A focus on the world beyond Europe is paying off

Frederic Banzet chuckles, leans back in his chair and shakes his head. There's no way he's getting drawn into this one - "Who's better, France or the All Blacks?"

Passionate as the French are, it's impressive to see this sort of restraint - arguably as rare as an audience with Banzet, the amiable but ambitious CEO of Citroen.

Citroen's past in New Zealand hasn't exactly lived up to the parent company's expectations, but the brand continues an upward spiral, with sales up 168 per cent over last year and an exceptional new Greenlane dealership. Both PSA (maker of Peugeot and Citroen) and New Zealand's distributor Sime Darby are buoyed by its potential here, and after less than a year the partnership has proven its worth.

Talking on the sidelines of the last month's Geneva motor show, Banzet's passion came to the fore as soon as conversation went from the controversial oval ball to Citroen's global ambition.


"For too long, we've been too European," he explained, "for a long time we were only exporting to Europe. That is because that is where our cars were best suited to. Five years ago only 20 per cent of sales were outside Europe, eight out of 10 vehicles."

By 2013 a focus on the rest of the planet had paid off, with 41 per cent outside of the continent as Citroen, like many manufacturers realising the need to grow outside the continent. Making the right cars for global markets was a challenge, Banzet admits, but one that he feels the company is still rising to - and New Zealand, despite our small stature, is not being ignored.

"New Zealand is a country in which we've been weak in the past, we have not been well represented and I don't think have been up to the standards that I'd expect from Citroen anywhere in the world."

Along with a new distributor, the growth of Citroen's premium DS brand - the cornerstone of the new Auckland dealership - is pivotal to its success here.

"I think we have a very good opportunity in New Zealand with DS," said Banzet, "first to change our image, secondly to increase the standards to reflect the premium brand. DS customers are demanding and have an expectation, so it will be that which drives the image and the level of standards. That's what pulls the brand upwards.

"Having said that, it's still a small number of cars, but we need to be strongly present in the Pacific area.

"There you've got strong European influence as well as a strong Asian influence - you are truly an intersection of influences, which is perfect for a global brand.

"New Zealand is small but it is not irrelevant at all - it's important to us."

Citroen CEO Frederic Banzet.
Citroen CEO Frederic Banzet.

Having a taste for big Aussie cars hasn't helped the cause, but with fuel prices and environmental factors becoming more important to buyers, this market is now better suited to a Euro-centric brand.

"To adapt cars to New Zealand specifically is hard, because it is quite a small market. We often group Australia and New Zealand together in terms of research. Part of the market was dominated by huge cars, with big engines and high consumption. There's more opportunity now as people begin to make decisions that are more based on consumption and emissions.

"Being European we were mainly diesel with manual gearboxes, but now we're becoming more focussed on petrol engines and automatic gearboxes, which I think puts us back in the game. We have many more products coming which are better suited to Australia and, of course, to New Zealand."

Citroen, not surprisingly, has had an image of quirkiness that has steered many away from its vehicles, and although Banzet believes that has now changed, there's still a funky streak that he hopes to set it apart. Vehicles like the oddly monikered C4 Cactus are offering the same levels of customisation and personalisation as switchable covers give our phones. Customers can switch parts very easily, changing colours and style.

"We need to be well represented and to have the right image - not the one that we had from 20 years ago.

"The C4 Cactus is very pleasant and simple to drive but with very high levels of technology. Customers can change parts like bumpers to really personalise them.

"With Citroen, and especially with DS as a premium brand, we've now got a very strong focus on what really counts for our customers - design, technology and budget. We don't want to be called quirky like Citroen was in the past - but personalising cars is something that we will be doing more of. People don't want to drive exactly the same car as their neighbours - so we're letting them express themselves."