Volvo's president on the difficulties of being a woman running a car company and the challenges of expanding her brand
Uninterrupted, quiet time with a CEO of an automobile manufacturer during the NYIAS (New York International Auto Show) is as rare as a taxi at 5:00 p.m. in front of the Javits Center. But last week was different: I spent some private time with Volvo’s President Anne Bélec, and got a cab to my hotel on the same day.
The personable Ms. Bélec is busy, very busy. Volvo’s corporate website describes her responsibilities as “providing executive leadership to Volvo Cars North America’s marketing, sales, parts, service, technology and training support for Volvo automobile retailers in the United States, and oversight of Volvo operations in Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico.”
Now that may sound like corporate-speak hyperbole, but after twenty years of ever-increasing marketing, sales and management responsibilities with various Ford Motor Company divisions in Canada, the U.S. and South America, Ford sources who have worked with her said she’s a good executive and leader.
Within the next few months Bélec, together with a lean staff, have new car introductions, overdue refreshes for aging models, new advertising campaigns and the usual daily communications with Volvo dealers.
It’s no surprise that the last issue of Automotive News named her one of its "100 Leading Women in the North American Automotive Industry." How many other women are president and CEO of an internationally known automobile brand? I can’t think of any, can you?
A native Canadian, Ms. Bélec graduated from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business with an MBA and emphasis in global business and strategy. Additionally, she was a Marketing major and has bachelor degrees in both Commerce and Business Administration from the University of Ottawa.
While our conversation was brief, it covered several topics, including: women in the automobile business, the growth of Volvo’s demographic, geographic and psychographic customer base, and the Volvo line-up of new cars in the near future.
MB: As the only woman to head a car division in the U.S. and one of the most prominent women in the industry, what do you predict for the future?
Anne: The number of women in executive roles is growing. Last November, I was honored by Automotive News as one of the 100 Women in the Automobile Industry, which was very flattering. It was so encouraging to see all these women selected for such an honor. At the special dinner it was wonderful to see other women I’d met or run into during various times in my career.
MB: Is the glass ceiling or gender gap vanishing?
Anne: You think of yourself as alone, isolated in this industry, then you see yourself with other women and know how far we’ve come. It’s great to see so many women … other women who are progressing in the industry.
MB: Does this same progress for women extend to the retail auto business?
Anne: I was the keynote speaker a couple months ago at the NADA breakfast for women in the auto business. There were 150 women there … many with their daughters. Significant progress is being made as we work to attract more women to the retail automotive business.
MB: What do you think the future holds for women in the business?
Anne: There is a lot of room for women to grow in the automobile business at every level. It’s nice to go to places and see people who look like you.
MB: How did you get started in the car business?
Anne: After graduation from college, I started with Ford of Canada out in the field calling on retailers. I worked my way through various departments in the organization in Canada and after a few years had the opportunity to move to Detroit where I worked for 8 years in various marketing positions.
Note: Ms. Bélec is modest, her titles at Ford included: business development manger, portfolio brand strategy manager, and worldwide marketing plans manager.
MB: Wasn’t there a stint in California too?
Anne: From Dearborn, I moved to California for three years where I was general marketing manager of the Lincoln Mercury division.
MB: And then?
Anne: It was back to Ford in Dearborn for a short period of time. Then, I was assigned to Sweden to work with Volvo in the marketing area. A year-and-a-half later, I was promoted to vice president of sales for Volvo globally. When the position of president of Volvo opened in America I was promoted again and returned to the U.S.
MB: What attracted you to Volvo?
Anne: Volvo is a top brand … that’s what drew me to the company. The Volvo brand has an excellent reputation around the world based on great values, consistency and remaining true to these values. And that’s backed with 78 years of brand excellence.
MB: Bill Ford in Ford’s new corporate advertising campaign cites Volvo’s safety reputation. Has this helped you?
Anne: I don’t know if it has that much influence from the Volvo perspective. What’s good is it reinforces the center of excellence that Volvo represents in terms of safety. I see it as a compliment to the engineers and thought processes that go on.
MB: Before Ford bought Volvo it was known as a nice, niche, New England-states vehicle, that’s changed hasn’t it?
Anne: Volvo is only at the tip of the iceberg in market growth in North America and globally. We’ve doubled in size over the past 10 to 15 years. A lot of it is due to Ford’s investment in the brand with new products, facilities, investment in new products in new segments… that’s how you grow substantially. So it’s been very good.
MB: I’d be remiss if I did not ask what impact Ford’s current financial situation has had on the brand and upon your dealers?
Anne: Obviously, we read about it and we’ve talked about it with our dealers in order to answer their questions, which focus on “does it effect or not affect Volvo?” The answer is simple: Volvo in the U.S. reports to Volvo in Sweden. So our direct line is to Volvo headquarters, which is responsible to the Premiere Auto Group (PAG) and Ford of Europe. Our link is at the top, not to Ford in the U.S.
MB: Tell me about the Volvo dealer network. Has it grown beyond the very strong historical base in the Northeast and New England region?
Anne: We now have roughly 360 dealers in U.S., and over 120 of them are exclusively Volvo. Our distribution pattern has grown and is now national in scope and evenly divided: 25% in the South and West, 23% in the Midwest, and the balance, 77% in the Northeast, where Volvo has always been strong.
MB: The Volvo customer has had a certain intellectual quality and mystique. Does this remain an attribute of the brand’s demographics and psychographics?
Anne: Since we’ve expanded our line-up the demographics have changed. The introduction of the S40 and the V50 small car brought down our demographic age significantly. We now have customers in their 20’s and 30’s as well as the 50’s, 60’s and probably higher. Psychographically, our buyers have higher education levels than most and focus on family, environment and safety as core values that are unique to their quality of life. Volvo people are not passive, they’re active, into sports and the outdoors with their family or by themselves.
MB: While not a huge national advertiser in the automotive sense, Volvo has been in the forefront, a proponent of Internet advertising as well as television.
Anne: Volvo has a customer base, which was in the forefront of Internet usage. They are highly educated, on the edge, and early adopters of the Internet and other new media.
Note: According to TNS Media Intelligence, Volvo spent $70.6 million on advertising in 2005, down 2.4% from 2004. Amounts (in millions) by key mediums, include: $4.8 in magazines, $7.8 in national newspapers, $10 in broadcast network TV, $20.5 in cable TV, $10.4 in local spot TV, $6.4 in local radio and $8.0 in Internet.
MB: Last year was a soft year for Volvo; sales were down 11.1%. What is in the future?
Anne: Some of this sales downturn was planned. Last year, we were ramping down the C70 to prepare for the all new C70 this year. That’s the first of the new Volvo products coming out in 2006. The C70 is a coupe with a three-piece retractable hardtop roof that makes it a convertible. It’s being launched now and the new advertising starts next week.
MB: What else is in the new product pipeline?
Anne: At the show we’re presenting the new XC 90 SUV. It’s has a more car-like design, a restyled interior and a new 3.2 liter V6 engine. The S80, our flagship sedan, will be introduced later this year, launching in dealerships during January and February of 2007. And we have a new entry in a new segment for Volvo – small cars. The C30, our smallest Volvo, will be introduced next year. There’s a lot of new product for Volvo. We are going to be very busy launching new products, new ad campaigns and focusing new communications on all these new vehicles.
MB: What is your biggest challenge at Volvo in the future?
Anne: Our products are not as well known as the brand … so we have some catching up to do.
MB: One last question, what was your first car?
Anne: A Ford Tempo. It was the first car I bought with my own money and was built in Oakville, Canada where I worked. I was very young and very budget conscious so I ordered the 5 speed manual Tempo. It was less expensive, but I had never driven a 5 speed so I had to learn how to shift on the way home.