Former Kia UK boss Paul Williams has traded a plan to launch the Chinese Landwind brand in Europe in favour of running the Korean SsangYong brand in the UK - and he's got big plans. Mark Bursa reports

Paul Williams is working late. He's got a dealer conference the next day to prepare for, where he'll tell the 60-odd SsangYong UK dealers what he expects from them, in typically gung-ho style.

Over dinner - after which he'll return to his powerpoint presentation - conversation is typically robust and wide-ranging, taking in punk rock (no easy listening on the Williams iPod), the defensive frailties of his beloved Middlesbrough Football Club, and Williams' own ongoing football career in the pub leagues - he proudly announces picking up another yellow card at the weekend. Those dealers had better watch out.

But most of all, he's enthusiastic about the thing he does best - building up car franchises. He's glad to be back in the driving seat of a car brand again, having assumed the managing director's role at SsangYong UK just before Christmas, after a somewhat frustrating 12 months trying to get the Chinese Landwind franchise off the ground in Europe.

"Landwind is disappointed that I left, but this opportunity was too good to refuse," he said. The attraction is a role with Grupo Koelliker, a long-established Italian-based distributor, which already handles the Korean SsangYong brand in Italy, Austria and Hungary. The UK deal marks Koelliker's entry to the UK, and Williams is keen to add other franchises.

Williams describes Koelliker as "like an Italian Inchcape". As well as its SsangYong business, Koelliker imports and distributes Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Kia cars in Italy. And the timing could be good, with Korean and Indian brands increasingly looking toward export markets. "I made a lot of contacts in the past year," said Williams.

Indeed, even Landwind could come into play - Williams left on good terms, though he admitted that progress had been "slower than expected" at the Chinese franchise, with new models, such as the Fashion small MPV, still not ready for export.

Meanwhile a heavily revised version of the Landwind SUV - the car that disastrously failed an independent German crash test in 2005 - is being readied for sale. Whether this will improve Landwind's tarnished reputation or simply draw attention to the past problems remains to be seen - in any case, the Landwind is based on a 25-year-old Isuzu design, so a 5-star EuroNCAP rating looks unlikely.

In any case, there's a bigger and more exciting Chinese connection for Williams. SsangYong has since 2004 been 51% owned by China's largest automaker, Shanghai Automotive Industries Corporation (SAIC), and this opens up intriguing possibilities for Koelliker in the light of the takeover of Nanjing Automobile by SAIC and the transfer of the MG brand, and all the former Rover assets, to SAIC.

While it's too early to define a relaunch strategy in Europe for MG, SAIC has taken over parts of the former Rover plant in Longbridge, central England, and has stated it will restart UK manufacture. Williams believes that Koelliker could play a role in relaunching MG as a niche brand. "If we're doing a good job with SsangYong, it will put us in a good position when SAIC decides what it wants to do with MG," he said.

Within SAIC, there is already management movement between SsangYong and the 'Roewe' operation - SAIC's versions of the former Rover models, and it's likely that SsangYong, with its established, if low-key, international distribution operations and ability to build cars that comply with Western safety and environmental standards, will become involved in any MG relaunch into Europe.

Even without any MG tie-up, SAIC has ambitious plans for SsangYong. Plans were announced last year to increase production at its Pyungtaek plant near Seoul from 210,000 units a year to 350,000 - with the bulk of the growth earmarked for export.

Williams' immediate priority is to rebuild SsangYong's battered position in the UK. Since first starting under IM Group in the 1990s, SsangYong has had a patchy history in Britain, with the distribution rights changing hands several times. The most recent attempt ended late last year, when the previous Irish-based distributor went into administration. Not that anybody noticed - SsangYong's profile was so low that the launch of a third model - the Kyron compact SUV - had gone largely unnoticed, even though dealers managed to sell 1,000 of the cars last year.

Williams believes most of the 60 UK dealers are up to the task - and at least he's prepared to give them all a chance. So far, 54 have signed up with Koelliker, and he hopes the remaining half-dozen will follow suit once they've heard his presentation.

His ambitions for the brand are relatively modest, but achievable. "In the mid-term, I'd like to have 100 dealers, each selling 100 cars a year. But in the short-term, I'd be happy with 70 dealers each selling 50 cars."

Realistically, a car a week shouldn't be too difficult for each dealer given SsangYong's three-car range, though this would be a major improvement on SsangYong's best-ever performance, recorded in 2006, when 2,017 SsangYongs were registered, representing 0.09% of the passenger car market. But sales fell away last year despite new models - to the end of November 2007, only 1,299 SsangYongs have been registered, a fall of 31.74% on the same period in 2006.

Williams highlights Koelliker's success in Italy with the SsangYong brand as an indication of what can be achieved. Koelliker started SsangYong Motor Italia (SYMI) at the end of 2003 and had sold 25,000 SsangYongs in Italy to the end of 2006. The company's turnover last year was EUR229m on sales of 8,672 vehicles.

In the UK, the Rexton 2 large SUV is the mainstay of the range, priced from GBP22,595; the smaller Kyron starts at GBP17,995; and the ugly-but-practical Rodius large MPV starts at GBP14,995.

Rexton plugs the old Mitsubishi Shogun/Isuzu Trooper gap in the market, offering a cheaper alternative to up-market SUVs from the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. And Williams believes the Rodius, which will be facelifted this year, fills a gap in the market vacated by his former employer, Kia, when it replaced the old Sedona MPV with a newer, more up-market model. Under Williams, Kia became the UK's fastest-growing franchise.

The trick will be to target likely buyers with below-the-line marketing, and to leverage the existing parc of SsangYong owners - estimated at up to 10,000 units. The approach will be rough and ready - involving direct contact with customers. It's a formula that's worked for Williams before with a Korean brand, and one that will be pursued with typical tenacity.

Mark Bursa

See also: UK: Ssangyong changes hands

UK: New Ssangyong importer names finance director