Mark Bernhard is the man at the centre of Holden’s battle for Aussie hearts and minds… And he looks haggard
It’s late on a Friday afternoon at ‘Holden House’ in Fishermans Bend and Mark Bernhard is clearly in the fight of his life.
As we sit down to chat, in a quiet corner of the ground-floor cafeteria, he looks more like a World War I battlefield commander than the head of Australia’s own car company.
That’s hardly surprising, since Holden has never looked so bad, or been doing so badly, through the many ups and downs over the past 60 years.
“Crisis? I’m not sure it’s a crisis. That’s your word,” Berhard begins.
“But we need to sell more cars, absolutely.”
How bad is it? Berhard is not going into detail.
“We’re tracking behind where we want to be. I don’t want to tell you how far.”
Bernhard is battling against dismal showroom sales, poor acceptance of the company’s latest products, dealer dissatisfaction, and a pathetic plan to roll through the end of local manufacturing that is clearly not working.
Holden deliberately turned its back on its traditional rusted-on fans while hoping to lure the ‘new Australians’ who are younger, more affluent, and more likely to choose a Volkswagen for their next car. It didn’t work.
“The reality is that we’ve got to appeal to a broad market. We’ve got to do that in a way we appeal to the heartland, but if we only appeal to the heartland you can see what happened to our market share over the past 15 years.
“We have to appeal to today’s Australians,” Berhard says.
As the ZB Commodore and Equinox SUV fail to fire, the Spark is axed as a failure, and Holden resorts to massive price cuts to get the Astra moving, there are people who believe it could be Game Over for the red lion.
Spark failed to ignite for Holden
General Motors has already tried to sell the company once, as part of the fire sale of Opel and Vauxhall to the PSA Group, despite denials from Holden about any intention to merge it into the French conglomerate.
Now, with many ordinary Australians interpreting last year’s end of Commodore production as ‘Holden is closing’, Bernhard is desperate to turn things around.
“On digital, all the metrics are strong. But we haven’t been able to get them [buyers] to showrooms,” he admits.
“We never had an expectation that the new Commodore would sell in the same numbers as the old Commodore. Equinox is a new nameplate, so it’s taking a while to establish that car.”
Equinox is taking time to establish in a busy SUV market
But it hasn’t taken long to establish the need for change in Holden management, with marketing director Mark Harland gone and former Fishermans Bend staffers Kristian Aquilina and Peter Keiey returning to senior roles.
Aquilina, who did a great job on maintaining support in New Zealand through the manufacturing shutdown, is the new marketing director. Since Harland was openly touted as Berhard’s successor at Holden, Aquilina also emerges as the potential heir.
Keley is making a comeback in the same role he held in the past, sales director, in a move that is already popular with dealers.
But the new team has inherited a massive undertaking.
Holden’s market share is at historical lows below 5 per cent, when Bernhard bet last year that it would not fall below eight.
“Our expectation was not that it would drop below five. I think it’s really on the slower take-up than we had anticipated around Equinox, and to a lesser extent than we expected with Commodore.”
The company is now believed to have more than 12,000 unsold cars sitting at dealerships and in storage, with more boats arriving with pre-ordered cars.
“Your number doesn’t surprise me. I have cars that are on boats everywhere,” he says.
But how can it be fixed?
“Given the passage of time, you work your way through the inventory problem. Does it worry me today? Yes. In one month, less, and in two months, less again.”
He points to the massive advertising blitz around discounted prices and says Holden is launching a big push into July.
“If you have too many cars, you want them just before the end of the financial year.
“I believe we will be back on the track in the second half of the year. Are we going to be able to recover what we lost? Probably not.”
And that’s a big part of the problem.
Frankly, the cars are not good enough and Holden has put its focus in the wrong spots. The Colorado, which is good enough to sell far better, is even being beaten by the Isuzu D-Max despite the tiny dealer network selling the latter.
But Bernhard says he does not see Holden following the Ford model, where it went from the Falcon car company to the Ranger car company to cash-in on the booming demand for utes.
“We’ve got a portfolio to sell. I’m not about to drop all my vehicles except Colorado and Trailblazer, just so I can compete with Isuzu.”
As Berhard gets ready to leave, looking forward to some AFL barracking for the Richmond Tigers whose performance is almost opposite to Holden, he tries for one last positive.
“We have plans in place as we get into 2019 and 2020, and we’re really confident.
“We’ve had some wins. But not enough wins,” he says.