Marc Nassif, 51, believes his Egyptian background helps him understand India a little better than many other expatriates. For one, you need more than one language in both countries, says the CEO and managing director of Renault India Pvt. Ltd.
Nassif himself can speak English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. “I find that when people speak multiple languages it helps develop a certain kind of intuition and ability to catch details that can make a difference. These details can make a big difference in understanding customers and how to manage a company.”
We’re meeting at The Leela Palace in Chennai, Nassif’s weekday-home, as his wife and two children live in Puducherry, a 3-hour drive away. He picks his favourite spot overlooking the sea and opts for a decaffeinated coffee while I order watermelon juice.
Dressed in a well-fitted, dark-brown suit over a white shirt with the diamond logo of Renault emblazoned above the pocket, Nassif looks unfazed by Chennai’s heat or the heat that Renualt’s best-seller, the Duster, is likely to face from the newly launched Ford EcoSport.
The French car maker first entered India in 2005 but its joint venture with Mahindra & Mahindra fractured in 2010. That same year, Renault and its global partner Nissan inaugurated their largest alliance plant in Chennai.
Nissan and Renault share the plant and the same platform to help achieve economies of scale. The two companies have a cross-badging strategy, where cars from the two brands are just branded differently and sold in the same markets. The strategy hadn’t paid off until July last year, when Renault struck gold with its compact SUV the Duster. Nissan’s version of the Duster, the Terrano, will be launched this year. Both companies had a market share of less than 1.5% last fiscal.
Next week, partner Nissan will unveil its new low-cost brand Datsun, which will be made in Chennai and will be Nissan’s attempt to increase domestic sales. Renault, whose market share has already gained 3% in the first six months of this year thanks to the Duster, will focus on increasing its portfolio from the five cars it has currently to seven-eight cars in the next 5 years. This is expected to help Renault cross the 5% market-share threshold in India.
With such an ambitious plan, it would hardly be surprising if Nassif and his men were a little uneasy, for not just Ford, but almost every other car maker, plans to enter the compact SUV segment where Renault has had its first big success.
But Nassif says he’s not worried. “Obviously there is a nice proposition in the market now from a very serious competitor. But the products are very different and they will address different kinds of customers,” he says.
Though the Duster is said to be better on bad roads than the EcoSport and is more spacious, the EcoSport scores over the Duster on its agility, looks and price. The high-end diesel variant of the EcoSport costs Rs.8.99 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi), making it a cool Rs.1.94 lakh cheaper than the Duster.
When I quiz Nassif about the EcoSport’s competitive pricing, he is quick to point out that Renault’s credo is money for value. “Obviously people want value for money, but in the end when you buy something you pay a certain amount to get a certain value from it. You get what you pay for,” he reasons.
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Nassif acknowledges that India is a price-sensitive market, but he says you pay for something only once and enjoy it for a long time. “You want to be sure that you will enjoy it throughout and not just the day you put down the money,” he says.
The utility vehicle segment that includes crossovers and SUVs grew by 52% in 2012-13, in what was otherwise the worst year for the passenger car segment, with sales falling for the first time in 12 years. Sales fell 6.7% in fiscal 2013 to 1.89 million units.
Nassif thinks the reason this segment has caught the Indian buyer’s fancy is its ability to deliver fuel efficiency along with power on poor roads. The compact SUV segment helps bridge the gap between the need for a bigger car while still being economical.
“These cars have a lot of technology the customer does not see. With the Duster we have developed a new generation of SUVs with a gross weight that is about the same as a hatch, and a turning radius that is better than most hatchbacks in the market. I knew we had gold in our hands when we developed the Duster,” Nassif says.
He says he trusts his intuition more than anything else, be it new products or making a career choice, or playing a tune on his guitar.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, and brought up in Paris, France, Nassif always wanted to travel and see the world. Armed with an engineering and management degree from the École des Hautes Études Commerciales, Paris, he joined Renault as an engineering trainee in Detroit, US, in 1984. That year, Nassif recollects, Renault was car of the year. “And I had nothing to do with it,” he adds laughingly.
He has not been keeping track of how long he has been with the company, because when I ask him that question he says with utter disbelief, “29 years”.
During that time, Nassif has worked across different functions and different cultures—in Detroit, Mexico (where he met his wife), Spain, France and Brazil. He says he has only one belief, which helped him manage in every culture, “If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.” “Otherwise you won’t survive,” he adds quickly.
"Next week, partner Nissan will unveil its new low-cost brand Datsun, which will be made in Chennai"
As an expatriate, he believes it is important to understand the diversity and complexity that is India. “This is what most expatriates and foreigners grapple with when they come here.” He has been particular that Renault India should have few expats. “I am very sensitive towards this because first it is expensive, and secondly we are an Indian company, so do as Indians do,” he says.
For him, the most challenging and rewarding aspect of selling cars to Indians is how emotional a purchase a car is. “That is one of the beauties of this country. The way you sell a Fluence to a guy in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) is not the way you sell it to a Punjabi.” The emotions and passions are very different.
Nassif will now focus on widening the distribution network from the current 100 dealerships and having a portfolio of seven-eight cars, which would be competitive like the Duster in their own segment, in the next five years.
“I have great regard for my competitors and I respect them very much,” he says, not discounting the fact that there is a lot of hard work yet to be done.
He prepares for all the hard work by taking a 45-minute swim and follows it up with meditation. “Morning is my time. This is the only part of the day that is under my control. And yoga and meditation has helped me a long way in destressing,” he says.
He plans not to let go of his yoga-habit—he believes that if he has to take the company past the 5% market-share-threshold, he is going to need all his strength.