‘The num­bers in Ire­land pale in sig­nif­i­cance com­pared to the US’

Cian O’Brien was packed for a new ca­reer in Aus­tralia. Then the phone rang

The Irish Times - Business - - CAVEAT - Olive Keogh

Cian O’Brien left his job as di­rec­tor of Seat Ire­land in 2014 to be­come head of sales op­er­a­tions at Audi UK, the brand’s fourth largest mar­ket af­ter China, Ger­many and the US. Two years later, he took over the di­rec­tor’s role at Audi UK and eight months af­ter that he was about to move con­ti­nents to be­come man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Audi Aus­tralia when he got a ca­reer-chang­ing phone call one Fri­day evening.

“Scott Keogh, the pres­i­dent of Audi of Amer­ica, called me two weeks be­fore we were due to go to Syd­ney and said, ‘I have a great op­por­tu­nity for you.’ A tough con­ver­sa­tion fol­lowed with my wife who was all geared up for Aus­tralia, but I promised her I would get the con­tainer with all of our things safely off the ship in Sin­ga­pore,” O’Brien says.

O’Brien be­came ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for Audi of Amer­ica in May of this year. He moved to the US al­most at once, leav­ing his wife and three chil­dren to fol­low in July when the school year ended.

“The lo­gis­tics of mov­ing and all of the or­gan­is­ing that goes with it fell to Jo as I was al­ready ab­sorbed by the busi­ness. But she is a fan­tas­tic mixer and very good at mak­ing things hap­pen,” O’Brien says. “Our two boys are ac­tu­ally used to change as they’ve moved a few times, which I think is a good thing for them.

“We’ve found them rugby clubs in the US which they love and I en­joy coach­ing there on the week­ends. Our lit­tle girl, Is­abel, is just three.”

Re­tail roles

O’Brien is a grad­u­ate of Cork In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and UCD. He held a va­ri­ety of re­tail roles in the mo­tor in­dus­try, in­clud­ing gen­eral sales man­ager with Lexus in Cork, be­fore mov­ing to an Audi deal­er­ship as brand man­ager and from there to Audi Ire­land’s head­quar­ters in Dublin as af­ter-sales man­ager.

Now based in Hern­don, Vir­ginia, a short dis­tance from Wash­ing­ton DC, he looks af­ter Audi of Amer­ica’s four re­gional of­fices. That means spend­ing a lot of time on the road vis­it­ing the com­pany’s main of­fices in Los An­ge­les, At­lanta, New Jersey and Chicago as well as its cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence cen­tre near Detroit and its global head­quar­ters in In­gol­stadt, Ger­many.

“What’s re­ally stag­ger­ing about work­ing in the US is the size and scale of ev­ery­thing. Along with the var­i­ous re­gional nu­ances, this makes it an ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing place to be,” says O’Brien.

Audi is ranked fourth in the pre­mium seg­ment in the US be­hind Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. How­ever, this still means sales of more than 200,000 units a year – quite a con­trast to the Ir­ish mar­ket where O’Brien cut his teeth and Audi had sales of just over 6,000 units in 2016.

The model mix is also very dif­fer­ent in Amer­ica with the bulk of sales con­cen­trated at the top end of Audi’s range. The brand’s big­gest sell­ers there are A4, A6, Q5 and the Q7 SUV which O’Brien says is a big ve­hi­cle by Euro­pean stan­dards but only con­sid­ered a mid-sized SUV in the US.

Wider breadth

“The ad­van­tages of learn­ing the busi­ness in a small mar­ket is that you have a much wider breath of knowl­edge across all as­pects of the op­er­a­tion,” O’Brien says.

“You usu­ally have to wear two or three hats so you have ex­po­sure to plan­ning, mar­ket­ing, sales, strat­egy and the af­ter-mar­ket, whereas in the US peo­ple spe­cialise in just one thing.

“Sure, the num­bers in Ire­land pale in sig­nif­i­cance com­pared to the US. For ex­am­ple, my team has gone from 16 in Ire­land to 220 peo­ple now.”

O’Brien has taken to the Amer­i­can way of life like a duck to wa­ter.

“Amer­i­cans are ex­tremely pas­sion­ate and hard­work­ing and there is a tremen­dous di­ver­sity here which cre­ates a fan­tas­tic dy­namic in the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment,” he says. “The auto in­dus­try in Ire­land has a lot of pro­fes­sional and ded­i­cated peo­ple but mar­kets like the UK and the US are where the big­gest chal­lenges lie due to their scale. It is high pres­sure but I thrive on it.”

There is no short­age of job op­por­tu­ni­ties in the US for well-ed­u­cated young Ir­ish peo­ple with a for­ward-think­ing mind­set O’Brien says.

“The US at­ti­tude to Ir­ish peo­ple is very pos­i­tive and this makes it easy for Ir­ish peo­ple to do well here. Skills in IT and tech­nol­ogy in gen­eral are in de­mand and, of course, there is so much go­ing on from a tech hub per­spec­tive on the west coast that it is an econ­omy in it­self.”

O’Brien is a big rugby fan and played for Dol­phin RFC in Cork well into his thir­ties.

“I have al­ways stayed fo­cused on keep­ing up my fit­ness and I shed some play­ing weight when I got into triathlon some years back. We have a very com­pet­i­tive group here at Audi of Amer­ica and I plan to start com­pet­ing again in the near fu­ture,” he says.

The ad­van­tages of learn­ing the busi­ness in a small mar­ket is that you have a much wider breath of knowl­edge across all as­pects of the op­er­a­tion

Cian O’Brien: based in Hern­don, Vir­ginia, he looks af­ter Audi of Amer­ica’s four re­gional of­fices

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