Every management handbook says never become boss of a company that has just set a sales record. Phil Popham decided to break the rule. A long-time Land Rover sales and marketing executive, Popham, 40, took over as managing director of the English SUV brand in April, following its best year ever. He spoke with Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin at the media launch of the LR2 compact SUV.
The latest J.D. Power initial quality scores placed Land Rover in last place. What is your reaction to that?
I will be meeting with the J.D. Power executives, along with (Jaguar-Land Rover product development director) Al Kammerer and (Jaguar-Land Rover CEO) Geoff Polites, to find out whether the problems are a matter of quality, expectations, ergonomics or design. Finishing 37th is nothing to be proud of. The new LR2 is the first Land Rover to go from start to finish in the Ford product development system. It's also being built at Halewood, which Power has rated highly. We are confident the LR2 will have high quality.
Land Rover vehicles have been known for their off-road prowess, being based on body-on-frame construction. But the LR2 comes from a unibody car platform. Does that make it any less a Land Rover?
Not at all. Up until the current Range Rover, all we talked about was solid axles, ground clearance and the like. But off-road technology has moved on, with improved independent suspensions eliminating the need for solid axles. So now we are focusing on removing weight, adding durability and increasing on-road capability. You can do all that with a unibody. The challenge is for us to be more relevant in the luxury segment, with more practicality and safety - without compromising our off-road heritage. We need to give people more reason to choose Land Rover besides it being a cool brand.
How important is the LR2 to Land Rover?
When the (predecessor) Freelander arrived in 1997, it took the European luxury market by storm. But the market has changed with a lot of new entries. We need to re-establish our position as the leader. We don't have to be the volume leader. The LR2's package, powertrain and size was done with the U.S. market in mind, whereas the old Freelander came to the U.S. late, almost as an afterthought.
The current Range Rover was developed with BMW's help. How long before we see a redesign, courtesy of Ford's r&d help?
The Range Rover is still a fantastically capable car. It was enhanced in the 2006 model year by switching out the BMW engines for modified Jaguar engines. We've also taken a lot of noise out of the cabin. But the competitive nature of the market means we need to react. We need to make priorities in our investment. We have to keep the Range Rover at the forefront.
Is Land Rover generating an operating profit?
The LR2 is the final chunk of our current product development budget, which we committed to five years ago at a cost of billions of dollars. Now we can start to make the return on investment that Ford expects us to make.
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]