hatchbacks or wagons since our needs value the utility of the configuration. When you have a 9-3 SC and a first-gen 9-5 SC, you can really see the size difference between them in the wagonback area. The extra capability of the 9-5 is significant.

      • I have both a 9-5 Wagon and a 9-5 Sedan (both dame edna’s). I can’t say I notice any major increase in space, as the cars are exactly the same length with the rear seats up.

        However with the rear seats down and the parcel shelf removed you sure can get loads of stuff (up to the roof) in the wagon.

        You can put the rear seats down in the sedan as well, it’s reasonably flexible, but nothing beats a hatch or wagon.

        The major issue between the 9-5 wagon and sedan is handling. That extra over rear axle weight at height is noticeable around bends and roundabouts. The back end can feel quite unstable (without any load within the car) under moderate to hard cornering. The 9-5 sedan handles with shear grace.

        A sloping hatch offsets the weight issue, whilst giving you almost the same load flexibility as a wagon. The bulk of the hatches weight (the upper part) is contained within the wheel base. I guess that’s why a 900 (OG or GM) looks the way it does.

  2. Tim did well but he didn’t talk enough about the 9-5. Only in the end, after the show was actually finished, did he talk about it when asked what he was driving, which gave the hosts the opportunity to say how this is a great SAAB. Saab NA has to get drivers in those cars ASAP, specially with the amazing deals waiting out there.

  3. Jeff, you did more than summarize a few key points. I caught a replay at midnight and reading your transcription really captures all you need to know. Good thing since the embedded video isn’t appearing – just the space for it. 😉

    There was so much to like here but what really did it for me was how Tim connected a number of key things (a very Saab-like thing). First is his recognition of a different kind of awareness issue – what is Saab today and make it even better than people’s (good or bad) past memories . Then his recognition of the need for different layers of confidence buidling. Finally, the On Quirkiness and Will thre be a new marketing message? sections of the transcription were probably the best of the bunch.

    I particularly resonated with Tim’s notion that Saab people are engaged in life, who like to collect experiences than collect things in life…these are interesting people, they lead interesting lives and do interesting things, and in a way that’s very aspirational. Especially the part about collecting experiences. Those experiences can lead to all the other interesting stuff!

    • Thanks Steve, agree completely.

      The embedded video is showing up on Firefox 4 on my mac fine, wonder what the issue is?

      • Ask Tim or the crew since it happened before but I can’t recall what the issue was. My reporting of the missing embed was with IE7.

  4. He is perfect for SCNA, Time really seems to understand Saab’s problems here as well as it’s strengths and how to expand upon them. Subaru has so many similarities to Saab and they were really struggling here in the US as well and now look at them.

  5. What does SAAB stand for? I think this question was asked a few times during the interview and I think it is essential that we keep this topic alive at SAABSUNITED. I would like to contribute by offering this suggestion: SAAB stands for intelligent efficiency to achive great effects where it is most needed with small means like being the fastest rally car despite weak motorization in the 60s-70s, achieving great acceleration in the speed spectrum when it counts by using turbo charging and as now offering power when it is needed at low fuel consumption, I think this is an important theme behind SAAB.

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