Holden boss Dave Buttner has stepped down as chairman and managing director after just 16 months in the job – one of the shortest tenures in the company’s 71-year history – following the lowest sales since the company was formed in 1948.
The former Toyota executive had come out of retirement to become only the second Australian boss to run Holden after it had been led for 25 years by foreign executives. Mr Buttner had vowed to turn Holden around after the shutdown of Australian car manufacturing in October 2017.
But Holden – which had 50 per cent of the entire car market in the 1950s, and was last Australia’s top-selling brand in 2002 – has struggled to stay inside the Top 10 sellers list over the past two years.
So far this year Holden has posted a 26.6 per cent decline in sales – more than three times the rate of the market slowdown of 8.0 per cent – with its five lowest monthly results in 71 years: September (2863), October (3086), July (3266), April (3483) and February (3825).
The September 2019 result was the first time Holden’s monthly sales tally had ever dipped below 3000, which was also enough to push the brand outside the Top 10.
It is understood senior Holden staff were informed via email this morning, although dealers had not been notified as this article was written.
A copy of the Holden bulletin – obtained by CarAdvice – says: "Since his appointment in 2018, Dave has driven a clear focus at Holden as it moved with the market to a predominantly truck (ute) and SUV portfolio. His experience and professionalism have been significant assets for Holden through a challenging period."
"Early in his tenure, Dave established the direction for Holden to earn its way onto the consideration list for SUV and ute buyers in Australia and New Zealand. He has led the implementation of important projects to support this vision, including a significant reinvestment in reinventing the Holden brand."
Mr Buttner will be replaced by Kristian Aquilina as interim chairman. Mr Aquilina is currently Holden's executive director of sales, marketing, and aftersales.
Mr Aquilina has been in senior roles with Holden for 22 years and was managing director of Holden in New Zealand from late 2014 to the end of June 2018, before returning to Holden as marketing director.
The confidential bulletin to Holden staff, issued today by Julian Blissett, General Motors' senior vice president of international operations, thanked Mr Buttner (pictured above) for his leadership at Holden and asked employees to offer Mr Aquilina (pictured below) their "full support" in his new role.
Earlier this year there were unsubstantiated reports that Holden might eventually be handled by independent distributor Inchcape – or be taken over by Peugeot-Citroen, which is responsible for building the Holden Astra and Holden Commodore after the French giant bought German brand Opel from General Motors in late 2017.
However, executives from both companies have since formally refuted those reports, which Mr Buttner dismissed at the time as “pure scuttlebutt”.
Mr Buttner told a Holden dealer conference in February this year: “I’m looking directly at you. Believe me, it’s not going to happen. There is no plan (to change distribution). I did not join the company to close Holden”.
He later told media: “We’re not for sale, I didn’t come to sell the company down, I came out of retirement to work with people to rebuild this fantastic brand. There’s been no discussions with me and Inchcape.”
Mr Buttner worked at Ford before embarking on a 30-year career with Toyota in 1987.
He eventually rose through the ranks to become the President of Toyota Australia in 2014, the first non-Japanese executive to be appointed in that role since the 1980s.
Mr Buttner left Toyota after overseeing the closure of the Camry factory in Melbourne in October 2017, just weeks before Holden’s factory shutdown.
At the time, Mr Buttner said he was “honoured and energised by this incredible opportunity to lead Holden, a company which is part of the fabric of our country.”“I look forward to working with our people, our dealers and our partners to grow our business and get more and more Australian and New Zealand drivers behind the wheel of more and more Holdens,” Mr Buttner said at the time.
The regional boss of General Motors, Barry Engle, said at the time: “Dave’s proven track record and understanding of Holden’s markets — and the company’s potential in those markets — makes him the right leader for this next phase in the evolution of the business”.
Mr Engle added: “GM’s most senior leadership (in Detroit) strongly believe that we have a rare jewel in Holden, an iconic Australian brand that understands the needs of Australian and New Zealand drivers. Dave is an outstanding leader with a peerless record of success in Australia and New Zealand. Holden will have a strong future under Dave’s leadership.”
Holden bosses: a recent history
John Bagshaw (Australia) 1987 to 1990
Bill Hamel (USA) 1990 to 1997
Jim Wiemels (USA) 1997 to 1999
Peter Hanenberger (Germany) 1999 to 2003
Denny Mooney (USA) January 2004 to July 2007
Chris Gubbey (UK) August 2007 to February 2008
Mark Reuss (USA) February 2008 to August 2009
Alan Batey (UK) September 2009 to March 2010
Mike Devereux (UK born, raised in Canada) March 2010 to December 2013
Gerry Dorizas (Greece) March 2014 to October 2014
Jeff Rolfs (Canada), Holden CFO was interim managing director November 2014 to June 2015
Mark Bernhard (Australia) July 2015 to July 2018
Dave Buttner (Australia) August 2018 to November 2019
Kristian Aquilina (Australia) December 2019 (interim chairman)