Holden's hopes of a comeback have taken another major blow, following the surprise departure of the man tasked with leading its turnaround.
Chairman and Managing Director, Dave Buttner, announced he was leaving the company for “personal reasons” after just 16 months in the job. Buttner's appointment in July 2018 was seen as a major turning point for the brand, given his experience at Toyota Australia where he led the Japanese brand to its current position of market dominance.
Buttner was lured out of retirement to take on the top role with Holden, seemingly to try and benefit from his knowledge of Toyota's success down under.
But with Holden sales continuing to decline it seems Buttner and the General Motors leadership decided it was time to change. Holden has sold just 37,301 cars in 2019, a huge 26 per cent decline on the same period in 2018; which in turn was another difficult year for the brand.
Since it lost top spot in the market in 2002 Holden was a close rival to Toyota at the top of the sales charts, but since the end of local production in 2017 it has been a steep decline. Year-to-date it's the ninth best-selling brand, behind the likes of Kia, Nissan and Volkswagen, with Honda close behind in 10th. It has been a dramatic fall for what was once Australia's favourite car company.
Kristian Aquilina has been appointed interim chairman following Buttner's decision to leave, adding to his role as head of Holden's commercial operations – including its sponsorship of Supercars racing.
Naturally, GM tried to put a positive spin on the Buttner's shock decision to leave less than two years into the job, explaining that Aquilina is well-placed to take control, at least for the time being.
“With critical groundwork underway, the company will implement an orderly leadership succession,” said Senior Vice President, GM International Operations, Julian Blissett, in a statement.
“Kristian has previously served as Managing Director of Holden New Zealand from 2015 to mid-2018, before returning to Australia to lead Marketing. Earlier this year he was promoted to Executive Director Sales, Marketing and Aftersales. With more than 22 years in the company, he has the experience, the leadership qualities and the deep understanding of the business and the market to lead GM Holden at this important time.”
Buttner's focus during his time with Holden was trying to get the brand's SUVs and utes onto the short lists of potential buyers, work he believes has been done.
“Holden's focus remains on getting onto the consideration list for SUV and LCV buyers in Australia and New Zealand,” Buttner said.
“We have made significant progress in getting the fundamentals right. Now is the right time for me to depart the business, with a strong team in place, to be led by Kristian.”
For his part Aquilina paid tribute to Buttner and said his short-term plan was to continue down the path laid out already.
“Under Dave's leadership, we have laid out clear priorities for the business,” Aquilina said. “While much progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to do. My focus is on providing continuity around the execution of our plans, ensuring the team at Holden, including dealers and partners, continue to focus on our customers.”
Holden hasn't given any indication how long Aquilina will remain Interim Chairman and Managing Director.