ROBERT McEniry, one of the Australian motor industry’s best known and most popular senior executives and something of a Mr Fixit called in to restore businesses in poor health, has died, aged 71, after a short illness.
Mr McEniry resigned from all his numerous company directorships in April, citing an undisclosed health issue.
Mr McEniry is survived by wife Penny and children Catherine, Will and Libby.
He was a generous, gregarious, jovial – sometimes cheeky – man who engaged people. He will be remembered for his frequent and infectious laugh.
Family friends at his funeral told mourners he was “an epic man with a big heart”. He nurtured his many childhood friendships all his life with wives and children of those friends joined in a wide extended McEniry family that celebrated frequent landmark events with joie de vie.
Friendship was paramount in his life. He once flew from Sweden to Melbourne and then drove to Bendigo for a friend’s important birthday party and was back on the plane again having spent less than 24 hours on the ground.
The Australian car industry however, will remember him as the man who was being groomed for the top job at Holden who wound up running Mitsubishi Motors Australia after an international career at General Motors – fixing problems.
He had a history of rebuilding companies or parts of companies. In the past, he would have been referred to as a company doctor but in modern idiom he described his field as “executive interim management”, specialising in creating business platforms on which companies could recover and grow.
Mr McEniry had a strongly-developed moral compass and, while he had to take the hard decisions that went with the task of restructuring companies, he was always concerned for the workforce. So he restructured with empathy. He once told me that where he had the choice of closing the company down or rebuilding it, he would choose to rebuild.
His major “doctoring” role was in 2005 when he took the helm at Mitsubishi Motors Australia at a time when the corporate ship has been righted but had been set on a course as a manufacturer by then incumbent CEO Tom Phillips.
Mr McEniry had the task of making the Australian-made 380 large sedan a success in local and export markets and then secure a new product line to build in Adelaide for export.
But it was not to be, with a disastrous car finance-driven sales drive wiping out Mitsubishi volume in the United States and thus destroying any prospect for the planned export of cars from Adelaide to America.
Mr McEniry then set about the task of repositioning MMAL as an importer by ensuring volume growth of the rest of the range. This entailed lowering price points of imported vehicles to more realistic levels – a job that put him at odds with Mitsubishi Motors Corporation management in Japan which initially refused to change because they “had already budgeted for the revenue”.
The revised price points rewarded the dealer network with increased sales built around imports with the local car no longer a factor in the model mix.
By the time the Tonsley Park plant closed, MMAL had paid back all specific government support for the company and revealed that manufacturing in Australia had cost MMC more than a billion dollars.
While there were some “robust discussions”, MMC could see that Mr McEniry was the ideal man for the task with his background appearing to have been preparing him all along for his key role in Adelaide.
Born in Bendigo, Mr McEniry was an avid car enthusiast by age 12 and a systems analyst in the early days of computers. He earned an MBA from the University of Melbourne and studied business management in the United States and Switzerland.
He began his career at Holden in the mid-1970s as a zone manager for dealer business management and went on to run Holden’s then $40 million advertising and mechandising programs.
The then managing director, Chuck Chapman, who had made it his business to fix Holden’s legacy of woes, threw Mr McEniry at the job of reorganising national parts distribution.
Holden had tried twice to streamline the excessive number of tiers within the operation and had failed. Within 18 months, state parts distributors lost their monopoly on Holden parts.
Holden appointed about five wholesaling dealers in each capital city (including the former distributors) who distributed to smaller Holden dealers and the trade.
Mr McEniry said at the time that the key was to show the distributors that because of the privileged position they held they had allowed a huge amount of unnecessary cost to build up in their parts businesses.
He showed them that under the new system, where they became one of about five in their city, they could achieve the same bottom line by becoming more efficient even though they were losing their effective monopoly.
Since the distributors were taking less fat out of the process, the dealers as a group were able to make more on their parts sales as well. Hand-in-hand with this change a new parts computer ordering system was installed.
Around that time he was called in as one of the key players in the team that was planning the financial restructuring of Holden.
The company was making massive losses from sales that were not able to sustain debt commitments largely from the lease of Holden’s Family II engine plant.
At that time it was decided that his sales and marketing and business background would be an important influence on the development of the VN Commodore, which was going to be a crucial car in Holden’s recovery.
He was appointed VN Commodore program manager to deal with all the departments involved in the design and building of the car, with a specific charter to make sure it was something the dealers could sell.
By 1987 he took on the role of director of marketing – a title that took in the sales role as well.
Mr McEniry was a passionate believer that channel policy and distribution were a part of marketing – not separate activities. He was keen to impress on all at Holden that within the business strategy of marketing, all the elements of the total activity from the factory door to the customer, had to be looked at.
His view was that sales departments could not be allowed to flog cars separately from the overall strategy for the brand. Sales must work in with brand image, dealer profitability, distribution profitability and resale value at the end for the buyers.
He therefore chose to drop sales from his title to make the point.
In that role, he was instrumental in the creation of Holden Special Vehicles. He and Tom Walkinshaw signed the deal. He later did a similar deal with Walkinshaw at Saab.
To get the HSV budget approved at a time when Holden was on its uppers was a huge internal coup. But Chuck Chapman could see the huge marketing bonus it would bring and backed the deal.
Mr McEniry also ran the exorcising of Peter Brock from the Holden brand because of Brock’s insistence of selling the so-called polariser in Brock Commodores and ADR issues with a new HDT model, the Director.
The polariser was supposed to capture unseen earth forces and improve performance and handling in the car.
Holden, for reasons of reputation and of trade practice rules, had to separate itself from the snake oil and Brock would not back down. The divorce was ugly.
Then came the UAAI (United Australian Automotive Industries) joint venture between Holden and Toyota in which both companies equally owned their Australian manufacturing facilities and shared the cars made in them.
Along with Bill Hamel (then Holden MD), Mr McEniry was one of two GM voting members on the UAAI board.
Ironically, Holden went into the UAAI as the weak partner. But strategies put in place by Holden teams directed by Chuck Chapman and Bill Hamel, in which Mr McEniry participated, saw Holden become the dominant partner and eventually call for the end of the arrangement.
Mr McEniry decided to expand his global experience. In 1993 he went to Saab, in which GM had just invested, as vice-president – commercial and marketing.
He instituted an arrangement where the development and manufacturing of each Saab platform was formed into a business unit with each business unit reporting to him.
This was a tough role because even though GM had management control it only had half a say in capital spending for increasing the product line.
He also found that Swedish management was stubborn and simply wanted to keep doing more of the same.
There were significant disputes over the model range and especially a desire on the engineering side to cling to the formula of hatchback and sedan only. He managed to get them to build a wagon.
Mr McEniry was a key driver in the move away from the 900 and 500 model names and pushed for the 9-3 and 9-5 nomenclature to allow for an increase in the range.
He also found that many of Saab’s independent distributors around the world were running their own shows with their own agendas and that there was a lack of global focus on the brand. While the largest markets were already direct, they decided to go direct in most other significant markets.
He then moved to Detroit where the GM board was asking questions about why management did not know how much money they were making out of each model line. At the time, the money for all the models built at GM came out of the one bucket.
So GM decided to borrow from Toyota where Corolla, for example, was a business unit with its own design and management team that run the vehicle from start to finish. In this way they wanted to get more idea of which model lines were the most profitable.
This process led to the creation of vehicle line managers for each platform.
Mr McEniry was made the international vehicle line executive for large cars and luxury cars (rear-wheel drive) and worked on the process where the knowledge of various architectures used in GM large cars was made more accessible globally.
The various regions were more able to integrate the global architecture into future designs.
The VE Commodore shared heavily in that international architecture that had its beginnings in that vehicle line executive initiative.
In 2000, Mr McEniry returned to Australia to enable his children to attend Australian schools, and he was headhunted by Pacific Dunlop. GM was talking about sending him back overseas and the local job won out.
The idea was to create an automotive group with Repco, South Pacific Tyres (SPT) and some other opportunities, but South Pacific turned out to be in such a bad state that it had to be restructured first.
As an example of the structural costs SPT was carrying at the time, it had five plants making a combined six million tyres a year. This was reduced to two modernised plants making a combined 5.5 million tyres a year.
The job also involved moving to more modern tyre technology, changing the product portfolio in each of the brands, rationalising the sales channels and ensuring major retailers had complementary rather than competing lines of tyres. SPT also went back into supplying tyres to car-makers.
The SPT operation was run as a joint venture with Goodyear and, when the job was done, the business went to Goodyear management to run under an agreement with Pacific Dunlop. Mr McEniry moved on.
This led him to HSV where moves were being made by Holden to buy HSV in the wake of Tom Walkinshaw’s business collapse.
HSV management believed the company’s strength was that it was run at arms-length from Holden. This allowed HSV to be much more profitable as it could develop new models and make changes in response to the market faster than it could if it was part of Holden.
The drive to buy came from the top of Holden – Peter Hanenberger. As a result of his overseas postings, Mr McEniry knew him well and he was able to convince Mr Hanenberger that HSV could be destroyed if it was brought inside Holden and lose its flexibility and speed to market.
He then went on to develop the strategy for a chain of tyre stores to go national and was asked to look at a volume house builder that wanted some strategic direction.
He found that the building industry was similar to the car industry with a production line, design, materials purchasing, quality at the right cost, just-in-time and final assembly. They need a product portfolio, target segments, price points in the market and design for manufacture.
He said it is no accident that Toyota was also in the house-building business in Japan.
Mr McEniry then worked with a biotech company specialising in clinical trials, which was threatened with closure. But he saw that with the right business base in place and key management changes it could be a great business.
He left that company to take up his job at Mitsubishi Motors Australia.
- Re-organised Holden’s parts business by taking state distributors out of the picture and appointing more retailers in each state as local distributors. It effectively removed an unnecessary layer of margin from Holden parts prices.
- VN Commodore program manager using his sales and marketing background to ensure the design would be what dealers needed.
- Holden’s point man in the deal with Tom Walkinshaw to establish Holden Special Vehicles.
- Point man in the divorce between Holden and Peter Brock over the infamous polariser.
- Director of the UAAI joint venture between Holden and Toyota.
- Worked in the team which developed the Holden business plan that ultimately led to Holden’s sales recovery in the 1990s, record profits and the unravelling of the joint venture.
- Was a driving force behind the removal of independent distributors from Saab’s key world markets.
- Revamped Saab nomenclature to 9-3 and 9-5.
- Re-organised South Pacific Tyres manufacturing and business strategies in the face of mounting tyre imports. Amalgamated manufacturing from five plants to two producing similar total output.
- Called in to assist in negotiations between HSV and Holden in the wake of the business collapse of TWR.
- Developed a national strategy for a chain of tyre stores.
- Re-organised a volume house building company by overlaying the business model of the car business on to its sales, materials sourcing and manufacturing operations.
- Pulled back a biotech company from the brink of closure
- Orchestrated the smooth transfer of Mitsubishi Motors Australia from a local car maker to a pure importer
- Resumed his role as a company doctors rebuilding a variety of companies both in Australia and New Zealand.
- Appointed to various boards in auto-focused operations
Positions and titles held
Robert McEniry, MBA, FACID, MAICD has more than 40 years experience in the automotive industry both in Australia and overseas.
- He held a number of senior executive roles at General Motors including Director of Marketing for General Motors Holden and Vice President of Commercial and Marketing for Saab Automobile AB of Sweden
- Five years as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited.
- Chief Executive Officer of Nucleus Network Ltd and South Pacific Tyres Ltd, Melbourne.
- Independent Non-Executive Chairman at Burson Group Limited and Burson Automotive Pty Ltd. since March 31, 2014.
- Chairman of Australian Home Care Services Ltd.
- Chair of EV Engineering Ltd.
- Chairman of the Advisory Board to the Department of Management at Monash University.
- Non Executive Director of Automotive Holdings Group Limited since May 3, 2012 and subsequently Chairman of the group
- Director of Multiple Sclerosis Limited since 2006.
- Director of Stillwell Motor Group Ltd.
- A board member of the Executive Committee for the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries
- Master of Business Administration from the University of Melbourne
- Member of the Australian Institute of Directors.
By John Mellor