New York Auto Show: Interview with Victor Muller of Spyker and Saab
By Brendan Moore
During press days of the New York Auto Show, I got the opportunity to sit down with Victor Muller, CEO of Spyker, Saab’s new owner, for a moment.
The interview occurred during an evening cocktail reception for Saab senior executives the first night of the show, in a lovely classic car gallery in Greenwich Village in New York City. A few people from Saab, including Mr. Muller, made brief remarks at one point during the evening, as is the custom during these things, and I was able to speak with Muller one-on-one towards the end of the party.
After the usual introductions, we started talking, and the transcript of the interview follows:
Moore: I was intrigued by a comment you made during your remarks regarding people asking the question, “What could Spyker possibly bring to Saab?”
Muller: (quickly) Other than saving it.
Moore: Yes, other than saving it. There has been a lot of press as to all the things that Spyker doesn’t have in relation to what it needs to make Saab viable, and I’m interested in your point of view as to what the things are…
Muller: that we do have
Moore: that you do have, those big pluses.
Muller: Clearly. Well, we would be pretty presumptuous, to say, stupid, to think that Saab will be run by Spyker. Because, that’s not going to happen. Spyker doesn’t pretend, or claims, that it’s going to run Saab. We’re not. We saved the company for good reasons, it’s very much worth saving, and it was a very good deal.
I think a few years down the line, people will say, “How is it possible the Spyker got the company for the price of a wind tunnel?” But, of course, that will require us being very successful in making Saab profitable, which we anticipate doing by 2012.
So, Saab is going to be run by Saab’s very, very capable management. However, Spyker does have something to bring to the table. First of all, a company that has been part and parcel of a large conglomerate like General Motors, is now being carved out from General Motors and the umbilicals are being cut over time, and it has to operate as a stand-alone company. It means that it has to become very entrepreneurial. Now, clearly, entrepreneurship is what we bring to the table. Very useful to have if you’re a stand-alone. Particularly, because, no cavalry from Detroit will come if you’re out of money. Or something like that. There’s no help, none at all.
The wonderful thing of being on your own is that you determine your own destination. We’re in charge of our own future. And, that’s what’s going to change the face of Saab tremendously over the next years.
The other thing we’re going to bring to the table is that we know a lot about the premium market. We’re operating in a top-end, absolute top-end automotive segment, and we know what it takes to build a premium brand. So, I feel, that Saab could do, with a little more premium-ness, if you will, than it has currently. I wish to close the gap with the Audis, the BMWs, the Mercedes of this world, in terms of premium feel.
Now, no company becomes premium because it calls itself premium. You have to earn your premium status. And, you have to earn it in every aspect of the business. From your showroom CI to your quality of your product, to the look and feel of your interiors, it’s the whole experience, from service, to the way you’re greeted when you enter the dealership. All those components, define, in the end, whether you’re accepted as a premium brand or not. Clearly, Saab is a premium brand. But, I would like to see the brand go up in terms of being premium.
And, finally, we’re going to take the design of the Saabs one notch up. GM was very clearly understanding of the fact that Saab had lost some of its brand DNA over time, and allowed Saab to develop the “El President” Aero X, one of the best designs of the past decade, from my view. Designed by Anthony Lo, who just moved from GM to Renault, and that design was basically the father and mother of the new 9-5, and the new 9-4X. By 2012, and I could be off on this, but all Saabs should have the proper DNA that got lost in the past to some extent. But, the new 9-3, which is due for replacement by 2012, will be a car where we think we should take that Saab DNA, that Saab brand DNA in design one notch up, and that’s what you’ll see very soon.
Moore: What is your desire, your forecast, of when consumers will speak of Saab in the same breath as Audi and BMW? What is your preference…
Muller: That it will happen today. But that is pretty unlikely. I think that when the 9-5 will have a foothold in its market, that car is such a massive leap forward, compared to the car it replaced, which was from the time we stopped production in January, was a 13 year-old car. It’s like; a car in the middle of that life cycle was just missing. The normal life cycle for what you call a premium product like this, is six years, maximum seven years. After 13 years, the car had outlived its useful life by a factor of 2. So, someone who was buying a 9-5, may have been OK with buying another 9-5, but then, another four years later, when the car was still produced, and the only difference with the previous one was the space of the windshield wipers, he must have thought, “Now, why would I buy the same car again, now in the blue instead of the red”? That can’t happen again. So, clearly, what you will see, is that the life cycle of the products will be much more in line with the market, I mean, the premium market, and quality of the products in terms of fit and finish, particularly the interior materials, the choices of colors, and hues, will change.
Moore: So, again, coming back to the question, when is the date that you can reasonably foresee Saab being spoken of in the same breath as Audi and BMW?
Muller: I think when the new 9-5 has got a foothold in the market, which will be between one and two years from now. The 9-4X, when it is launched in April, 2011, is absolutely in the same vein as the 9-5, so I think, to be very concrete in your answer, the date of when the new 9-3 is launched in the middle of 2012, and we have completely refreshed the new line, then you can argue that Saab will have closed the gap.
Moore: Coming back, looping around to what you said about design, can we expect to see bigger, bolder things from Saab in that area?
Muller: Definitely. You have to, you have to make a more distinctive design over time, to set Saab aside from the mainstream. People are not buying Saabs, because they want, they want an Opel, if they wanted an Opel, they’d buy an Opel. They want a Saab. And, they want, actually, a Saab Saab. And I think that’s what we’re giving already in the form of the 9-5 and the 9-4X, and over time, when we have renewed the entire portfolio, there will be Saab Saabs. And the only missing link will be, as far as I’m concerned, a Saab 92, the old Saab, and a teardrop-shaped Saab, under the 9-3, that will bring the roots of Saab back, as in back to the future.
Moore: Right, I’d love to see it. I had quite bit of experience with Saab while it was in the GM fold, and I remember specifically talking to a senior guy at GM a couple of years ago, and I asked him why Saab wasn’t selling as much as they thought it should, and his reply at that moment was, “There are only so many architects and college professors in the United States”. And…
Moore: and those types of demographics have been a lot of Saab’s core business in the United States, someone is looking for something a little different, something that may have a different sort of aesthetic than the common man wants. Do you propose to expand beyond those people, or, simply get more of those people?
Muller: Saab doesn’t need any new customers. Saab only needs to get its old customers back. Those who have left the brand, not because they were not loyal to it, because Saab has, by far, the highest loyalty level of all car manufacturers, period, but because Saab didn’t deliver on the brand promise, or worse, didn’t have the product the customer wanted,
The 9-3X, with four-wheel-drive, is hitting these shores now, decades after Subaru and Audi and other manufacturers swept the market with four-wheel-drive propositions. We just didn’t have that. The 9-5, which was 13 years old, that’s not really a wonderful way of expanding your market. There was no crossover vehicle, absolutely none, we’re getting one exactly one year from now.
So, we will be able to regain the hearts of those who loved the brand, but simply couldn’t get the product they wanted. Now, with this much wider array of products, true Saabs, I think we’ll be seeing the customers flock back, like pigeons. And that’s what we want.
Moore: Last question, and I thank you for being so patient, and taking the time to talk to us. Do you see yourself as a visionary, saviour, or both?
Muller: Neither, I would say. You are never in a situation to determine whether you are a visionary or not. First of all, time will judge that, and secondly, I would never be in a position myself to make that judgment call. Saviour? No, I didn’t do it on my own, it took a phenomenally brave management team of Saab to help make this happen, and Jon Ake (Jon Ake Jonsson, Managing Director of Saab) and his team, I mean, have been way beyond the call of duty, to save this company. It took a willing seller, GM, to make it happen. So, we were just in the right time in the right place, to make it happen, So, no, I wouldn’t proclaim that we’re the saviour of the company. We were just there to preserve an iconic brand that deserved to survive. And it has, I’m really proud of that.
Moore: I guess good timing is everything, as usual.
Muller: Timing is everything, and, as I explained in my address, only in a “perfect storm”, like this industry has seen, in the past two years, is it possible that a small manufacturer like Spyker, can get a super brand like Saab for the price of a wind tunnel.
Moore: Thank you very much, Mr. Muller, for taking the time to speak with Autosavant.
Muller: My pleasure.