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People: Volvo Canada CEO Marc Engelen

Niche maker seeks own ground in Canada

Published September 22, 2013

It’s enough of a challenge heading up a car company, but even more so when you occupy a small niche in a large country. That’s the task faced by Marc Engelen, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of Canada.

“We are in no man’s land,” Engelen says. “We are a higher level than Toyota, but we are not reaching the German levels. We want to find our own spot in the automotive world.”

The 48-year-old was born in Belgium and spent most of his life in Europe, and has been in charge of Volvo’s Canadian operations since August 2012.

He never intended to get into automobiles, since his background was in finance. His first job was a junior accounting position at factories belonging to Johnson & Johnson, the medical products manufacturer, in Holland and Belgium.

“The good thing with a finance and economic background is that it doesn’t matter what kind of business you are in,” he says. “I never looked for a job except for my first one. People came to me.”

Actually, he did look for a second one. After realizing he hadn’t been contacted for his country’s mandatory military service, he called the army to ask why, since there were penalties for not attending.

“They had forgotten me!” he laughs. “I was one of the oldest in the army, because people go immediately after university.”

He spent a year in communications at NATO headquarters. The day after his service was completed, he got a job in the finance department of a major construction company. He joined Volvo in 1992, working his way up through the CFO position in Germany, to presidency of the Belgium division.

“I stayed there for five years, and my main achievement was that I completely transformed the network,” he says. “I doubled the folios in four-and-a-half years, and we came very close to Audi and BMW in market share.”

Although he had the opportunity to go almost anywhere next, he chose Canada.

“I have a winner mentality, so I came here because I saw an opportunity to increase the volume substantially. I also selected Canada family-wise, because my wife’s uncles and aunts immigrated to Canada, so we have a larger population of family here than in Belgium.”

Engelen believes in hands-on leadership, so one of his first tasks was to visit every one of the company’s 41 dealers, including one in Quebec that required flying in and then driving for five hours to reach it. He’s also overseeing a new pilot project with two Montreal dealers that could completely change the way customers service their cars.

“In Sweden, you go to the mechanic directly in the workshop,” he says. “I only had to go to the customer adviser to pay the bill.”

Under the new pilot system, customers will be able to talk both to the service adviser, and directly to the technician.

“Transparency to the customer is important, and we are not afraid to show our service bays,” he says. “There will be a window or a camera, because there have to be clear views.

“And it’s not just one person in one service bay. The technicians work in teams. Our aim is that customers never have to wait more than one hour. This will start within six months, when the people in those two dealerships are trained. It will be unique in automotive service, and no other brand does this.”

He admits that he has work ahead of him. Volvo’s sales stagnated over the past year, which Engelen attributes to four models being phased out, and no new products in the past three years.

But the company will introduce a new, scalable vehicle platform in the near future, starting with the redesigned XC90, along with new hybrid models.

Media reports that the company will leave North America are unfounded, he says.

“That came from the Huffington Post, and was pure speculation. They didn’t research it, or they wouldn’t have put us there otherwise. Only 25 to 30 per cent of their guesses in the past five years were correct. Three or four years ago, Kia was on that list.

“We have a 15-year lease on (the headquarters) building, we have the V60 (wagon) coming in, where we had to do the additional crash tests, and we have the new XC90,” he says. “We are increasing our organization here, and we’re continuing to grow. We wouldn’t do that if we were going to leave. I’m not going anywhere.”

wheels@thestar.ca

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