Thursday 21 November 2019

From apprentice to Mercedes chief in 44 years of business

In Profile Stephen Byrne

Moving on: Stephen Byrne is retiring after 44 years in the motoring industry, as new Mercedes models arrive
Moving on: Stephen Byrne is retiring after 44 years in the motoring industry, as new Mercedes models arrive
Arriving: Mercedes GLB
On the way: Meredes GLS

FROM apprentice mechanic at Grange Motors to the chief executive's chair at Mercedes-Benz Ireland is a massive step.

Yet that is what Stephen Byrne achieved, and can now reflect on, after 44 years in the motoring business.

Effectively all his working life - he retires shortly - was spent in the employ, at myriad levels, of the O'Flaherty motoring organisation.

Byrne leaves at a time of unprecedented change but, as he knows, the industry is always changing. Never more so than now though - and he admits he is going to miss it.

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Arriving: Mercedes GLB
Arriving: Mercedes GLB

Best known to many as Motor Distributors Limited, the organisation now exclusively handles Mercedes but used to embrace Volkswagen, Audi and Skoda and Mazda brands.

It was in one of these that Byrne was first introduced to the motor trade. He enrolled as an apprentice motor mechanic with Grange Motors, then located in the south city suburb of Deansgrange, Dublin.

"It was at the beginning of the 1970s and little did I know that, when I walked through the door into the Grange Motors workshop, I had stepped into what was to be a life-long association with the same organisation," he says.

Born in Blackrock, with a keen interest in cars and anything mechanical, his apprenticeship with a local garage must have seemed like a dream come true for a local lad with a curiosity and urge to discover what it was that made them work.

Five years later, his apprenticeship completed, his next appointment was in the company's technical service office on Longmile Road, where he worked under the direction of the legendary Frank Dalton.

This was followed by promotion to area service manager for Volkswagen and Mazda to oversee the technical requirements of dealers countrywide.

On the way: Meredes GLS
On the way: Meredes GLS

His expertise as a technical person with a keen sense of the practical service that dealers provide was recognised two years later when he was assigned the role of technical instructor with exclusive responsibility for Mazda cars.

Another two years - in 1988 - and he was promoted to outright service manager for Mazda cars and light commercials.

After eight years as Mazda service boss, a vacancy arose in Mercedes-Benz with the retirement of its then service manager, Denis Dowdall.

And that's where he began his long association with Mercedes.

For the first time in his career, it was an appointment that bestowed responsibilities that included not just passenger cars, but light and heavy commercial vehicles too.

His CEO during that time was the late, great Matt Fagan, whom Byrne remembers as an 'inspirational' figure.

In 2005, when Fagan retired, the mantle of responsibility for all aspects of Mercedes' activity passed to Byrne: He was CEO of the top peoples' car brand.

He is self-deprecating to a fault and attributes his progress to "hard work and good fortune".

"In most cases, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time," says Byrne.

There is no doubt he leaves behind a brand that has gone through massive transition under his management.

The Mercedes range has expanded way beyond the models for which it was historically renowned as the marque moved inexorably into the volume-car production. There has been a flood of new models all filling new sectors and niches.

And they have wrought a realignment of the dealer network in preparation for as well as accommodating "a transformation in car financing and buying patterns; while overseeing a shift towards battery-powered vehicles with many more changes yet to come".

His even disposition - no doubt often required in the heat of battle - and his consultative management style have earned him respect among not just Mercedes' staff, but across the industry.

Byrne is married to Nuala, with a son Robert and daughter Fiona and three grandchildren, including twins.

He leaves with "some slight" regrets. "As a technical person, I will especially regret not being around to oversee the move towards alternative energy development with exciting new technology expected down the line," he admits.

That is understandable when you consider it is bringing in 22 new models next year alone.

Conventionally powered cars include the new GLS, mid-size GLB (including a seven-seater), GLE Coupé, GLA compact SUV and the new S-Class. A full electric EQA is due too.

But the big emphasis will be on hybrids such as the A250e and CLA 250e.

No doubt Byrne will be keeping a close eye on developments anyway. Motoring is in his blood.

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