Saab History Interviews Former Saab USA President Joel Manby

Posted on 31. Dec, 2008 by in 2000-2009, Norcross, Georgia

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Photo Credit: Manby (L-to-R Ralph Millet, Joel Manby, Bob Sinclair)

I have recently had the privilege of interviewing Joel Manby, the former Saab USA President from June of 1996 until April of 2000.

Below is his updated and candid account of our interview, it is a great read, so take the time and enjoy!

Thank you Joel for your time and contribution, we all appreciate it!

Saab History: How Did you end up joining Saab Cars USA in June of 1996?

Manby: I worked at Saturn as a Regional Vice President and was picked to lead Saab Cars USA in order to improve the dealership distribution network by making it more focused and more profitable.

I used to co own some retail dealerships so I knew how important the car buying experience was in the customer’s final decision on what brand to buy, especially since it was the 2nd most expensive purchase a family would make after a home. I also knew that our competitors like BMW, Audi and Volvo had a much more profitable and focused dealer network. I was determined to reinvigorate the dealership network to turn around the car buying experience to one that was enthusiastic for not only the customer, but the dealership’s sales team as well. We were asking dealers to invest in exclusive dealerships and sales people so in many cases we actually removed some dealers who were not committed or dueled with poor brands in order to get other dealers to invest heavily. Our basic goal was to go from selling 25,000 Saabs through 360 poorly focused stores (average = 70/year per store) to 40,000 sold Saabs through 240 stores (a more focused and profitable average of 170/year per store). Dealers need to know they can be profitable before they will invest.

Saab History: How did this strategy work?

Manby: The units sold per dealership increased to over 150/store as did the national sales figures which topped 40,000 during my time. We had more exclusive stores than any time in recent history and had the 2nd highest sales year in Saab history to that point….so I would say it worked well. We also gained huge share in Southern California where we were almost non existent.

Saab History: Consistent advertising was never something that Saab had, what did you do to turn this around?

Manby: I am not sure I really turned that around. Volvo always owned safety and BMW owned performance so Saab has always been caught in the middle of those two brand statements. You remember the find your own road campaign? That was in place before I was onboard, and it was successful. However, the head of world wide advertising in Sweden wanted one consistent campaign and positioning worldwide. While I was not necessarily against the “find your own road” campaign, I really agreed that a fairly consistent world wide image was the right way to go. For instance, BMW stands for performance (The Ultimate Driving Machine) world wide….period. I thought the Martin Agency did a great job for us in the US in adopting the Swedish positioning in the US.

Saab History: There were a number of key product launches during your time, most notable the Saab 9-5. What did you think of this vehicle and whose idea was it to have its North American launch at a Saab Owners Convention as it was done in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire in 1997?

Manby: The Saab 9-5 was an outstanding car. It is still the best car I have ever owned. I can recall a journalist from USA today that never had anything good to say about GM, and this time he gave us incredible reviews on the 9-5. As for the launch at the Saab Convention, that was all Elke Martin’s work (or PR Vice President). I really enjoyed working with her; she is a true professional and really knows the car business. Elke also knew the Saab brand and helped me get on board with it when I joined Saab.

As for the 9-3, that was being launched the fall after my departure. I was not a supporter of the 9-3 being a 4 door sedan as I thought it looked too much like the 9-5; but I lost that battle with Sweden.

Saab History: What were other projects you were arguing for and against and with whom?

Manby: We really wanted a cross over vehicle off of the 9-5 or 9-3 platform as Lexus does with the 300 series, BMW with the 3X or 5X and of course Porsche as well. However, the Swedish leadership felt this was too much a “North American” product only with no real demand outside the U.S. so they killed it. After leaving Saab in April of 2000, a friend told me that GM shelved the project.

That same year, the 9-7x was proposed as was the 9-2x and both I was adamantly opposed to for all the obvious reasons….too far of a stretch for Saab and it smelled of classic badge engineering that GM is famous for. The 9-7 actually turned out quite well but the 9-2 was a mistake for sure.

Saab History: Wow, a crossover, was that the same crossover that was shelved in 2002 as well? Did you know that it finally made its 9 year delayed arrival just this past month in a spy photo?

Manby: Yes, same car, and I am surprised that they are finally introducing it, but it’s clearly a bit too late, if they introduced it in 2000, it would have been before the new Volvo Cross Country and Audi Quattro Wagon, Saab would have had the edge had it not been for GM.

Saab History: Why did you choose to leave Saab if you enjoyed it as much as you did?

Manby: I saw the GM consolidation happening faster and faster for Saab, yet I did not feel the support for the brand. I felt like if push came to shove, Saab was going to lose to Cadillac in a battle for investment $. Also, I felt like staying at GM or Saab would mean 20 more years of downsizing and cost cutting and I am a grower and starter, not a downsizer. Also, I was promoted to also take on the Asian market as well as North and South America and the travel nearly destroyed me and my family and I wasn’t willing to give up my family for my job. Finally, all roads lead back to Detroit and my family and I wanted to stay in the south.

Saab History: What accomplishments were you most proud of and conversely, which decisions did you regret at both a business and personal level?

Manby: I was most proud of our success with the dealership network and increasing sales to near record levels. We brought enthusiasm back onto the sales floor I think from the dealers as well. I also felt the 9-5 launch was very successful.

Secondly, I believe we made the customer experience much better through what I referred to as “The Saab Way”. The “Saab Way” consisted of 5-points as part of the strategy: Product Quality, Sales Throughput, Customer Satisfaction, Financial Metrics and consistent advertising.

I enjoyed working with Saab and tried hard each and every day to ensure that people at all levels of the company including customers enjoyed a piece of that passion and enthusiasm for the Saab brand.

As far as my regrets are concerned, I regret not being able to convince the people in Sweden to get that cross over vehicle for the US market. The cross over segment is where most of the growth has been in the US and Saab missed it. I also regret not convincing Saab execs in Sweden to save the hatch version of the 9-3. I knew that Saab’s hatchback was a critical segment for the brand, especially in the 9-3/900 models and that ending those, without replacements, would turn away customers and hurt the image of Saab. In retrospect, I think I was right, but the 9-3 sedan has done well too so I am not sure that was fatal.

Saab History: Thank you very much for your time and contribution and I look forward to staying in touch.

Manby: Thank you, talk to you again soon!

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One Response to “Saab History Interviews Former Saab USA President Joel Manby”

  1. Nate 9-3

    31. Dec, 2008

    I have got to say, that was a great read! I always figured the push to get rid of the hatch came from Detroit, not Trollhattan. Turns out I was wrong.

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