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CEO Interview: Chairman Jim Tyrrell, SsangYong

PUBLISHED: 14:37 23 April 2018

Jim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

Jim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

© Thousand Word Media

A sleeping giant has awoken. Under the radar for the past 20 years, it’s SsangYong’s time to shine, says Chairman Jim Tyrrell. He tells Frank Tennyson what the car distributor has planned

Let’s be honest, buying a car can be unsatisfactorily stressful. So many questions arise. What kind of vehicle will suit our lifestyle needs? What can we get for our budget? Which car review should we believe? Should we stick with our tried-and-trusted brand?

Well, there is some bad – or good – news for those currently considering purchasing a vehicle. A new player is in town, which will increase consumer options but also promises to combine price with premium quality.

Independent distributor SsangYong has been present in the British market for the past 20 years at a “very low level.” But now, according to Cheltenham-based UK Chairman Jim Tyrell, there is an opportunity for SsangYong to finally punch its weight.

Jim worked at Ford for 15 years and was Mitsubishi’s hugely successful MD for a decade. Yet, in what he calls semi-retirement (not strictly true, read later) he was tempted to take on another challenge mid-2017.

“I was asked to come on board as a consultant because of my relevant experience at Mitsubishi and also because the owners were concerned about UK performance,” says Jim.

“Mitsubishi is an independent distributor selling cars from Asia, specialising in four-wheel drives, so the businesses are very similar. The first job for me was to have a real look at how SsangYong operated.”

Jim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWMJim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

By Jim’s own admission the changes he, and MD and long-term friend Nick Laird implemented were “painful”. The two most senior people at SsangYong left because of “leadership issues” and Jim ended up seeing his own involvement in the company upscaled.

He says: “I was initially consulting but soon it became clear there was a bigger job to do, so I became more involved.

“We are very much on the launch pad at the moment. We’ve implemented a new strategy, focusing our energy around the really good product range. I was surprised at the quality of the cars.

“It’s a focused, very modern product range. Design-wise, SsangYong has really got its act together. It used to be famous for quite unusual, quirky designs, but now the focus is on genuine quality. They are modern, well-designed, well-engineered, good-looking cars.”

Having being seduced into taking on the SsangYong job, Jim is keen to emphasise that a change of culture was required. With MD Nick Laird in charge of day-to-day operations, they share a very similar operating style.

“Nick is very experienced, and a very clever guy,” adds Jim. “He runs the business, he’s very structured and quite democratic, a wise guy who manages his team very carefully. My approach is also very much about listening to other people’s opinions, promoting discussion but within a framework.

Jim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWMJim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

“There are some things that are not really negotiable, in terms of structure in business. You have to have a Monday morning meeting, you have to have a monthly meeting where you decide what you are going to order for next month, meetings to decide any changes to product or price, marketing, incentive programmes, the list goes on.

“There has to be a timetable and the right people involved in that. Fortunately, Nick and I have the same philosophy.

“We’ve certainly changed the way the business is run. And I’m sure the people who work for SsangYong would say it’s calmer, more structured and more consultative. We have experts in the business, so we should listen to what they have to say”

SsangYong currently sells 4,000 cars in the UK per year, which is a small percentage of the available market. Jim sees this as an opportunity rather than a negative. One vehicle, the new Rexton, seems to be breaking down new barriers.

“There is room for significant growth and I think we have the cars to deliver that,” he says. “The SUV Rexton is the competitor to the Mitsubishi Shogun and Toyota Landcruiser. It’s a sub-segment of the large SUV market, in as much as it isn’t the Chelsea tractor. It is a vehicle designed with a purpose – it’s a genuine off-roader, with ladder-frame construction, and tows three and a half tonnes. It has all the capabilities for our customers.

“So you get the practicality but you also get the refinement. The engine is quiet, appropriately powerful, the torque levels are good. The equipment levels of quality and specification are at levels you would not expect in this car. Heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, Apple car play, sat nav, leather interior – everything

Jim Tyrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWMJim Tyrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

you could possibly imagine on a luxury vehicle is on this car.

“The kind of customer who will be interested in the Rexton are the farmers, builders, country people who want more but at good value – it is very much a country vehicle and we think there is a real market there for us.

“And of course it is half the price of its competitors.”

Jim approaches this fresh adventure with a spring in his step. Having taken a break from the car industry, he certainly wasn’t idle. He made many private equity investments, bought companies to build them up and then sell, and ran a consultancy and advisory business.

He also found himself helping Freemans Event Partners, a Gloucester-based company who are the biggest event caterers in the UK. If you have public food at the likes of Wembley, Twickenham, Silverstone, Goodwood, Ryder Cup, V Festival or Tour De France, Freemans is there supplying the food and drink. Jim was part of growing the business over the past seven years. The company now enjoys a £50 million turnover.

Whilst delighting in Freemans’ excess, Jim is enjoying his new association with the motor industry through SsangYong. He says: “The motor industry is fascinating at the moment and I’m glad I’m back involved. I’m loving this.”

Jim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWMJim Tyrrell, CEO of Ssangyong Cars UK (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

Undoubtedly, in recent years UK consumers have displayed more open-mindedness when buying cars. The rise and rise of Hyundai and Kia from a low initial base to selling excess of 100,000 vehicles each, shows that purchasing habits are changing. Could these two companies be considered trail blazers for SsangYong’s future?

Jim says: “Those two brands, I think, have given permission to UK consumers to buy Korean products. It’s no longer the rather bargain basement, cheap, unreliable, even funny, amusing brand. You can see the same parallels with Skoda who have evolved into a credible brand.

“There is more open-mindedness and less snobbery about car brands now. I’ve been in the industry 30 years and I think people are more pragmatic about cars now. It is more about their lifestyle than about how great you look.

“But I have to say, our product evolution seems to me to be faster than that of Kia and Hyundai – we are catching up very, very fast.”

Aside from the highly-regarded Rexton, another example of the “new and improved” SsangYong product range is the upcoming pick-up, the Musso. With more and more consumers moving towards this type of vehicle (Jim predicts a 60,000 unit market in 2019), this is a potential area of growth for SsangYong.

“It’s a critical moment for us,” says Jim. “There are five credible players in it (Mitsubishi, Nissan, Ford, Toyota, and Isuzu) and we will be the sixth. From a purely objective product point of view, our pick-up is better.

“We have a product, which is better to drive, has a better interior cabin in terms of the quality of the finish, the legroom, the features and equipment. It’s also the only one that can tow three and a half tonnes!

“We have a huge opportunity with this product. I’m very excited but we have to do the right things – launch it properly, communicate properly, get the right information out to the press and consumers. If we do this correctly, we’ll be in a good place.”

So with all this good practical optimism what is the final message to potential dealers in the UK and consumers?

Jim says: “The DNA of the brand as we knew two years ago is so far away from what have now. Therefore this requires us to change our behavior dramatically. I had a meeting with some of our dealers yesterday and we discussed this very thing.

“And the message from me was quite simple – “get ready!”

Blenheim Horse Trials

The SsangYong team have been the title sponsor of Blenheim International Horse Trials since 2017. They have the deal in place for the next two years.

Jim says: “This is a good piece of strategy. Again this is being visible and relevant to our target audience who attend. These shows are fantastic. Our Blenheim relationship will once again give our potential customers the permission to eventually buy our product.”

The future

“Next year we are launching a new Korando, the mid-sized SUV, and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s an astonishing bit of design,” says Jim. “This new car is a radical piece of modern automotive design. The following year it gets an electric engine with excellent range and great performance.”

Visit the SsangYong website here.

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