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Holden denies reports of Inchcape sale

The Holden brand is in damage control after rumours surfaced of a potential sale to a distributor.

General Motors Holden chairman and managing director, Dave Buttner, has vehemently denied speculation of a distribution takeover by UK-owned trader Inchcape.

Buttner told assembled Australian and New Zealand automotive media at a brand event this week that “there have been no discussions with me, with Inchcape” and that “Holden is not for sale”.

The comments can be seen as a rebuttal over a rumoured proposal for Inchcape - which is the local distributor for Subaru and PSA Peugeot Citroen - to take over distribution of all, or possibly just part, of the Holden business.

That initial report, published in the Australian Financial Review on February 7, stated Inchcape was “running the numbers” on the business prospects for Holden. Perhaps the most intriguing element of the whole situation is that Holden’s only passenger vehicles, the Opel-sourced Astra and Commodore (known as Insignia in other markets), now come under the PSA umbrella.

Therefore a potential shift away from passenger cars wearing Holden badges, and a rumoured relaunch of the Opel brand in Australia to sell models like the Astra and Insignia alongside future sister vehicles from PSA Peugeot Citroen, seems like it could be the logical outcome of any investigation by Inchcape.

Adding fuel to that idea is the fact the event Holden held was an ‘SUV day’ designed to highlight the brand’s portfolio of high-riding models, with nary a mention of Astra and Commodore.

However, Mr Buttner told media he’s not aware of any such discussions with Inchcape and GM.

“We’re not for sale. I didn’t come to sell the company down. I came out of retirement to work with people to rebuild this fantastic brand,” said the former head of Toyota Australia, who took the top job at Holden in 2018.

“There’s always rumour and innuendo around, and that story grew from one article in the AFR. A lot of people speculated and started to imagine what may or may not be. But there’s certainly nothing going on in that space,” Mr Buttner said.

“I’m not privy to the contractual agreements between PSA and GM – all I know is we’re looking into future product, and what’s in our plan of record, and we have sighting into the future.

“There have been no discussions with me, with Inchcape. We’re just moving on to grow the brand.

“To the best of my knowledge there have been no discussions that have transpired. I keep very close with GM, and I’ve got their absolutely outstanding support,” he said, before once again reiterating “I don’t know about any discussions at any level”.

That doesn’t mean discussions haven’t happened, though.

A spokesperson for Inchcape Australia offered up the following response to the rumours: "We are always assessing a range of opportunities and initiatives in support of our Ignite strategy and we do not comment on speculation."

It would not be unusual for high-end talks to occur at a level above the head of a national sales company, though Mr Buttner said the commitment from General Motors headquarters is, as far as he’s concerned, unwavering.

“GM is committed to Australia. They’ve brought me in to work with all the stakeholders to grow the brand, land our product, and be a profitable entity feeding back to the GM board.

“Their commitment is resolute – it is honestly resolute,” said Mr Buttner.

It wasn’t all confidence and bluster, though. Mr Buttner said there is good reason for some questions to exist over the brand, given that sales dropped by a massive 32 per cent in 2018, to a tally of just 60,751 vehicles.

In 2019, things haven’t started out well for the brand, either: Holden posted a 27.1 per cent drop on 2018’s numbers for the same month, ranking seventh behind brands like Kia and Hyundai which both outsold it easily in the opening month of the year.

Holden’s number in January (4167) was less than half of Mazda's total (9490), and just over a quarter of the tally racked up by Toyota in the same month (15,961).

“Given the state of where our [market] share sits today compared to where it sits historically, then it’s only natural that we could expect some speculation,” said Mr Buttner.

“But I can assure everybody here today – as I said to many of you on my first day in the job back on August 1 2018 – I’ve simply come here to work with the talented Holden team, to work with our dealers, to work with all of our stakeholders, with the very strong support of GM in the US, to regrow our brand.

To make sure we are relevant in today’s marketplace. To make sure that our dealers are profitable and to ensure we’re offering customer-centricity at every aspect of the value chain and to make sure we can build customers for life, passion advocates for the Holden brand going forward.”

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