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Why Holden’s mountain of problems just got taller

By Toby Hagon, 03 Dec 2019 Features

Holden Managing Director David Buttner

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Holden, as its top boss quits amid a record-breaking sales slump

The last thing Holden needed was another bump in the road.

The announcement that chairman and managing director Dave Buttner would depart the top job 16 months into a plan to revive the iconic brand – and put Holden back on “the consideration set” – has come as a shock to staff and dealers.

It leaves questions as to why the sudden change.

The brand that has sold more cars in Australia than any other is on its knees; poor planning, bad decisions and tough competition making life the most difficult it’s been for the lion brand since it built its first Australian car in November 1948.

Holden Manufacturing Plant

Following a string of nine bosses in a little over a decade, Holden was desperate for stability.

In a brief statement the explanation given was that Buttner was leaving for “personal reasons”.

Often that’s industry code for “pushed” or “asked to leave”.

Read next: Could the Corvette and Camaro be Holden's saviour?

That’s not the case here. In trying to learn more about the shock departure it’s clear there are genuine personal reasons, which we won’t be detailing.

It’s also clear there was respect for the changes Buttner made in the short time he led the once dominant brand.

He made tough decisions, such as temporarily halting shipments of some key models in order to clear excess stock that was gathering dust around the country. It was all about returning to more natural demand, rather than forcing cars on the market.

Holden Cars

He also helped improve relations with some at times hostile dealers, rightly frustrated with the plight of the brand.

His tenure coincided with the biggest downturn in the industry since the GFC – and Holden was hit harder than most.

Poor sales showed he was looking longer term rather than heavily discounting cars to effectively buy short term market share.

Read next: Why it failed: Two years on from Holden's Aussie factory closure

Not that many were smiling. Holden, its dealers and its parent company in Detroit clearly want sales to be better. Since Buttner has been in charge sales have dropped to record lows, both in market share and outright numbers.

While it’s easy to blame the person at the top for the current predicament, much of the gloom is the result of decisions made years (even decades) earlier; decisions on which vehicles to sell in Australia, decisions on which dealers to let go and decisions on how to market and position the brand.

Holden Company Logo

Some of those decisions weren’t even Holden’s doing, but they’re decisions that have crippled a brand that half of Australia once aspired to own.

As an American-owned brand with a parent company that was scarred from bankruptcy only a decade ago, what was going on Down Under was not a top priority in the upper echelons of the Detroit head office.

Whereas Holden learnt to survive (and thrive) on its own, the brand now must learn to live within a larger ecosystem – and one where it must fight for everything. Holden has gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a minnow in a global ocean.

Buttner was helping Holden on that journey, setting the foundations for a brand that aspires to get back on the radar of new car buyers – albeit with a towering mountain blocking the way.

Arguably the hill Holden is climbing just got that fraction steeper.