Roughly 4,800 miles from where production of the Ineos Grenadier off-road vehicle is ramping up in the company's Hambach, France, plant, Greg Clark is poring over applications from dealers who want to sell the boxy, rugged SUV in North America.
The North American version of the Grenadier should be ready for sale about a year from now. Clark, Ineos' executive vice president for the Americas, hopes to have many of the 35 dealers selected for the United States, Canada and Mexico around by that time. Ineos Automotive has a dozen U.S. employees and will grow to about 25 by January. Clark, 46, a former Jaguar Land Rover and Daimler marketing executive who was named to his post at Ineos in February, spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett about the company's dealer selection process and other issues. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: It looks like the Grenadier could get off to a strong start in North America. You've booked roughly 5,000 U.S. reservations. But converting those to paying customers sometimes takes a bit of work. Is it too early to start thinking about how you are going to close these sales?
A: No. Definitely not. That's why the first hires were for the positions of director of customer experience, and marketing. The [customer] engagement plan will be on a very regular cadence between now and what we call "Order Day" internally, where we would shift from the taking of reservations to the conversion of those reservations into orders.
Can you give an update on the Grenadier launch?
Vehicles are rolling off the line now. In Europe and the rest of the world, we'll start deliveries of the first customer vehicles in the fourth quarter. So, for the rest of the business, it's pretty much hair on fire! But while all this is going on, we've been quietly and laboriously setting up the Americas. We've gone through all the main structural gateways and have set up plans in terms of homologation and certification. We are on target. We are wrapping up plans for marketing, which will be focused primarily on our reservation holders as a principal measure of conversion. It's all fine to make a reservation, but folks need to get behind the wheel to make that decision.
What's the status on dealer selection for North America?
We've had a lot of hand-raisers, a big selection of dealers from all over the country. And mostly in those areas that are of the greatest focus for us. But we are being very judicious in the selection process. We're on the cusp of naming our first dealer.
Specifically, what does a dealer need to demonstrate to obtain an Ineos franchise?
We're looking for entrepreneurial, innovative and quite visionary dealer partners who see the market opportunity for a utilitarian 4x4 to increase customer choice in the market. That is occupying a huge amount of our time. It's a gigantic decision, an incredibly important decision, because these folks are going to be our partners and our representation to customers when we launch. They need to demonstrate that they understand what needs to be done in terms of building community. Our reservation holders have told us they want to be part of something. They want to meet with like-minded people. They don't just want to go on a coffee run but on a full weekend or week's worth of expedition. Potential dealers will understand that and be presenting great ideas for that. And dealers need to be in the right location. Those are the four key metrics we are looking at.
Most new automakers are bypassing traditional dealers and selling direct to customers. Any thoughts of going to market that way?
We have no interest in that. While dealers have been very pleased to hear that — and it is refreshing in today's industry — we need to be making sure we are choosing the right partners. So that's what is going to occupy us for the next six to nine months, getting these dealers stood up and ready to not only receive dealer demonstrators, which are coming around springtime next year, but training and following up with the order bank, the one we are generating, and their own.
Since the Grenadier has a BMW powertrain, does that give BMW dealers a natural advantage over dealers selling other brands?
BMW dealers and European import dealers have naturally gravitated to us because they are smaller volume and they focus on customer service satisfaction ratings and they know how to treat their customers. However, while they have techs and tools and training, it is not a ticket to entry. The main focus is making sure potential dealers have the right mindset, and that they share our passion for the Grenadier, and for what is really an uncommon opportunity.
Will dealers need a separate showroom?
We are not demanding a separate showroom. In most cases, though, that is what we will have. The quality of the dealer partner and the team they put in place to represent the Grenadier is much more important to us. We are much less focused on the setup of the store and getting them to invest a gazillion dollars in palaces. We are more focused on: What is your plan for service to make sure the customer is well cared for, and how are you helping us do marketing and community generation for the Grenadier?
Can you say how much a dealer might need to invest in a Grenadier franchise?
That's really difficult. What we request is certain corporate identity stuff but doesn't include real estate. It doesn't include renovations. It's low six figures in terms of what we are requesting, which is light-years away from other manufacturers. But we are hugely conscious that they make a very positive business case. If they are making money, the likelihood they are delivering great customer service with their A-team is much higher.
What is a good number of dealers for North America?
We're talking about 35 dealers between the U.S. and Canada, and we'll sign one or two distributors for Mexico. We are anticipating a decent conversion rate here, but we are planning conservatively — we like to overperform rather than underdeliver. I think we will have less than 35 dealers initially but growing slowly, conservatively and sustainably.