Gillian Fanning talks to Changing Lanes about her role as SIMI President
Gillian Fanning talks to Changing Lanes about her role as SIMI President

In this interview, I talk to Gillian Fanning, SIMI President, about her role in the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, objectives for the motor industry in a time of great change and uncertainty, and her outlook for the sector in 2021. Gillian is also the Marketing Director of automotive distributor Serfac Limited.

1. For our readers who may not be familiar with SIMI, can you briefly introduce the Society and the role of President?

The Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI) is the representative body for and the official voice of the motor industry in Ireland. We have over 1,200 member companies across all sectors of the industry, including dealers, repairers, vehicle distributors, wholesalers, retailers and vehicle testers. The role of SIMI is to represent the motor industry and its 45,000 employees by communicating and campaigning to Government, state bodies, the media and the motoring public.

The President heads up the Society’s Management Board, the role of which is to manage the financial, internal and admin affairs of SIMI, advise the National Executive Council (which is made up of representatives from all sectors across Ireland) on policy and strategy, and to promote and defend the interests of its members and the motor industry generally.

2. How did you begin working in the motor industry and what do you enjoy most about it?

I started my career in PR consultancy, before joining Guinness Ireland as PR Manager. I then held a global change management and communication role with Diageo plc in London, before moving into another change management role with Bank of Ireland. I took a short career break when my second child was born, then joined Serfac in 2009 to manage a short-term project and I’m still here!

I really enjoy the variety of my job, which includes everything from managing over 30 brands and our relationship with our International Trading Network TEMOT, to more general strategic and operational management. Most of us in the business have worked together for quite some time so we’re a very close-knit team. In recent years, my involvement with SIMI and with FIGIEFA, the European aftermarket lobbying group, has added a whole new dimension to my career, which I’m enjoying very much.

Gillian Fanning (right) at the annual Women@SIMI event to help support and connect women working in the motor industry in Ireland
Gillian Fanning (far right) at the annual Women@SIMI event to help support and connect women working in the motor industry in Ireland

3. 2020 was an exceptionally challenging year to kick off your term as SIMI President, but what goals have you managed to set out for your term?

The Society’s role is to support and help its members and obviously that support has been extra critical since I took up office last May. We have spent a significant amount of time since then negotiating with Government to allow the industry to continue operating during periods of restriction, as well as being the key source of information for our members in terms of COVID-19 employment and business supports. Unfortunately, a number of events that I had planned, such as our annual Women@SIMI event and our aftermarket conference have had to be cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic.

In terms of longer-term goals, the objective must be to reach a figure of 150,000 new car sales per year, which represents a benchmark for the level of sales that can sustain the scale of the industry and the number of people employed in it.  With this in mind, we will continue to push for reductions in VRT and for Electric Vehicle (EV) grants, both of which will encourage motorists to trade up to a newer car. At current levels, VRT leaves motorists with no option but to hold on to their cars for longer, which means we’re missing out on the environmental benefits that derive from newer cars, whether they are petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric.

Any new car on the road will help us to make emission savings and recently, we’ve been focusing on educating consumers about the different types of engines available and the benefits of each.  I’m confident that better informed consumers will help the new car market on the road to recovery.

Increasing the number of women involved in the industry is also a priority in terms of gender balance and we have been using every opportunity to change perceptions of and highlight our sector as an attractive and interesting industry, offering great career opportunities. This will be vital to industry growth over coming years.

4. At the beginning of 2020 few would have predicted that dealer showrooms would ever have to close during the critical selling months of the year. Can the motor industry bounce back in 2021 from the Coronavirus disruption to retailing?

Yes, I absolutely believe that the industry can bounce back from the challenges faced over the last year. We’re a resilient and innovative sector and have come through tough periods several times in the past. We adapted very well to the restrictions implemented by Government last year and were one of the first sectors to be allowed to reopen when restrictions were initially lifted.

We’ve been open for servicing throughout most of the lockdowns and hopefully will be allowed to reopen for sales on April 5th, even on a Click & Collect basis, which we have shown that we can operate very safely. A speedy reopening will be critical for the industry and I’ve no doubt that there will be pent-up demand for vehicles when lockdown is lifted. The fact that people are now more reliant on private vehicles from a personal safety perspective also gives us great hope for the rest of 2021.

The Government has announced a €20 million investment in the ESB ecars public charge point network
Gillian says SIMI will continue to push for grants to support sales of electric vehicles in Ireland

5. New car sales are down again this year for obvious reasons, but new car registrations have in fact been in decline now for several years. What other factors are affecting the new car market?

The import of second hand vehicles from the UK has undoubtedly affected the new car market in Ireland over the past 3-4 years, although we have seen a marked decline in these imports over the last year, due to both the pandemic and Brexit.

Climate change and the Government’s Climate Action Plan is another factor that is affecting the new car market. Research has shown that consumers are confused about what powertrain to choose and are putting off making car-buying decisions as a result. SIMI recently launched a consumer information campaign, Drive Greener, to educate potential new car buyers about the different types of powertrain available and help them to choose the type of engine that best meets their needs.

Obviously, the fact that the industry has been unable to operate either a Click & Collect service or to offer unaccompanied test drives since January has also affected the new car market hugely this year. Getting these reinstated as soon as possible and thus helping to protect industry jobs, is our priority over the coming weeks.

6. Do you think the pandemic has accelerated changes in the industry that were already on the way?

Absolutely. While changes were always coming, digitalisation has been growing rapidly, not just in our industry but across all industries, and the pandemic has certainly accelerated these changes. Adapting very quickly to restrictions last year by moving most of their key business processes online, our members have demonstrated an incredible level of innovation in their businesses. Dealers have had to start meeting customers online or over the phone. Online selling tools such as vehicle videos and online virtual showrooms are the new normal and the entire selling process from start to finish can now be completed online, from viewing right through to finance approval and signing contracts.

I believe that this is a sign of the times and that further and ongoing investment in enhanced IT infrastructure will be critical to meet the challenges we will face over coming years.

It's been a challenging year for motor retailers but Gillian sees the sector bouncing back in 2021
It’s been a challenging year for motor retailers but Gillian sees the sector bouncing back in 2021

7. The Irish government has set targets for numbers of electric vehicles on Irish roads by 2030. How can we bridge the gap and what role will SIMI have in this transition?

While SIMI is very supportive of Government initiatives to reduce emissions, I do feel that the 2030 targets are quite ambitious. For example, purchases of electric vehicles in 2020 accounted for just 4.5% of new car sales, and while that was up from 2% in 2019, we still have quite a way to go to meet the Government’s targets. We also need to see an improved infrastructure put in place to support the growth of EVs over coming years and that will take time.

In terms of helping to bridge that gap, SIMI will continue to push for grants to support EV sales, in parallel with continuing to educate consumers regarding the benefits of electric and hybrid vehicles in terms of climate change.

8. Your background is in the automotive aftermarket supply of parts. How has your sector handled the pandemic and what is the outlook for the rest of 2021?

Those of us working in the aftermarket have been very lucky in that we are classified as essential services so have been able to stay open throughout, unlike our colleagues on the retail side of the industry. We’ve been busy throughout as people still need their cars and commercial vehicles repaired and maintained, and we’ve played a key role in keeping the country moving over the last year. My business is warehouse-driven so we’ve obviously had challenges in terms of social distancing etc. but we implemented good safety practices at the onset of the pandemic, which are now second nature to my team.

As with many other industries, Brexit has challenged us with supply issues and delivery delays but we’ve managed to tweak our supply chain so that much of our stock is now coming direct from continental Europe. Otherwise, 2021 has been business as usual for us and I would hope that it stays that way for the remainder of the year.

Gillian was elected to the role of SIMI President in May 2020
Gillian was elected to the role of SIMI President in May 2020

9. In recent years SIMI has held the Women@SIMI event to support and connect women working in the motor industry in Ireland. How can female representation in the industry be improved and are there opportunities?

There’s still some way to go, but the motor industry has improved significantly in terms of female representation over recent years.  There has been an increased focus on diversity and attracting women into the industry, not just in Ireland but globally. In particular, my colleagues on the retail side of the business have recognised that it makes sense to employ more women to enhance engagement with a large female customer base – it’s estimated that approximately 85% of vehicle buying decisions are made by women!

There are many opportunities for women across all sectors of the motor industry and we’re working together to change perceptions of it being a male-dominated industry. Sure, there are more men than women working in the industry, but there are plenty of great opportunities for women and in my experience, the men in the industry are generally very supportive of their female colleagues.

10. If you weren’t working in the motor industry, what other career do you think you might have liked to pursue?

That’s a difficult one, but a career in venture capital appeals to me – forecasting future trends and finding good businesses to invest in.  I may have left it too late for a career change now though!

Thanks to Gillian for taking part in this interview for Changing Lanes.