TREVOR HILL TURNING THE TIDE

With over 20 years of global experience with Audi, Trevor Hill took over as the Head of South Africa in 2017

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With over 20 years of global experience with Audi, Trevor Hill took over as the Head of South Africa in 2017 after a globetrotting career that has taken him around the world’s motoring hot spots, gaining him vital experience in the process
Hill was born in Cape Town, South Africa and started his career in 1989 when he joined Volkswagen/Audi South Africa in Johannesburg as the Manager of Dealer Training and Development. Before relocating to Dubai as the Managing Director of Audi Middle East, he represented Audi in Germany, Japan, China, Hong Kong and South Korea, with his key areas of expertise in training, dealer development and sales and marketing, before moving onto overall company leadership in the Middle East.

Most notably, he became the Regional Director of Audi China in Beijing in 2006, where he was responsible for growing the Chinese and Hong Kong market from 58 000 units to 128 000 units in just three years.

He holds a Higher Diploma in Education (HDipED) from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, a Certificate in Motor Vehicle Retailing from the University of Cape Town and an MBA from Anaheim University in California, USA.

In addition to his mother tongue, English, he is fluent in Afrikaans and German and has basic knowledge of Japanese and Chinese after stints in Asia. In his leisure time, the German national enjoys watching and participating in most sports. He played first league cricket in South Africa, represented South Africa at a national and an international level in men’s hockey and is also an avid golf player. Most recently, he has taken to participation in triathlons together with his wife, who is also a national sportswoman.

Hometown advantage

Hill began as a teacher and later moved into corporate training for Volkswagen. He was so good at his job that it did not take long for him to be snapped up by HQ in Germany when Audi were finding their feet after separating sales and marketing from the parent company, VW, in the early 90s.

“Yes, funny enough, in South Africa, we were quite advanced, even in the years when we were not part of the international community. We did a lot of stuff on our own here, and we were fairly advanced in setting product training, doing product comparisons and things like that. The Audi brand itself only started as a separate company in 1992. Audi separated from VW and they set up their own sales and marketing operation in Ingolstadt, which is our Head Office now.

“They really had nothing, and they sent a trainer down here. The guy looked at what we had and he said, ‘Wow this is fantastic, we could use this internationally and in Germany’. So, we did a collaboration, did a training together and then he took a lot of that stuff back with him. When I went over there, I was able to set up a curriculum, but we were really advanced in those days in terms of the set up of salesperson training, technical training and service advisor training and so forth. Audi had nothing for the international markets; they had a little bit for the German market.

“In those days, they were selling 80% of their cars in the German market and 20% in the international market, now it’s the other way round,” Hill explains.

Feeling the pinch

With the economic slowdown and political instability, especially in South Africa, luxury brands like Audi have been feeling the pinch, with million rand investments being put on ice until after the elections, for example. It takes careful planning and tough decisions when you are in charge during trying times.

“You need to just rightsize your business. For us, the focus has now gone onto the A and B segments, so the smaller cars, which, for a premium brand, is not ideal. From a premium brand, you really want to build the brand from the top down, you really want to have the A8s, the A6s, the A7s, the Q7s selling big numbers and that’s how you create a premium brand. Unfortunately, this market has gone the other way,” Hill says.

With all luxury goods, as soon as the market picks up, big vehicles are back in demand. At least, that’s the theory.

“Yes they definitely are; it takes maybe another percent rate cut, a bit of a pick up in the market and a bit more money in the market and the people will come back to it. What we also see is that customers are holding on to their cars a lot longer, so the average lifespan or holding period for a car now has gone up to eight years in South Africa, which is long in terms of holding onto a car, especially in the premium brand. We would like to turn the cars around every five years or four years, but now people are holding onto their cars much longer, and we see this from our extended freeway plans.

“I think there’s also a bit of a wait-and-see attitude in South Africa right now. We went through real political turmoil last year, we had the downgrade and a lot of the guys in the top segment of the market are saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to layout a million rand or a million plus at the moment in these conditions’. We had a little bit of an uptick due to Cyril Ramaphosa’s election and that helped us a little bit. Now we wait and see,” Hill says.

Quattro heritage

Audi made its name in rallying in the early 90s with the AWD Quattro, which beat all and sundry in the world rally championships. It was the first rally car to take advantage of the then-recently changed rules, which allowed the use of four-wheel drive in competition racing. It won competition after competition for the next two years.

To commemorate the success of the original vehicle, all subsequent Audis with their trademark Quattro four-wheel-drive system were badged ”quattro” with a lower case ”q” and in a distinct typeface, which has remained nearly unchanged since its inception.

“The history of the Quattro is, it’s a military vehicle that was built after the Second World War, called the Illtus. We took the Illtus’ technology and put it there, we were the first ones ever to put this technology into a road car and into our rally cars in those days. We have this slogan ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, which means ‘Advancement through Technology’ and that’s still the DNA of our company, everything we do and everything we try is based on advancement through technology.

“We always wanted to be the first to bring this technology to the market but in this competitive environment, it’s really difficult to be the first. So, you see, we’ve done a few things like the Quattro All-Wheel Drive, we were the first ones to put diesel TDI on the market, we were the first ones to use a full aluminium body and space frame.

“One of the design elements for an Audi at the moment is lighting technology with LED lighting and matrix beam lighting, just to try and differentiate ourselves from any of the other brands—it’s all about technology. Now, we’re moving into the age of electric cars, of autonomous driving, of artificial intelligence (AI), thus, in many of those cases, Audi is leading the way in terms of autonomous driving at the moment. Electric cars we will be there, we will launch our first car next year,” Hill enthuses.

Electric game-changer

The four-door E-Tron GT will be sold through the Audi Sport high-performance offshoot and will be Audi’s third full BEV after the E-Tron SUV, which is coming to SA in 2019 and the E-Tron Sportback that will follow it. The E-Tron GT has already been given the green light for production, based on the platform and electric vehicle technology of the E-Tron crossover.

Hills explains more about the much-anticipated car, “The car we will launch next year is going to be called the Audi E-Tron, and its’ going to be a like a C-segment SUV, so it’s a practical full-electric car with a range of 500 kilometres at the moment, which is way ahead of any other car in the market at currently, and we are hoping to get the range closer to 800 kilometres by the time we launch the car.

“We’re planning to bring it to South Africa late next year. We are setting up the entire infrastructure and talking to suppliers and the government because you can imagine, in South Africa, there isn’t a strong infrastructure right now for electric cars. There are few electric cars here, but there’s not a strong infrastructure and we have to try to gauge the appetite for electric cars in South Africa.

“I have no doubt that they will come eventually but it might be a little bit slower than Europe for example. In Europe, there’s a massive need for electric cars and countries like China and the US, because they have such pollution problems, especially in China, where we are currently developing six fully electric cars for China alone.”

Emissions scandal

As many readers will know, the parent company, VW, was involved in a controversial emissions scandal last year that took reportedly 20-30% off the share price, which only recently recovered to previous levels. A trickle-down effect was expected for Audi to navigate.

“Yes, it was a really difficult time for our company, 99.9% of the Audi shares are owned by VW, we don’t trade that much, we’re listed on the Munich Stock Exchange and are almost 100%-owned by Volkswagen AG so it did. But I think the company was also at a stage where it needed a shake-up and we’ve used that opportunity to really go back and take a look at all the processes, take a look at every single thing we do, and we’ve trimmed the company down a lot,” Hill says.

Speaking of trimming down, we’ve seen the evolution of engines in recent times, with turbos being introduced to a range of engine sizes to increase performance and efficiency. It’s amazing the numbers that can be extracted from the modern engine in terms of horsepower, with Audi’s larger performance models boasting turbocharged V8s.

“You can get a lot more efficiency out, we have the turbocharging, which makes the whole engine more efficient and we also have what we call cylinder-on-demand. So, you have an eight-cylinder car at low driving speeds, only four cylinders are working and then as you speed up, the other cylinders pick up, and then you start, so it makes the car much more efficient,” Hill says.

Just like having two different cars.

Autonomous driving

Autonomous driving in Europe looks set to be fully rolled out in the near future with successful trials. But with South Africa obviously being a few years behind, we might have to wait some time for that to be a reality.

Hill explains, “The new A8 we just brought out in Europe is autonomous level 3, which is the highest certified level that you can have at the moment, from a legal point of view, in Europe. So, that car fulfils all the criteria for autonomous driving level 3 and, essentially, it can drive on its own for three to four minutes, but the law doesn’t allow it to go for longer than that at the moment.

“I have some products in South Africa that have some of those features in it, like traffic jam assist, which is the start of autonomous driving in a traffic jam and which you can use quite effectively here— the car accelerates and brakes on its own. But we don’t allow it for longer than 30 seconds at the moment and then the car will tell you to please take the steering wheel again from a safety point of view because there is no law to govern that. Those features exist, they’re in the cars but it’s going to take a little while to get it here to South Africa.

“As we get more artificial intelligence feedback from the car, we then start to understand exactly what the environment is doing around the cars,” Hill explains.

Cyber car crime

But with any new technology that relies on connectivity, AI and is relatively unprotected, cybercrime is often in the back of one’s mind.

“It’s about the cars, of course, but it’s also about protecting our factories. We have cyber attacks almost every day, but can you imagine if they somehow get into our factory and they reprogramme our robots so that they don’t put the right amount of welding spots on and suddenly the car falls? That’s the worst-case scenario. We have worked really closely together with our guys in Tel Aviv in terms of cybersecurity and also protecting the cars, it’s going to be a massive business in the future, making sure all this data is secured and that there’s not a chance of hackers getting in. Hopefully, it’s never going to happen, but it’s something you have to think about,” Hill says.

Millennials’ needs differ

Millennials in many of Europe’s major cities don’t own cars and I’m seeing the same trend in the Cape Town CDB for example, with a lot of people using Uber. There is also a trend towards smaller cars.

“Yes, that’s an interesting model. Millennials, certainly in Europe, they’re not really into buying cars or owning cars, they are into mobility. We’re working on numerous programmes at the moment in terms of car-share schemes because a lot of them are living in the big cities, where there isn’t necessarily parking or where parking is expensive but they still want to be mobile.

“We have these car-share schemes in many European cities now—say you fly from Frankfurt to Munich, you land at Munich, you pick up a car there, you do whatever you want to do, then you drop the car off at the airport, fly back home again and then you either you use public transport or you have a car waiting for you. These car-share schemes are becoming much more popular in Europe now,” Hill concludes. 

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