A month before Christmas, Seat hosted European press at a low-key mobility conference in Barcelona, rolling out an interview opportunity with its amiable CEO, Luca de Meo.
Inconveniently for Seat’s press narrative, however, the Financial Times had the day before run a story suggesting that de Meo was top of a head-hunter’s list for next Renault CEO.
In the scrum of hacks, I managed to fire the obvious question at de Meo. The deadpan look on his face and the unusually negative ‘no comment’ reply, backed-up by a classic distraction interruption by his PR minder, said only one thing: ‘Very likely, but I really, really can’t say anything on pain of death…’
We still don’t know 100% if de Meo is heading to Renault, but we now know that he's leaving Seat “on his own request”. He remains a director but is on gardening leave.
No doubt de Meo has been a huge success at Seat, notably for achieving a profit in 2015, the company's first in seven years, followed by successive profitable years in 2016, 2017 and 2018. This makes Seat a sustainable business for the first time since Volkswagen took full control in 1990.
I’ve seen first-hand the weight of this expectation grind down his predecessors as Seat struggled to become number one in its home market, solidify its brand image and establish a coherent model range.
So, what might Renault expect from its new CEO?
De Meo is charming and oozes confidence, while his achievements point to a substance, for example the backbone added to Seat’s model range by expansion into SUV and crossovers.
These are the right models at the right time, which some critics might point out would sell anyway. But Seat has got the models, marketing and core strategy right, and de Meo deserves the credit for that. In that sense, he’s successfully deployed experience from his time at Fiat, where he concocted the marketing plan for the new Fiat 500.
Seat’s brand has also crystallised around a fun-loving but meaningful Spanish image that’s sufficiently separated from dependable Volkswagen and sober Skoda, at the same time attracting younger buyers – many of them Autocar readers.
De Meo has also proved adept at winning billions of euros of investment from the Volkswagen Group Board — previously scarred by failed investments in Seat — for model range expansion. I apologise in advance for reminding readers of the Exeo, a rebadged Audi A4, the bizarre Toledo MPV thingy, the very similar Altea and the long-wheelbase Altea XL (why?!).
In contrast, de Meo has brought discipline to Seat’s product line, delivering well-engineered and well-built models with coherent styling – not his personal work, of course, but a demonstration that he can extract the best from those around him.
Costs, for example, have been controlled in areas such as interior design, but de Meo will have been involved in refereeing the decision-making to deliver cars that remain attractive and good-value.