A funny thing happened to Cian O’Brien on his way to Australia last year.
He was all packed. The family’s stuff was on a ship bound for Sydney. He was set to take charge of Audi Australia after heading Audi U.K. since 2014.
But he never made it. Audi of America President Scott Keogh offered a career detour that landed the energetic Irish executive a different role — as COO of Audi of America.
“After packing up the house, I got a call from Scott, asking if I was interested in rethinking my decision and coming here to the U.S. instead,” explained O’Brien. “It was a pretty quick decision in my mind.”
A married father of three children who plays rugby and is a triathlete, O’Brien hasn’t had much opportunity to climb back on the bike since he started his U.S. job last May. That, he says, will change soon.
The Cork, Ireland, native has been in the auto industry since he was 17 and held a part-time job pumping gas at a dealership in his hometown.
“At the weekend, people would come in to the [closed showroom] and have their nose pressed against the window, looking at the cars inside,” O’Brien recalled. “I always loved cars, and I liked talking to people as well, so one day, I asked one of the customers if he was interested in the car inside. I said I would pass his information on to one of the salespeople if he liked.”
The customer agreed, and when the salesman turned young O’Brien’s lead into a sale, he gave him £50 as a ‘bird dog’ fee for his efforts.
“That was more than I had made all weekend at the pumps,” he said.
The industry’s hook was set.
While his career started with several jobs on the service side in Ireland, O’Brien made the jump to sales at a Lexus dealership in the country, where he headed an eight-person sales team. He later moved to Audi, and then from dealer operations to the factory, beginning a series of management and executive roles in the U.K. That included a stint as the national director in Ireland for Volkswagen Group’s Seat brand.
With each job, O’Brien built his success on what he had learned manning the dealership pumps on the weekends: hard work and customer service. He also learned that luxury-brand customers are the same the world over.
“I would submit that premium customers are savvy; they know what they’re looking for,” he said. “There’s very little variance between the U.K. and the U.S. in that regard.”
-- Larry P. Vellequette