Fleet News

Face to face: Robert Hazelwood: Volkswagen

VOLKSWAGEN has just overtaken Citroën to take third slot in the UK van sales charts. It’s an exciting time for Robert Hazelwood to take over as the German manufacturer’s new LCV chief.

Volkswagen ‘s van sales are booming, but that doesn’t mean new director of commercial vehicles Robert Hazelwood will be riding along on the success created by his predecessor Peter Wyhinny.

Instead, he intends to launch an aggressive new campaign as he believes there is still a lack of awareness about the German maker’s products.

Hazelwood said: ‘I’ve joined the brand at a really exciting time. We’re looking at around 26,000 units this year and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has had six successive years of growth under Peter Wyhinny. So we can’t be doing that much wrong!

‘However, there are always things to improve. I think we’re at a stage now where we have a great range of products, but there is still a lack – to some extent – of awareness.

‘Everyone knows Volkswagen sells cars but I’m not sure everyone knows we make great vans too. We need to be a bit more confident and aggressive about establishing ourselves in the core van markets, and we’ve recently commissioned research to assess where we are, what people think of us and where we want to go.

‘We’re also going to be focusing on the cost of ownership too. Where there is awareness that we have great products, there’s a feeling that they are expensive and we need to publicise our low running costs and strong RVs to convince people to put VW on their consideration lists and make the decision to buy Volkswagen vans.’

Volkswagen is celebrating at present with the news that it is now number three in the UK van sales charts, having stolen the title from Citroën, which is well-known itself for its aggressive marketing techniques, including semingly endless cashback deals. So how did VW manage this feat?

Hazelwood said: ‘It’s about strong products and gradually making people aware of what we can offer, our affordability and strong network support.

‘My aim is to incrementally increase volume, rather than chase market share at the expense of other Volkswagen values, such as quality, reliability and support.’

So can VW hang on the that third place until the end of the year?

Hazelwood said: ‘I hope so. We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing, as well as developing new marketing strategies and innovations. But as I said before, the quality and perception of the product and the brand is more important to me than simply chasing sales.’

Volkswagen’s big launch this year is the Crafter panel van, which is certainly unmissable on the roads with its massively styled front end. We asked how fleet buyers had reacted so far to this unusual shape.

Hazelwood said: ‘It’s certainly distinctive – and looks can always divide opinions. But a lot of people have actually said they do like it. It’s a confident and aggressively-styled vehicle, and it mirrors the ‘face’ of the Constellation – the large truck built by Volkswagen in Brazil.

‘What’s important, and what buyers recognise, is that the Crafter is a quality product. The range is extensive – now up to five tonnes gross vehicle weight – and it offers quality, refinement, engines and specification which you just don’t usually see in the commercial vehicle market. I’ve no doubt it will be a success.’

The Crafter comes off the same production line as the new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in a joint venture between the two firms, although the Crafter has a different style and its own set of engines. So was the radically different look from the Sprinter intentional?

Hazelwood said: ‘It wasn’t a decision necessarily to make it look different from the Sprinter. It has its own individual looks, and bears a Volkswagen ‘family’ resemblance to the Constellation truck.’

So with a new Sprinter and a new Ford Transit launched against it this year, can Volkswagen steal sales from its two rivals?

Hazelwood said: ‘The Crafter is a high quality product. It has many strengths, but sales will undoubtedly increase over those of the LT because, thanks to the wide range, we can now compete in all areas of the large van market. We can now compete in the segment, with a modern, quality product. It’s a good position to be in.’

The British tend to think of Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz as arch rivals in Germany. So how come the two ‘enemies’ linked up in this joint venture?

Hazelwood said: ‘‘The idea of two ‘rivals’ joining forces to build ‘rival products’ is an interesting one – but it’s by no means new in either the van or the car market.

‘What we have in the Crafter is a superb, modern product which will appeal to many buyers.

‘What’s more, as the importer of vehicles for the UK, we believe that our network and customer support are just as important as the products themselves. And that’s a key area of responsibility for me.’

In addition to the new Crafter, Volkswagen has just launched the Transporter Sportline featuring a 174bhp diesel powerplant which will reach close on 120mph.

With the current rumblings about the dangers of white van man – and the possibility of new laws to curb him – we asked Hazelwood if he thought it was responsible to produce such a vehicle.

He said: ‘I think the Sportline is a product which recognises a new and emerging user-chooser van market.

‘It bridges the gap between traditional commercials and leisure vehicles and is appealing to a really wide range of buyers – who wouldn’t have traditionally bought a van.

‘Target markets are changing. We are simply offering a product which recognises this.’

Some safety experts are recommending that drivers should be required to take a special test before being allowed behind the wheel of a 3.5-tonne gvw van. Does Hazelwood agree with such a move?

He said: ‘Personally I think a mandatory licence would be hard to enforce. At Volkswagen we have a safe driving policy, with all company vehicle drivers taking a driver training course. Safety is of course paramount.’

We are hearing more and more from the technocrats in the EU about the possibility of tachographs and speed limiters being made mandatory on 3.5-tonners.

Hazelwood said: ‘I don’t think I can speculate on EU policies. What we at Volkswagen ensure is that all our vans meet the highest safety regulations and have a high level of passive and active safety features.

‘The Crafter for example has ABS, Brake Assist, ESP (Electronic Stabilisation Programme) plus a driver’s airbag as standard. Further airbags and a speed limiter are also optional.’

Fact file

  • Name: Robert Hazelwood
  • Title: Director of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles UK
  • Brief career history: 24 years in automotive industry, starting with graduate trainee position at Peugeot. Worked in most areas including fleet sales and franchising, plus changed manufacturers, experiencing Fiat, Citroën and Nissan. 1997 moved to Inchcape and headed the Mazda importer business for France in Paris. Then four years running retail group for Inchcape in the UK, followed by Ferrari/Maserati and MG Rover. I then moved to the Volkswagen Group and worked as Head of Group Synergies in the Group Services department which gave me a good overview of all the brands and their products and activities. On July 1, 2006, I officially became Director of Commercial Vehicles.

  • Favourite book: Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
  • Favourite film: The Deer Hunter or The Godfather
  • What three records would you take to a desert island? Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits, Angels – Robbie Williams, Candle in the Wind – Elton John
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