Currently reading: Running a car firm: a day with Seat boss Luca de Meo
Italian Luca de Meo is leading Seat, the VW Group’s most youthful car brand, to unprecedented success. We find out how he does it

It’s raining. Bucketing down, actually, and everyone we meet en route to Seat’s headquarters outside Barcelona takes turns at apologising for the unseasonal precipitation.

Today, for once, Spanish jokes about the British weather aren’t working. We’re heading for Seat’s giant Martorell factory, and ultimately to the executive suite atop the company’s six-storey administrative building with its airy white offices and giant murals on the walls. It’s all very contemporary, just right for what has become the fastest-growing car manufacturer in Europe, whose buyer body is a clear 10 years younger than the rest. 

Our mission is to spend the day discovering as much as possible about the Volkswagen Group’s formerly problematic, but now thriving, Spanish offshoot, and especially about Luca de Meo, its 50-year-old Milan-born president of the past two years, who last March delivered the best financial results in company history.



At Martorell, de Meo has a top-floor office containing a giant table that can take at least a dozen people. It’s two decades since I first met de Meo at Lexus and I’m pleased to see that although he’s changed (more gravitas, more grey hair), his infectious ease is the same.

Back then he was a precocious 30-year-old high-flier, hired by a company conscious of its lack of flair for his combination of geniality, restless energy, deep love of the car business and willingness to devour tasks the big men bowled at him. Soon enough this took him back home to Sergio Marchionne’s Fiat Group and put him successively in charge of Lancia, Abarth and Alfa Romeo, until he became marketing director for both the VW brand and the group in 2009. Then came a spell as sales and marketing boss at Audi, before he was assigned to Seat in 2015 to replace the high-achieving Jürgen Stackmann.


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What attracted de Meo – who has so far lived in 12 countries – to Spain? It can’t have hurt that around the same time VW announced its intention to invest £3 billion in Seat. That sum included four new models (revised Seat Leon, Seat Ateca, new Seat Ibiza and Seat Arona), the biggest model offensive in Seat history. “You’d think someone in my position would make a rational decision about moving jobs, but I did it on gut instinct,” says de Meo. “There was a great basis here already, established by Jürgen [Stackmann], but I think I’m pretty good at sharpening businesses, which is what we need now. It’s relatively easy to understand the needs of Seat, and not so hard to get to know the 80 or 90 people who move the machine.”

The challenges now, says de Meo, are to get Seat back to where it was in the 1950s and 1960s when it democratised Spanish car ownership, and to do much better in export markets.


Global head of marketing, Susanne Franz, arrives for a run through details of Seat’s contribution to Barcelona’s Smart City Expo World Congress in mid-November. The city has positioned itself effectively as a technology hub in recent years and, as an employer of around 15,000 people, Seat’s contribution needs to be appropriate and serious. There’s also an opportunity to be seen more widely as a leader in car connectivity. Seat already leads Europe in seamless smartphone connectivity and will offer the Amazon Alexa voice assistant in some models soon. They discuss pros and cons.


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Into the room troops a quartet of young employees, drawn from four different departments. They’re members of Seat’s Talent Circle, tasked with thinking radical thoughts to develop the company. De Meo meets such groups regularly. Their concern today is appealing to millennials, the social group purported not to like cars.

With screen presentations and talk (in English, which de Meo encourages) they propose a ‘Seat Experience Box’, a 49.90, two-day activity package that gives buyers access to a car, a hotel room and their choice of events as destinations. The idea is raw, and it is soon revealed that sales potential is not strong. Talk turns to using a similar plan to a Cupra Track Day Experience package.

De Meo recalls this idea working at Audi, which allows the meeting to conclude on a positive note.



We descend from the ivory tower and drive through the Martorell estate (it’s still pouring), admiring how well organised it is compared with other space-poor manufacturing sites in Europe. This one only dates back to 1993, and it’s busy (449,000 cars made last year) without being frantic (official capacity 500,000). De Meo believes it’s counter-productive and can be disastrous to expand too fast.

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Across the site we visit what Seat proudly calls its 4.0 Factory, a highly mechanised body shop where a panel of operators operate the main functions from screens and control desks, while those out on the floor wear smart watches that convey the same info. It’s bewildering to the non-technical head (mine) but the gist is that this fourth-generation factory uses big data and analytics to anticipate complex problems before they go wrong – with 20 robots at once, for example – and act before they need expensive repairs. Martorell is especially proud of this because it is breaking ground for the rest of the VW Group.



Seat seems an egalitarian place, but there’s still time for lunch in the VIP canteen (superb meal) with Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos, Seat’s design boss since 2012. He’s led the marque from sub-VW ordinariness to its present distinctive, appealing designs. On his watch, the design studio population has doubled to 180, digital design has expanded hugely and co-operation with engineers has become much closer. Martorell and its inmates will build the new Audi A1, an important guide to the rising prestige of the place.

We talk cars: Mesonero-Romanos owns an ’88 Porsche 911, and had a Ferrari 308 GTB and a ’59 Alfa Giulietta before that. Exterior car design should echo the human body, he says, by displaying a machine’s essential characteristics. He’s not a fan of aggressiveness. Think of the great cars in history, he says. Few are overtly aggressive.

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We’re back in de Meo’s office to earwig on a meeting between the president and his vice president in charge of sales and marketing, Wayne Griffiths, a Brit who has taken German nationality because he “prefers to remain European”. Talk turns to Seat sales in Algeria, where it did 20,000 units some years ago, before tighter restrictions on imports to the country took effect. Today they’re homing in on 10,000 cars (part-assembled on site) and 15,000 looks achievable. They discuss whether the next Seat launch for Algeria should be Leon or Arona, settling on the latter.

Total Seat sales may be going well, what with strong rises in Spain and the UK, but neither Griffiths nor de Meo is happy with that. Historic perceptions mean demand is still weak in France and Italy, and to compound matters, only 15% of Seats are sold outside wider Europe. De Meo and Griffiths would be much happier with a figure of 30% and agree on that as a medium-term target.


Across the site we go again – to Seat Sport, a well-organised, warren-like string of interconnected workshops where body preparation is separated from engine build, fabrication of stuff like exhaust systems and final fitting-out.


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De Meo regards this place as a crucible of Seat passion (“You don’t have to be premium to be proud”) and urgently wants to give it a better shop- front, much as he once did with Abarth. To help, he has imported an old Abarth colleague, Antonino Labate, to join long-time chief Jaime Puig. “Antonino did real work,” says de Meo, “while I was on PowerPoint and speeches...”

This place specialises in building Leon-sized competition saloons (there are racing Golfs on the premises too) and has done 450 of the latest model so far, which makes a handy business when you factor in the average starting price of 100,000.


Now a short drive with de Meo into the backblocks of the site, where the secret stuff happens: the R&D headquarters. Mesonero-Romanos’s design studios are nearby, too, packed with secret design models.

Through the door, even before I’ve shaken hands with tall, friendly Matthias Rabe, the R&D boss, I’m feeling the intensity of this place. To these guys – who can number 2000 people at the busiest times – 2017 was history long ago. Their eyes are on 2020 and far beyond.

“The most challenging period ever is coming over the next six or seven years,” says Rabe. “We have a minimum of five all-new cars to launch, plus model upgrades, plus the challenges of CO2 reduction to meet, plus the rise of e-mobility. It is massive.” It sounds daunting, but he speaks with the relish of the consummate engineer.


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Again, I face bewilderment. I don a virtual-reality headset, sit in a soon-to- arrive Seat model, and click back and forth between an embedded pair of interior trims. Then I sit in genuine interior bucks and enjoy demonstrations of Amazon Alexa. It’s a particular demand of the youthful clientele and for the first time I’m seeing why.

We are running out of time. The airport traffic is threatening. My head is already beyond full, but Rabe’s statistics summarising current work give a flavour of the road ahead for car creators: 345 projects, 82 prototypes, 2.7 million engine hours, 1.3 million test kilometres. This day has made it clear that beyond mere industry and talent, the car creators of the future are going to need great courage as well. At Luca de Meo’s Seat, at least, they have it in spades.

Related stories: 

Seat Leon Cupra review 

Seat Ibiza review

Seat Arona review

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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