The automotive industry has Silicon Valley disruptors licking their lips. It’s not just the spectacular size of the car business (over $2.7 trillion in vehicle sales, predicted to rise to $4 trillion by 2030), nor even the fact that Tesla has proven tech companies can compete. It’s that technology is reimagining the car as in some respects the ultimate mobile device.
These challenges mean an automotive company like SEAT is no longer the same kind of place to work as it was a decade or 20 years ago.
CEO Luca de Meo has seen a lot of these changes first hand. After leading brands such as Lancia and Alfa Romeo at Fiat, the Italian wunderkind joined Volkswagen Group in 2009, running marketing for Audi before taking the driver’s seat at the company’s Spanish subsidiary in 2015.
Since then the once stuttering business has experienced an impressive turnaround, which de Meo explained when he took Management Today for a tour of SEAT’s Martorell factory last year. Here, he tells us how the company is adapting to the surging forces of technology.
The automotive industry traditionally has quite rigid silos, for example between engineers, designers and marketing – something you’ve been trying to break down at SEAT. What have you learned through that process - what worked, what didn't, is it more than just getting people to sit together?
De Meo: Breaking silos begins in my office. There’s no desk and therefore no barriers - people can come and have an open discussion. It’s important to create an environment of inclusivity as I believe it encourages innovative ways of thinking and helps drive the next generation of forward thinkers.
One example of how we have already broken down silos is the creation of the Digital Lab in our Technical Centre. A unit where designers, UX engineers and on-board software specialists work in the same space and simultaneously focus on functions, integration into our infotainment and, in general, the future of human-machine interfaces in the vehicle.
What other changes do you see on the horizon for your industry and how are you adapting to them?
De Meo: There are lots of debates about the future of mobility and as an industry. We are also facing many uncertainties due to regulatory changes, discontinuities in technology and changing consumer expectations.
One thing that remains certain is that software will soon become the main value of a car. This is why we feel it’s so important to build our understanding and expertise in this field as it will give us a competitive edge. For this reason, a little more than a year ago, we decided to set up the SEAT Metropolis:Lab Barcelona to work on sustainable mobility solutions, as part of the Barcelona Tech City [start-up] ecosystem.
We also have recently announced the creation of our new Software Development Centre, which will focus on off-board software: software for the ecosystem, produced and developed in house and in coordination with the other units of the Volkswagen Group operating around the globe. It will be located in Barcelona, and the cool thing is that we are going to pull together in the same place this team with the one working on micro mobility products.
You’ve made a point of targeting new markets for SEAT - what advice would you give a business that's thinking of expanding abroad for the first time?
De Meo: It’s important to understand the key social, economic and cultural drivers within a region. Personally, I’d say that one needs to be curious, open-minded and listen to what locals have to say and what they need. How can you do that better than speaking the same language and immersing yourself in their culture? I really believe it helps to open your mind. Having lived in 12 different countries and having worked for 10 car brands across four different groups has helped me a lot in that matter.
It can also be crucial to cooperate with strong local partners who can help a company overcome potential challenges and find hidden opportunities within a new market. The newcomer might arrive with great new ideas and proposals, but I bet you they won’t have all the answers.
Image credit: SEAT