Ray Leddy, pictured, tells Michael Cullen how the Czech-made car is doing the business
It has been said that everything in life is somewhere else and you get there in a car. Škoda’s TV ads are slick. Not because they ditch the brand’s worldwide slogan, ‘Simply Clever’, but because they use the line ‘Made for Ireland’, coined by Boys + Girls to share the joy of driving in Ireland in the wet on steep, windy roads with pot holes the size of Croke Park.
Since Ford’s conveyor belt stopped rolling out Escorts, every car on Irish roads has been an import. Škoda has been in Ireland since 1993. In 25 years, it has grown from 0.5 per cent to its current seven per cent share, placing the brand sixth overall. Most new cars in Ireland are bought by people age 45 and over. Getting young drivers to buy a new car is fraught.
New car sales this year are due to be down by 4.8 per cent. Ray Leddy, head of marketing, Škoda Ireland, says several factors are to blame for the dip in demand, including Brexit, electric vehicles, car-sharing schemes and new EU emissions rules. Car makers are struggling to get their ranges though the new regime and bottlenecks are developing in the testing labs.
The new car emissions and economy test is called WLTP, which, in a roundabout way, stands for Worldwide Harmonised Light-Duty Vehicles Test Procedure. The new way of confirming a car’s fuel consumption is based on recorded driving data. WLTP takes into consideration various situations and speeds and also a car’s different equipment variants and weight classes.
Making inroads: Škoda’s Ray Leddy is confident the Octavia, Superb and the new Karoq will continue to grow share in the premium car market. Despite its popularity following Pope Francis’s visit, the Rapid is set to be dropped and go the way of Skoda’s Yeti. Research by Millward Brown shows that that most buyers want a car that looks the part.
Last month, new car sales in the UK fell by 20 per cent. In Germany, Europe’s biggest car market, the fall was even steeper, with 30.5 per cent fewer cars being sold. The sales fall-off was exacerbated by the fact that many car makers were hurriedly discounting models which do not comply with the new regulations, selling them off before the September deadline.
Škoda is part of the Volkswagen Group, along with Audi and VW. The group overseas has been badly hit by the new emissions rules. In Ireland, VW’s situation is said to be a little better, but not a lot. VW sales in September were down by 33 per cent, where the total market fall was 17 per cent. Audi and Škoda sales were down by 43 and 34 per cent respectively.
In Ireland, in the first half of 2018, every county encountered negative growth in new car registrations, with the exception of Carlow, Kildare, Louth and Wexford. Ireland’s five top-selling makes accounted for almost half of all new car sales, with VW on 10.9 per cent, Toyota on 9.7 per cent, Hyundai, 9.4 per cent; Ford, nine per cent and Nissan, 7.7 per cent.
The Nissan Qashqai was the most popular model, followed by the Hyundai Tucson, VW Golf, Ford Focus and Škoda’s Octavia. The trend away from diesel towards petrol continues. In the first half of 2018, diesel cars made up 55.4 per cent of all new registrations, down from 66 per cent in the first half of 2017. Petrol cars were up from 30 per cent to 38 per cent.
When it comes to electric cars, 529 were registered in the first six months, a 41 per cent jump on the same period last year. Imported used cars still account for a fair share of the market, with 51,879 in sales – or just over 36 per cent of the Irish car market. Sterling weakness is seen as the key driver of the trend, with 96 per cent of the cars coming in from the UK.
CSO data shows that between January 2008 and June 2018, the average price of a new car dropped by 29.8 per cent. Revenue sees a financial loss from the displacement of new car sales by used imports because the VAT and VRT receipts on used imports are far less than new car sales. Revenue collected almost €986 million from car sales in the first half of 2018.
In August this year, it was announced that Škoda would be the official car partner to the World Meeting of Families and the Papal visit. Throughout the weekend visit, Pope Francis was driven around in a souped-up Rapid. The Pope likes the simpler things in life, so the chances of him driving from A to B in a top of the range Mercedes or BMW were nil.
When Pope Francis touched down in Dublin Airport on the Saturday morning, he was transported to Áras an Uachtaráin in a Rapid. Two other identical cars painted in a specially-requested navy blue were on stand-by with unique registration plates. 182-D-9093 was the main vehicle’s reg. When the digits 9093 are inverted, it spells out the word Pope.
Following a meeting at the Áras with President Higgins, the Pope was driven to Dublin Castle, St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral and the Capuchin Father’s Day Centre for Homeless Families. That evening, His Holiness attended the Festival of Families at Croke Park. The same Škoda model was used to take the Pontiff to and fro the Mass at Knock Shrine.
Being the official car supplier was a huge PR coup for Škoda, giving the Rapid exposure to 1.1 million TV viewers in Ireland and handsome overseas audiences. Modified glass and chrome flag poles were attached to the passenger fenders with the Vatican flag. As well as looking after the Pope, Škoda provided his entourage with Octavias, Superbs and Karoqs.
After the Pope’s visit and following recommendations by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the official car and a second Rapid were provided to the Crosscare community service charity in Dublin and Foyle Search & Rescue in Derry. So how, in all that is sacred, did Škoda manage to pull off becoming the Pope’s official car for the World Meeting of Families (WMoF)?
Leddy says it came about by chance – perhaps some divine intercession was at play. A priest called to John Mulholland Motors in the North. The Škoda Rapid he saw really impressed him. He felt it would be the right choice for the Pope’s visit. The wheels were soon put in motion and with the church’s prayers Škoda made contact with the Vatican’s Swiss Guard.
A “small donation” was paid to the WMofF. What really kept Reddy and his colleagues busy were the logistics. The Rapid’s tinted glass window had to go as the Pontiff wanted to see all before him. The seats had to be modified in support of his Holiness’s dodgy hips. The car’s colour had to be exactly the right navy blue hue as ordained by the Vatican officials.
A week after the Pope’s departure, Škoda reported an uptake in dealer business and a 41 per cent increase in enquiries to its HQ call centre. Traffic to the brand’s webpage increased by 46 per cent. Reddy says the interest generated converted to sales, with the company’s longest-serving Irish dealer in Galway reporting sales of seven Rapids in the days following the visit.
Škoda sponsored the Tipperary GAA senior teams for three years. The brand got on its bike with the Škoda Celtic Series, comprising three annual cycles around the Ring of Clare, Tour de Conamara and the Tour de Boyne Valley, with each event involving 2,000 cyclists. It also sponsors the Ring of Kerry charity cycle, now 35 years on the go and with 10,000 cyclists.
Leddy joined Škoda Ireland in 2000. His first role was as sales and marketing assistant, where he shadowed his predecessors. Four years later, he became area sales manager and then in 2008 marketing manager. In 2012, Leddy became head of marketing, overseeing a team of 25. He works with Boys + Girls, PHD, FleishmanHillard and v-Stream agencies.
Despite Brexit and an exceleration in used imports from the UK, Leddy remains upbeat about the prospects for new car sales. He points to a more buoyant labour market, earnings growth, low interest rates and improved credit flow. Tourism performance is strong, the construction industry is expanding and overall business and consumer confidence levels look healthy.
Demand is outstripping supply among certain models. For example, the Kodiaq seven-seater SUV, which sells for around €43,000, has long waiting lists. Reddy says it shows that while BMW and Mercedes had a firm hold on the prestige end of the market for many years, more motorists are opting for what was the middle-range choice of car. Cue Škoda.
The Octavia, which sells for around €26,000, is the fifth best-selling car in Ireland, with almost twice the sales of the Toyota Corolla. Its roomy interior and extra generous luggage space in the boot make it a popular choice for taxi drivers servicing airports. Some Škodas are segment leaders. The Superb (€33,000) outsells the Ford Mondeo and Toyota Avensus.
Leddy says the brand’s latest set of results solidified their sixth position in the sales rankings and Škoda’s performance was in stark contrast to the overall car market in Ireland. In a year when the country’s total car sales were down by over 5.8 per cent, Škoda grew its volume by 3.7 per cent. The results showed that 56 per cent of sales were diesel-powered vehicles.
The brand handed over €41m in customer loans during the first three months of 2018. It was helped by zero per cent finance, provided by VW Bank, and the launch of Karoq. In July, Škoda’s market share had risen to 7.2 per cent for the first half of 2018. It marked the brand’s highest ever market share as they strive to overtake Nissan and Ford and make the top four.