Briton ready to drive sales revival at French icon Citroën

Linda Jackson has clear plans for the French car brand and an end to discounting is one of them

In an otherwise nondescript industrial estate on the outskirts of Paris, we're seated in the corner of a domed windowless room, reminiscent of an empty planetarium. Instead of visions of the universe, however, it is used to showcase the future of the car. Or rather the future through the eyes of designers and engineers at the French firm PSA Peugeot Citroën.

In the coming months, it’s likely to become a second home for Citroën executives. A Lazarus-like revival is under way for an iconic French brand that has seen as many revival plans as there have been French republics.

Surprisingly for such a symbol of Gallic motoring, this latest iteration is being led by a former finance director from England’s west midlands.

Linda Jackson comes across as friendly and sincere, but she retains the demeanour of a no-nonsense manager from the heart of industrial England. One of only a handful of female senior executives in the motor industry, she has clocked up an impressive 37 years in the business.

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Many of those were spent at MG Rover, a car firm seemingly in a fatal tailspin since the 1970s. Jackson started with MG Rover in 1977 and her links to France date back to a position as managing director of its operations there between 2000 and 2003.

MG Rover’s tumultuous history included multiple revival plans, government intervention – and interference – along with political and media clarion calls that such a bastion of British industry was too important to fail. For some industry watchers, there are some uncomfortable similarities to the French story. Thankfully, the ending is likely to be different.

The recession hit Citroën, and its parent PSA, hard. Heavily dependent on European – and particularly French – sales, losses mounted. The firm looked set to default.

The one saving grace for the group was a relatively early entry into the Chinese market and a perception there that it was among France’s prestigious brands.

Many consumers in Asia regard France as a bastion of culture and refinement, and Citroën's marketing taps into this image.

Fittingly, the revival of PSA has been built on the basis of a deal with China's Dongfeng, which agreed in 2014 to become an equal shareholder in the firm alongside the French government and the Peugeot family.

That backing was based on a restructuring plan titled "back in the race". The revival has been led by former Renault high-flier Carlos Tavares, while responsibility for Citroën's revival fell to Jackson, promoted from managing director of its UK and Ireland operations.

Last February brought the first proof of success. PSA reported a full-year net profit of € 1.2 billion for last year, and a 5.7 per cent rise in sales. The firm hit all its medium-term financial targets earlier than expected.

Jackson is quick to credit the turnaround to Tavares and accepts her arrival in the driving seat at Citroën was well-timed for her to revive Citroën’s fortunes.

“I guess I was lucky to arrive at a low point in the brand’s product lifecycle, as it gave us all a chance to bring a new coherence to the brand. The ‘back in the race’ plan has brought stability to the business and Carlos has delivered us back into profitability.”

Under the plan, Peugeot moves upmarket, while Citroën becomes a mainstream player, albeit one with more distinctive styling. The revived DS range is now a stand-alone premium brand, with a focus on Chinese buyers.

It’s now Jackson’s turn to deliver. She wants to reposition the brand under the tagline “creative technologies”. A major product offensive is due to be rolled out, effectively reinventing the brand.

The firm has indicated that a template for the new look is the funky looking C4 Cactus model launched in 2014. It’s certainly eye-catching, if more divisive than any of the more traditional formats offered by Citroën over the last few years.

“I have no problem with that,” says Jackson. “I’d rather be a first choice for 10 per cent of the market who love my cars than have everyone just saying ‘it’s another nice car’; there are too many cars out there that are just ‘nice’.”

Bold design

Bold design was always a cornerstone for the brand – right back to its heyday with the original DS and the 2CV – and Jackson’s team hopes to revive that reputation. The first part of the “creative technologies” tagline seems set to be delivered; it’s the second part that may prove more troublesome.

“We will lean on our PSA parent to deliver the cutting-edge technologies,” she says, while joining in the chorus of other motoring executives in explaining there is no clear roadmap for the adoption of new technology in the motoring world.

From alternative power options to in-car infotainment and autonomous driving, the future is very unclear. The industry is going through a massive upheaval. In terms of the hot tech topic at present – autonomous driving – she says: "We've already showcased what we can achieve with an autonomous C4 Picasso completing a 580km trip last October from Paris to Bordeaux. "

It’s not about embracing every new technology trend either, she explains. “We want to be more creative, affordable and offer things that really matter to mainstream customers. Our products have to be different and make you feel good. Otherwise you have to compete on price, and we don’t want to do that anymore.”

This brings us to the more urgent issue facing Citroën, one that needs to be addressed long before self-driving cars arrive in showrooms. The French brand has earned a reputation for discounting. That might initially seem like a positive, but when you constantly undermine the list price, it has a serious knock-on affect on resale values. Customers might be happy when they buy, but owners are annoyed when it comes time to trade-in or sell.

“One of my first priorities has been gradually to move away from the discounting policies of the past. We focused too much on moving the list price to what we considered the market price and on sales volumes. Ending discounts puts value back into the brand and supports a move towards higher equipment levels.

“The Cactus is a case in point: 65 per cent are now sold with the higher grade level 2 and 3 trim,” she says. “We are deliberately not trying to push volumes.”

Her determination to end discounting is repeated several times, particularly when asked how she plans to restore confidence in a dealer network that is understandably cynical about yet more grand plans for the future.

Irish dealers

Irish dealers in particular understandably harbour some doubts. They’ve witnessed not so much a U-turn as a complete 360-degree shift in strategy by the French car firm in the past seven years.

In November 2009, Citroën took over direct control of its Irish business from local distributor Gowan Group. The move came in the wake of a significant slump in sales and a price-fixing investigation by the Competition Authority.

This led to the conviction of several dealers who were members of the Citroën Dealers’ Association.

The parent company, however, failed to achieve the same level of success in Ireland as it has elsewhere in Europe. It has never exceeded a market share of 1.6 per cent in terms of new passenger car sales.

So last October it did an about-face and handed over control of Irish operations to UK car distributor IM Group. IM's other Irish interest is as importer of Subaru here.

Explaining the reasons for the sale at the time, the outgoing managing director Pedro Regalado said: "We see from other similarly sized national markets that a local distributor, investing their own money, can bring more focus and efficiency to the market. You have to realise that, in large multinationals like Citroën and its parent PSA, the focus is often on bigger markets, whereas for a local distributor this is their core business."

About-face

Given that she was formerly boss of the Irish and UK operation, Jackson hardly needs reminding of Citroën’s about-face in Ireland.

“I want to assure dealers we have a clear strategy, from strong product, brand positioning and an end to discounting. The proof will come when the dealers and customers see the new product plan and the new positioning. It will obviously be easier to understand when we get the new vehicles,” she says.

She’s quick to underline that the principles she operates under are rooted in her previous roles as a finance director.

“I guess it comes from my financial background but I work off the principle of asking ‘what you want to do?’ followed immediately by ‘what’s the proof?’ I don’t want to hear marketing waffle.”

In keeping with Jackson’s mantra, she seems to understand that dealers will want to see the proof. A sneak peak of the future certainly bodes well. At the heart of Jackson’s promise – and Citroën’s future – is a new line-up of models. A lot rides on market – and dealer – reaction.

Jackson will be hoping the rooftop showroom will become Citroën’s pleasure dome.

CV

Name: Linda Jackson

Position: chief executive, Citroën

Age: 57

Education: MBA from the University of Warwick.

Background: She held various positions in finance and sales at MG Rover between 1977 and 2004. She joined Citroën in 2005 where she was the financial director of Citroën UK. In 2009 she became finance director of Citroën France. From July 2010 to May 2014, she was managing director of Citroën UK and Ireland. In June 2014, Linda Jackson was appointed chief executive officer of Citroën brand.

Family: Widow, two stepchildren.

Something you might expect : She’s a Francophile .

Something you might not expect: She is a qualified ballet teacher.