It’s much easier to warm up a cold potato than it is to handle a red hot potato, because the hot potato will always go cold.
That’s how Karl Howkins, the new commercial director at Fiat Group Automobiles in the UK, describes his task.
Howkins joined Fiat last month after a 25-year career with General Motors. His last posting was a two-and-a-half year stint as managing director of Opel in the Netherlands.
Despite the titles, Howkins describes himself as a simple sales guy. The potato analogy was one told to him by a former boss.
“I like a challenge, and Fiat is a challenge, but it has great product coming,” said Howkins, speaking at the launch of the 500L Trekking. “You can be the best salesman in the world but you need the products to sell,” he said.
He describes the 500 as still flying, five years after its launch. It has also built up customer loyalty.
Fiat is very strong in the retail market which accounts for almost seven out of ten sales leaving plenty of scope in the fleet market where Fiat’s sales – at 34 per cent – are well below the industry average.
“But you need product to have fleet sales and we now have B, C and SUV segment vehicles,” he said.
He sees scope for the 500L in the rental and Motability markets. “If it makes sense, we’ll do it. If it doesn’t make sense we won’t do it. There is a lot of good fleet business out there,” he said.
His remit covers all six Fiat Group brands and he admits that the company needs to do better with Alfa Romeo – and will, with new Giulietta, Mito facelift and 4C on the near horizon as well as the new sports car being developed with Mazda.
“Jeep is hugely exciting; everyone knows Jeep so that’s the draw to Chrysler,” he said adding that the big push on Chrysler will come next year.
Howkins points to June sales for Fiat being up 22 per cent year-on-year as one reason for his optimism. The 500L is winning new customers to the brand and is now the third best-seller in its segment while the 500 has outsold MINI for five of the first six months this year and only lost out in June by 50 sales.
Next month comes the 500L MPW which is 20cms longer than the 500L but about 20cms shorter than the average station wagon in this segment. Fiat describes the car as being the link between MPV and estates. It is the most compact seven-seater on the market boasting the best interior-exterior ratio.