ATfter talking for about an hour about the car industry and her three years at the top of Stellantis in the UK, Alison Jones realizes she hasn’t mentioned the small matter of the giant merger between Peugeot and Fiat Chrysler that created the company.
“Yeah, we did that as well last year. I forgot,” she says with a burst of laughter, sitting in the boardroom at one of Stellantis’s technical centers in Coventry.
It shows just how much she and other car company bosses in the UK have had on their plate. There was Brexit taking up much of 2019, she says, a pandemic in 2020, and unprecedented shortages of key computer chips in 2021, all of which should really have been decade-defining issues.
Yet when people look back at what the 2020s meant for the car industry, the transition to electric vehicles will probably be seen as the dominant trend.
“This is our way of being now,” says Jones. “You’re constantly looking to adapt to the next change, find your competitive advantage, and drive your competitive advantage.”
The Stellantis office in Coventry (it still bears the PSA logo high up on its exterior) is airy and pleasant on a sunny afternoon, but it is also nearly empty, a reminder of the other changes the pandemic has wrought.
Family Married to Nic, three adult children in their early 20s: two have recently finished university, and the third is doing a placement year before a final year of studies.
Education A-Levels at Wootton upper school, Bedfordshire, then evening classes for accountancy qualifications and a degree equivalent at the Chartered Management Institute.
Pay “I’m not going to answer that!” Stellantis declined to identify which subsidiary employs her.
last holiday Antigua, in the Caribbean, with the family to celebrate husband’s 60th birthday.
Best advice she’s been given “Persevere.”
Biggest career mistake Not doing the right preparation for a job interview. “That sticks with me.”
Word she overuses “Fan-tas-tic.”
How she relaxes Spending time with the family and walking. “I stomp,” she says. “You have to get out in the fresh air.”
During the interview we both wear masks, and there are still one-way systems around the building, following the same protocols as in the company’s shop floors.
Jones’s responsibilities have grown in line with the ambitions of the parent company. She joined Stellantis’s forerunner, PSA Group, in February 2019 to be UK managing director for the Peugeot, Citroën and DS brands, and to finish off the integration of Vauxhall/Opel, bought in 2017. Then, in January last year she became managing director for Stellantis in the UK, adding oversight of brands including Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Jeep following PSA’s merger with Fiat Chrysler.
Then, at the end of 2021, the UK’s lobby group, the 82-year-old Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), made Jones its first female president – several decades late by the reckoning of many in the industry. Hers is a non-executive role, but carries political clout as champion for the UK car industry. “It was a proud moment,” she says.
However, Jones’s career story is not one of lifelong love for the car industry. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” she says. She had “humble beginnings”, with her father a “working farmer, gentleman farmer” and her mother a part-time shop assistant. Her first job after A-levels in 1986 was with a television rentals company, where a manager suggested she keep studying to get an accountancy degree.
Her first brush with the car industry came when she joined a Volkswagen finance team in Milton Keynes, but she soon jumped to a scientific instrument business in Cambridge, where she worked on exporting “dual use” products – items that can be used by civilians but could also be repurposed for the military. She then took a fleet management job before going back to Volkswagen.
She ended up staying at the carmaker for 21 years, rising from sales director for Audi to running after-sales care for VW’s five mass-market brands (VW cars and vans, Audi, Seat and Skoda) in 800 UK locations.
The business of selling cars is going through a period of massive upheaval, but Jones thinks there will still be a place for the car showroom – for people to make a purchase and for a place to go for help after the sale is complete.
She acknowledges that the industry has long been very male-dominated, and lists the ways in which her company is committed to diversity. Then, unprompted, she details her dislike of equal representation quotas, a measure some campaigners believe is a useful way to force businesses to improve.
“I hate quotas for women,” she says. “You should only ever get a job based on your credibility and your ability to do that job.”
Her priority in the SMMT role is to keep pressure on the government to do its bit to speed the change to electric. The industry is braced for slowing vehicle sales as interest rates and the cost of living rise.
The government cut back subsidies for battery-powered cars twice in 2021. In comparison with the lavish help other European governments offer, that was “disappointing”, says Jones, her frustration obvious even behind a mask. The EU industry also benefits from energy subsidies that are lacking in the UK.
Another government decision she regretted was the ban on all fully petrol and diesel cars after 2030, announced in November 2020. The move was described as “brutal” by Jones’s group boss, Carlos Tavares, who hinted that it could threaten Stellantis’s Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Harbor.
The plant escaped the ax by investing in electric vans, but Jones stresses that the industry is still flying blind, with no guidance yet on which hybrids will be allowed for five years after 2030.
“When you pull a date forward, what you are effectively doing is saying to customers that they’re going to have to pay more sooner,” she says.
Installing charging points across the country is another part of the puzzle where the government needs to up its game. Buyers want electric cars, but chargers need to be so widely available that people don’t worry any more, Jones says.
“It’s can I do it when I come home in the pouring rain on a Sunday night with no charge, my children in the back of the car and I’ve got to go to work in the morning?” she says. “If you can answer that question, you’ve got a solution.”