Kevin Flynn. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Kevin Flynn. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Kevin Flynn: In the driving seat

The MD of the local unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles talks to Mint about how the Jeep Compasshelped overhaul the India business, finding work-life balance and hoping to visit the Taj

Kevin Flynn, the 59-year-old president and managing director of the local unit of Italian-American auto conglomerate Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) NV, has spent nearly four years in India but is yet to see the Taj Mahal.

Known and respected in global industry circles as a turnaround expert, owing to his successful stints heading Jaguar Land Rover and Lexus in South Africa for over a cumulative six years, Flynn was brought to India to revive FCA’s fortunes in the world’s fourth largest automobile market.

But his job is only half done. Jeep as a brand is successfully established with the Jeep Compass but there are two more models to be launched—one above Compass (a three-row MUV) and another (sub-4m SUV) right below it.

“If I’m honest, my time in India has been very business-focused. To find that (work-life) balance is quite difficult here. (I) would like to find a little bit more balance to enjoy some things here instead of working, working, working," says the uncharacteristically exuberant Englishman, when we meet him in his minimalist cabin at FCA India’s Bandra Kurla Complex office in Mumbai.

But work is all that he has done since he was 16.

“I’ll tell you what I’d love to have—it’s a gap year. All the kids have a gap year after university, I’ve never had a gap week, let alone a gap year," says Flynn. “I’ve got bags of energy, still wake up every morning, ready to give it the full beans," he says.

That has reflected in FCA’s performance ever since he took over. The company’s financial metrics, sales and brand perception had been languishing for a few years. Fiat had not found favour with the Indian customer because of concerns around after-sales services, fuel efficiency and availability of spare parts. The customer believed that the company had not committed enough to the Indian market. Flynn, a veteran with more than 30 years of experience in the automobile industry, had to rally the troops since taking over in February 2015, when FCA India was formed and he was brought on board.

Flynn has since focused on customer experience, something that European carmakers are not known for, revitalized FCA’s operations in India, and tasted considerable success with the Jeep Compass, one of the marquee products from the Chrysler stable that came to Fiat as a result of the merger between the two companies in May 2014. The Compass has garnered more than 35% of the total volume of sales in its segment (utility vehicles, or UVs, priced between 15-25 lakh) within a year of its launch in July 2017 (19,358 units out of 54,416 units in FY18, according to data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers). It has even exported to all of FCA’s right-hand drive markets across the world, such as the UK, Australia and Japan. Flynn has managed to get FCA India’s financial metrics in better shape. By his own admission, the sales division of the company (including the Fiat company in India) was profitable in 2017—“probably the first time in our history".

“We’ve got a plan where the conglomerate of the operations that we have in India will be positive very, very soon," he says, referring to the engineering and joint venture (with Tata Motors Ltd) divisions. The JV was formed in October 2007 to jointly manufacture cars, engines and transmissions at a plant in Ranjangaon near Pune. FCA invested $280 million (around 2,016 crore today) in the plant to support local production for the Jeep brand. Tata Motors currently manufactures its Nexon SUV there.

“What we’ve managed to do is build a product of global standards in India, for Indian consumers. A global designed car, not an Indian one and the very same product gets exported to all right-hand drive international markets around the world. We proved that the vehicles are acceptable in those markets because the standard is global and consistent. We proved that there is a huge acceptance for the Jeep brand in India and a certain premium that comes with it," Flynn says.

The company tweaked its Indian business model to give exports equal importance, so that the Ranjangaon plant would be able to utilize its maximum annual capacity of 160,000 cars and 350,000 engines. Larger volumes also help control costs and offer better pricing. Flynn says the company has also been focusing on local sourcing of components in India.

To reset customer expectations from the FCA stable, Flynn worked on a Jeep-focused top-down strategy. He first imported completely built units (CBUs) of its top-end Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Grand Cherokee, to create a buzz. Then, FCA overhauled its branding and marketing functions and dealership to give the Indian customer a taste of the adventure and off-roading capability that Jeep is known for.

After-sales service was overhauled by bringing in Jeep’s proprietary Mopar service brand to India.

A pricing strategy to attract customers across traditionally defined segments was worked out. The different pricing “layers" are a result of what Flynn refers to as the “onion philosophy". The Jeep Compass and its variants are priced in the range of 15.34-21.94 lakh (ex-showroom, New Delhi). At the lower end, the Compass invited buyers of the Hyundai Creta and Mahindra XUV500 to upgrade, while it also targeted customers of the higher-end Toyota Fortuner and Ford Endeavour to buy the original 4x4 off-roader.

Of the four plants around the world that make the Compass, India has achieved the highest quality. Seventy one per cent of components are locally sourced, he says. “For me, it’s a great wave of the Indian flag, it’s a fantastic achievement," says Flynn. In 2017,
Jeep was crowned “Indian SUV of the year" by several auto magazines and enthusiasts.

It might not appear so, but Flynn isn’t all-work-and-no-fun, as he recalls frequenting The Barking Deer brewpub in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area with the FCA team when the office was located there until last year. He wonders why the team doesn’t go out together more often.

Unwinding in India is largely an escape to Goa, where he has made some friends who keep a spare room for him in a guest house. He goes there once in two months and says, “That’s one flight I really want to do."

Gin and tonic is his favourite drink, but he does enjoy a crisp beer. “I’m a bitter drinker... stout or blonde beer (lager). Not too big on the craft stuff." A good wine is lovely but he enjoys whisky purely from a connoisseur’s perspective. Bengaluru-made Amrut is one such smoky, peaty whisky he prefers (“a tiny bit with a little bit of water").

His favourite AC Cobra car is lying in his garage in Johannesburg, along with a vintage Ducati Superbike (the classic 916), a KTM 990 Super Moto R and a KTM 530 dirt bike.

So, does he have an India bucket list? “Would be madness if I don’t get to the Taj; couple of good train journeys worth venturing into, there are some seriously good roads that I’m yet to travel. There’s without doubt some good motorcycle touring routes."

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The last book you had to abandon?

The Musk book (Elon Musk: How The Billionaire CEO Of Space X And Tesla Is Shaping Our Future). I must try it again.

Do you play any musical instruments?

As a child I was learning the piano but was more interested in sport! I so wish I had stuck to it.

The best bike ride you’ve been on?

Riding my KTM Superduke on the Tour de France route down to Antibes for Sunday lunch, then back to Germany.

The most scenic drive you’ve been on?

I did a press drive once in Greenland, but it’s tough to beat the Western Cape in South Africa.

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