Currently reading: New Stellantis boss on how firm will continue UK manufacturing
Freshly promoted Paul Willcox opens up about the challenges and possibilities of all the UK brands

Paul Willcox, an experienced industry executive who has enjoyed successful stints at the likes of Nissan and the Volkswagen Group, took the reins at Vauxhall last spring. On 1 June, he will become head of Stellantis in the UK, encompassing not only Vauxhall but also Citroën, DS, Jeep, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot and Fiat, who between them make around one in eight vehicles sold in the UK.

Here, he tells Autocar Business where the Vauxhall brand heads next, including a move to online sales, and a desire to secure the future of the Luton plant, to go with Ellesmere Port in building electric vehicles.

How has your first 15 months at Vauxhall gone?

“I joined at a good time, when we were on the cusp of product renewal with the old General Motors architectures going. We have reduced the product line-up, and now we have a new line-up with new technology. The Vauxhall Mokka is going extremely well. The Vauxhall Corsa is going very well, too, and is number one in the UK. Now the Vauxhall Astra is coming and we have a new Grandland. So it was great timing [for me to join] and I have good expectations to recapture our market share.”

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How do you define Vauxhall and what can we expect next?

“We are a mainstream accessible brand. We have [chief designer] Mark Adams creating lots of new products, with strong design inside and out and good consistency. Now we are working on driving simplicity for customers. We need to make every aspect for customers simple. This starts with making a product range consistent with fewer trim levels, and better communications of our technology with cluster packages. It's been harder to perceive our technology in the past.

“We are a British brand that is proud of our heritage but we are not rooted in history. Everyone understands Vauxhall as a British brand, and what we need to do is make sure it stands for something in the future. It is a progressive brand with electrification. We have set a 2028 deadline to be fully electric and we will have an electrified option of every model in the range by 2024. And we will continue to invest in UK manufacturing, and Ellesmere Port is the big first step in that.”

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What is the current status of Ellesmere Port and what can we expect at Luton?

“There has been a €100 million investment for a huge transformation of the plant from internal combustion to EV. It's a big investment and I hope to do the same at Luton. If you compare production now to 20 years ago, then Vauxhall is one of the few survivors - and it is here for the long term.

“Ellesmere Port has been safeguarded for the future with electrification for the long term. Luton will continue with its products to the end of the cycle and future investments come at the end of the cycle. But I would like to pull that forward if we can, and I'm trying very hard to get electric vans built in the UK.

“The final Astra at Ellesmere Port was built at the end of March. That was the last internal combustion car to come from there. Now we are in transition, a huge transition. We are also reducing the footprint of the factory by half, which creates more efficiency. We are also looking to invest in renewable energy. This is not easy but we want to put in solar and wind farms to be self-sufficient. The plant will be ready in the first quarter of 2023.

“We are investing elsewhere, too. For example, we are future-proofing boilers at the plant by allowing them to run on hydrogen. This shows we are very focused on the environment, with a goal to be net zero by 2028, and cut carbon down by 50% by 2030. We’re not just looking at products but how we built them. This is part of a massive transformation of the company [Stellantis, as well as Vauxhall]. Stellantis will invest €30 billion by 2025 in electrification and digitally enabling the company, including transactions with customers.”

How will the way customers buy Vauxhalls change?

“The model has been the same since God was a boy with transactions. There has been no transformation in the way people acquire cars. But like anything it evolves, and we have massive learnings from Covid. Dealers did click and collect, and digitally engaged as well with customers. We will always need a physical network and presence, but how to make that more efficient?

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“One change there will be is that the time of cars in compounds is over for everyone. We are all working to a leaner supply chain. There are huge cost pressures with energy and raw material costs up, which is putting huge pressure on businesses. Then there are the investments in new technology and electrification, so you need to carefully manage pipelines.

“So don't expect cars on forecourts and the wholesale model. It will be much more to order, which is why we’re driving to online ordering for people to order the right product at the right price. The wholesale model does not suit the customer.”

What does the agency model mean for Vauxhall?

“Agency for us is a manufacturer taking more on in managing the customer and the customer journey. The retailer will facilitate the product to customers, and the aftersales experience, but it will be less of a push model for a better customer experience. This will be much better on transparency and the role of retail haggling disappears to give customers products at the right price and a fair price.

“We see a long-term role for retail partners. Buying a car is not like buying a vacuum cleaner online as you need to test and experience it. But customer visits to retailers are down from four to one and a half in 25 years. People can go online now to be informed. They are looking for reassurance on products and we need to get in line on that journey. We will take a much stronger input into customer journeys and it'll be wrong not to as this is where customers are.”

How do you rate the rollout of a charging infrastructure in the UK to support the rapid growth in electric car sales? And what did you make of the government’s recent charging strategy document?

“There is a lack of a joined-up approach in government departments. Government is very rigid in funding projects. You need a much more progressive approach to create a mechanism that funds itself. If you look at other markets like Norway and Oslo where there is a joined-up approach with planning, transport and the treasury, you get faster adoption. We instead go to local councils, who are underfunded and stretched.

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“We need the government to put in clearly defined targets now for charging in places like out of the city, in tower blocks, and with destination charging. In the report, there were no clearly defined commitments on what is coming and when - and you could argue if the investment is adequate. So the commercial sector will pick up the slack.”

What are your current lead times for new cars with the current semiconductor chip shortage? Is there an end in sight to the crisis?

“Lead times we don't discuss. Before, we anticipated it [the chip shortage] would be better by this summer. Last September, it was at its worst. We expected to build 22,000 cars in September, but it was only 12,000. This is not just Stellantis but the whole industry. We expected better by now, but now we don't anticipate it will get better until the end of the year for an unblocked supply chain.

“For orders, we are not seeing cancellations [due to long wait times]. If they walked to a competitor, they would be in the same boat. We have not seen a decline in orders and they've held up well. Sales peaked in 2016 and have fallen significantly since then due to Covid constraint and then chips, but they will come back and we are sitting on an order bank first, which will wash out.”

How much demand is there for your electric cars?

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“The orders we take on plug-in cars, which are mainly Corsa-e and Mokka-e, is about 27% of our total orders. But it is difficult to judge demand. If you look at SMMT data [for monthly registrations], this is not a good reference as that's just what you've built, and has no insight on chip allocation. But we do know of order intent, and that takes it higher so it is moving fast. Next we will see this in vans, as vans are still behind cars [in adopting electric] but there is definitely a need for EV vans.

“Look at cities: the increase in miles driven is not from HGVs or cars due to congestion charging, but in vans. So we need more electric vans, which are perfectly suited to final-mile deliveries. Vans are two years behind cars but will catch up for sure.”

What barriers remain for people adopting electric cars?

“There is no anxiety with customers on the technology, and you have a higher customer satisfaction on EVs than internal combustion cars, with no product issues. There is a long way to go still, but we are beyond the tipping point now.

“There is still a job to do on the cost of running an EV. There is a perception that the list price is higher, but if you do 8000 miles per year, a Mokka-e is cost neutral compared to a petrol car. So you need to communicate not on list price but the cost of running it.”

Can you describe the relationship between Vauxhall and Opel?

“We have a strong umbilical cord to Opel, but the Vauxhall team gets heavily involved in all future developments and technology. At a higher level within Stellantis, it is all common platforms and technology across all Stellantis brands."

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What’s on your 'to do' list when you take up your new role in charge of the whole of Stellantis in the UK?

“With my new job, I have a very broad list of brands to lead, from the long-established Vauxhall to the newest brand DS. What I'm going to do is maintain the identity and performance of these brands, and hold brand integrity. Then, how do we get them to a much higher level of performance? How do we really grow these brands in the UK? My focus will be to let these brands breathe and deliver the performance.

“The strength of Stellantis is its ability to integrate at speed and it is absolutely crystal clear with its leadership: we all understand the objectives of the company."

What level would you like to grow Vauxhall to?

“We need to grow Vauxhall. It's at about 7% market share with cars and vans, and we need to get that back up to 8.5%. We will refocus, and rediscover our strength in retail.The latent demand for the brand is there and we can get to that market share by 2025. The Astra is going into showrooms now, and the reception has been fantastic. It has been very well received. Grandland is now a very good upgrade, and there is a good uptake on PHEV. Our orders are very strong.”

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