Currently reading: Autocar Awards 2021 Outstanding UK leaders: Alison Jones
Alison Jones has helped Stellantis UK withstand Brexit, the shift to electrification and a pandemic. We meet her
Steve Cropley Autocar
News
5 mins read
8 June 2021

In hindsight, you could say that when, two and a half years ago, Alison Jones agreed to become UK managing director and senior vice-president of PSA, then the group’s biggest job in this country, she walked into a revolving door.

True, there was a thorough and welcoming acclimatisation period during which she toured PSA’s factories and boardrooms getting to know people and procedures. But by the time she was back in the UK, Brexit upheaval was in full swing and the gigantic challenges of our dash to electrification were becoming urgent. A few months later came the Covid crisis, daddy of the lot.

Jones resolutely fought the challenges of last year using her trusted technique of empowering managing directors for each marque. It worked. Her safe hands were noted by big boss Carlos Tavares, famous for his forensic grasp of detail, so when FCA brands Fiat, Abarth, Jeep and Alfa Romeo were added to Peugeot, Citroën and DS to form the Stellantis UK, Jones was appointed MD of the whole lot, less Vauxhall. The move in effect doubled her responsibility. It has been a dizzying 30 months.

Despite everything, when I meet Jones at her Coventry HQ to discuss her Autocar Award-winning performance over the past year, she is calmness personified. She is friendly and open but wastes no hot air complaining about hard times, almost a business ritual in other quarters. Nor does she hold back from revealing that her mission as the new broom, defined with scary brevity by her immediate boss Maxime Picat, is “to drive results and deliver transformation”.

Jones’s LinkedIn entry says she is “known for fast delivery of ambitious results in a wide range of business situations”. Brexit, electrification and Covid might be exceptional, but as far as Jones is concerned, these are business situations. As she modestly makes clear, she was headhunted from her role as Volkswagen UK MD (after 21 years on a rising trajectory with the VW Group) because she had succeeded in a wide range of roles and circumstances. Tough challenges with big teams have proved her particular specialism, making her perfect for the Stellantis gig.

In such a large and disparate organisation, there’s lots at stake. In good times, the group’s UK car and van business generates a £7 billion turnover, takes about 15% of UK sales, employs 20,000 people and shifts more than 450,000 vehicles a year. Keeping all this intact requires courage and concentration, but so far the results have been okay, improving as Jones has become more familiar with the job.

When Covid struck, Jones started taking special measures to make the best of things, cut costs, reorganise and support people. As concerns about declining sales grew, it helped that PSA’s marques, whose models are already among the cleanest on the market, had avoided fines for excessive CO2 that have dogged other car makers since new regulations came into force 18 months ago. PSA has also been able to introduce new hybrid and EV models, better differentiated than ever. Of the three marques, DS remains a problem in the UK, but new models and measures will soon arrive.

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Jones is a particular enthusiast of plug-in hybrids, because they work well for one-car families (a variety of owners she considers especially important), while helping introduce all drivers painlessly to the new world of electric driving and battery charging, protect owners from range anxiety and deliver strong running cost benefits. Though business dialogue in other quarters is concentrated on survival, Jones says her mission is bigger than that. Early on, she and Picat agreed on three challenges. “First, our products are stronger than our brands are known for,” she says with characteristic directness. “So we have a challenge to improve our image. Second, although our customer service standards are pretty good, they have to be higher. And third, we want to grow. We believe our products deserve to be used by more people.”

Jones was attracted to PSA by its straightforward code of accessibility: clean, safe mobility for all. After two and a half years, she talks with such affection about PSA’s cars that I’m interested to know the basis of it. “I love cars mostly for the freedom they give,” she says. “I remember having that feeling for the first time with an old green Ford Escort. It gave me the independence to go to college in a different town. Of course I enjoy driving the cars we make now. But even today, the big thing is freedom.”

Like most car company bosses, Jones is disappointed with the government’s recent decision to cut the grant on new EVs from £3000 to £2500, but she doesn’t much care that only cars costing less than £35,000 are eligible. “We’re disappointed because of the strategy,” she says. “We’ve got no problem with the cap; people who buy expensive cars don’t need subsidies. Our issue is with the cut. It just doesn’t fit the messaging.”

When we discuss the continuing challenges of highly placed women in a male-dominated industry, Jones, nowadays widely seen as a role model for many women, talks with particular passion: “Ten years ago, I said very little about this because if I raised it, people would say I was only doing it because I’m a woman. But nowadays I try to help. I never want anyone to get a job based on who they are, just only on credibility.

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“Diversity and inclusion are recognised as important now. The situation is improving but there’s still a long way to go. You only have to look at the number of general managers and dealer principals among our retail partners. The fact that you can normally identify them by name shows the size of the problem."

Coping with a unique year

Within weeks of the first lockdown in March last year, the PSA brands under Alison Jones had opened a virtual showroom on the ground floor of PSA’s HQ, where specially trained hosts offered Zoom-linked walk-around tours to potential customers, who could also chat one on one to product experts or arrange test drives. It wasn’t perfect, admits Jones, but it has proved so popular that it’s still working and may lead to something permanent. As will the rapid digitisation she promoted, now spreading through dealerships.

Meanwhile, Jones is especially concerned with the situation of younger employees, many still working from home, and has set up a widely praised RUOK mental health initiative to help. In the meantime, amid the general decline of 2020, the PSA marques managed a marginal increase in market share, and Jones believes they are poised for further improvement as new electrified models hit the market.

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