Eric Laforge, with 30 years’ experience at FCA, became the new head of the Fiat Professional Brand EMEA on 1 July 2020. AboutcampB2B met him at his office at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin to get to know him better, introduce him to our readers and understand what future strategies he is preparing with the Fiat Professional for Recreational Vehicles team.
Words and photo Antonio Mazzucchelli
It is immediately clear that Eric Laforge knows the Fiat Ducato product, its dynamics and markets very well. He is French, but speaks excellent Italian, graduated from the ESGF (Ecole Supérieure de Gestion et Finance à Paris) and joined Fiat in 1990. Since then, he has covered various roles and had managerial responsibilities in numerous European countries.
His first experience with Fiat Professional brand was in 2009 when he earned the role of Europe Sales Manager for LCVs. Now, at the age of 50, he has been called again in the brand to fill, this time, the role of Head of EMEA – Fiat Professional, recently left vacant by his predecessor, Stephane Gigou.
Aboutcamp BtoB: With 30 years of experience at Fiat, how are you taking on this new challenge?
Eric Laforge: I’m excited to be back to Fiat Professional because, even more than the passenger car market, here there is a real contact with our customer, be it a bodybuilder, a user or a fleet customer. In the light commercial vehicle sector, we often have to find customized solutions and it is not uncommon for these to enter our catalogue. Even in the motorhome world, by listening to our customers, we have been able to work alongside bodybuilders and design and develop the Fiat Ducato to be the best possible mechanical basis for conversion into motorhomes. I always like to compare the Fiat Ducato to the Airbus A320: we have the impression that the aircraft is always the same as the first version born in 1987, but, in reality, this airplane has known a constant evolution to only resemble to the original product externally. The Ducato has also evolved year after year: in technical characteristics, in the exterior appearance, and in the engines to always be the most updated vehicle of the moment in its sector. If this was not the case, there would be no justification for the extraordinary market success of Ducato around the world.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How important is the camper sector today for Fiat Professional?
Eric Laforge: More than 50 percent of the Ducatos we produce are destined to the RV sector: this market is very important for us. Motorhome manufacturers, as far as deliveries are concerned, will always be at the top of the list of Fiat Professional’s customers, because we cannot and do not want to interrupt their production programmes. A fleet customer or a small craftsman who buys Ducato can manage the availability of new vehicles with more versatility. The motorhome industry, however, does not allow delays.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You have reached the top at Fiat Professional after 30 years of experience in the FCA Group: how important is this heritage and how will you use it in the new job?
Eric Laforge: I would like to strengthen the quality of the assistance for the motorhome customer when they have any contact with the Fiat Professional network. There are two networks related to the end customer: the distribution channel of the camper manufacturer and our service network. Our goal is that the Ducato influences the customer’s purchasing decisions thanks to its high-level of technical content and the quality of its assistance network. We want to continue to improve the service. We have already achieved important results, and this is another distinction from our competitors. But there are several improvements that we can still make to the network. We have truck dealers in our network, a feature that distinguishes us from other manufacturers of LCV products. In that sector, industrial vehicle downtime has an economic impact, therefore the workshops are equipped to limit waiting times to a minimum, also working at night. This experience is an advantage that we can use to improve ourselves, for example by also offering night-time assistance for the camper sector, and by having the most organized workshops, so in any breakdown situation, customers do not miss even one day of their precious holidays. I also want to improve customer loyalty. Today the end customer is loyal to the manufacturer’s brand, but our goal is to retain him also to the Ducato brand. The customer must know that it is an advantage to choose a motorhome with Ducato mechanics, regardless of the brand that build the motorhome.
Aboutcamp BtoB: In your opinion, what are the main differences in terms of product and strategies between the LCV segment and the camper sector?
Eric Laforge: There is a lot of difference. We are comparing a vehicle for working with one made to go on vacation. The constant is that the end customer expects a reliable product from us and a simply perfect after-sales service. The expectations regarding the user experience, however, are different. The user of a fleet or a professional expects low operating costs. The RV owner, on the other hand, has on board an extension of his home: this customer is looking for maximum comfort and a high level on-board technology, equal to that of the passenger car market. The motorhome customer, therefore, pushes us to make continuous technological innovation to our vehicle. A successful example is our 9-speed automatic transmission introduced last year. Without the RV sector we would not have developed it because for commercial vehicles is not yet a much sought after technology. Instead, in the RV sector, it is a success and now 40 percent of Ducato bases have automatic transmission. This automatic gearbox, as is happening with cars, will be an indispensable element to keep the second hand value high at the time of sale.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The Covid-19 pandemic created some supply problems: are these all solved?
Eric Laforge: The first concern was bringing workers back without health risks. On April 27th we had already reopened, the first factory in Italy. We could reopen, guaranteeing all the maximum measures of control and prevention of spreading the virus. We had orders to be processed and customers with production lines stopped waiting. We managed to open two weeks before the rest of Italy. We returned to normal production regimes and processed all orders. Speeding up the reopening to return to standard production volumes was a risk at such an uncertain time, but the market proved us right and new orders arrived immediately, both from the camper industry and from the commercial segment.
Aboutcamp BtoB: In your opinion, is the positive sales trend of recreational vehicles destined to last?
Eric Laforge: That’s the question of the moment. The exhibitions in September will give us important indicators, especially in the sales data. It all depends on the extent of the incoming economic crisis. RV users may have less money to buy a new vehicle, entrepreneurs may not be able to invest in a vehicle or in the fleet due to loss of turnover: these are examples of missed sales. We are confident, however, that the relaunch of the motorhome as a holiday style, distanced, spaced and safer, can offset the effects of the crisis. The feedback from manufacturers is very positive. In fact, in the last period, we have registered records in new orders and this seems the confirmation of a positive trend for now.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Fiat has chosen to still exhibit at the September fairs: why?
Eric Laforge: Fiat Professional has always been the market leader and has a deep-rooted tradition of presence at the biggest international shows. Unlike some of our competitors, we also have a historical and regular relationship with many of our end customers. The fairs are an opportunity for European motorhome owners to deepen knowledge of our products, meeting and talking to us. Fairs are an irreplaceable part of our customer care. On the B2B front, our major customers have also chosen to be there and we will be by their side. The motorhome fairs are often also held partly outdoors, they are moments of sale and not just a showcase, and they also offer us important feedback from the end customer. For these reasons we decided to be there.
Aboutcamp BtoB: In 2006, the Ducato was designed for the most traditional types of RV: semi-integrated and motorhomes. Today, the European market focuses more and more on the campervan, so what are the implications of this for Fiat Professional? Do you need to change production schemes or strategies?
Eric Laforge: We build vans of any kind for any use. We have upgraded the factories to have maximum production capacity but also, above all, to be able to react quickly to any market trend. The Ducato, in all its configurations is always the best seller in its category. Even in the van version, the Ducato responds perfectly to the needs of campervan converters. Here, too, we are ahead of others; for example, just think of the internal height of the H2 version that allows you to stand. Ducato, thanks to its volumes and shapes, offers the most basic versatile base to set up a van with all comforts. The converters who use Ducato are able to produce environments of extraordinary livability.
Aboutcamp BtoB: There are some vehicle manufacturers who have also started producing campervans: what is Fiat’s position?
Eric Laforge: We were born to offer the best on the market in our category. If we start to create the outfitting of the housing part of the vehicle, we could not be leaders: there would certainly be someone better than us. We believe in specialization: we do base chassis for manufacturers very well and we let them be in charge of the set up. Becoming competitors of our customers is not really our strategy. Instead, we will continue to evolve Ducato to always be on top, always appropriate to the expectations of our customers, and in collaboration with them, developing it by listening to their needs.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Diesel or no more diesel? This debate in the RV sector is still ongoing: how is Fiat preparing to face the challenges of the future?
Eric Laforge: In the near future, this question does not yet arise. We will continue to work on the development of diesel, in terms of eco compatibility, reduction of consumption and the increase in comfort and reliability. At this time, full electric technology cannot yet satisfy the needs of the motorhome customer. Our e-Ducato will be for uses other than recreational and will be the ideal vehicle for short daily journeys and routines in an urban environment. The electric mobility, due to the weight of the batteries, does not go well with the need for lightness required by the recreational segment. However, the main issue to be solved is the reduced autonomy compared to fossil fuel engines and the time needed and the network of the charging stations. No motorhome manufacturer has yet put this kind of RV propulsion into production, because it does not have a practical application in the outdoor holiday segment. In the future, moreover, it is not even said that electricity is the solution. There will likely be other technologies available, such as hydrogen.