For Mahmoud Samara, managing director for Cadillac Canada, the company motto “Dare Greatly” is more than just some catchy tagline. It’s his MO in both his personal and professional life.
After first joining General Motors in 2004, Samara quickly rose up the ranks, becoming one of Cadillac’s youngest ever executives. Now, he’s helping lead the 114-year-old luxury brand into a bright new future, as the company reinvents itself in everything from design to how they engage with customers – like the recently opened Cadillac House in New York that’s more Soho art gallery/café than your traditional automotive showroom, a concept that he says may be coming to Toronto in the near future. We recently spoke to Samara about what daring greatly means to him, Cadillac’s new direction, and what excites him most about the company’s future.
How’d you get started in this business?
I’ve been with GM since 2004, and I quite honestly have always loved cars from a young age. I grew up in Dubai, and I can tell you, when you talk about innovation and dreaming big and daring greatly, there’s not a better story than to witness what that has city has went through. From being a city that is very undeveloped early on to almost the world headquarters of luxury. With seven-star hotels and man-made islands and the tallest towers in the world and underwater hotels. I mean, the list goes on.
So I grew up in that city and I’ve always had that mindset. I did my undergrad in the University of Toledo in Ohio in marketing, I also did my masters in international business. I always wanted to do business globally, I loved travelling. I had a passion to connect with different people and different cultures. So I joined General Motors, I started in marketing, and then I quickly moved into customer care and after-sales. From there I moved into new car sales. And as part of my journey, I’ve had a chance to work in over 19 countries in three continents.
I know “Dare Greatly” is Cadillac’s new motto. What risks have you taken in your life or career that’s helped you get to where you are today?
I was based in Dubai, as a regional manager looking after three countries. Then I had a huge opportunity to take a leap of faith and take a big risk and widen my horizon. Which was to move from the world of sales and marketing to the world of manufacturing. As you can imagine, they’re completely different environments. It was one of those high-risk, high-reward movements. Because I am not an engineer. I’d never been in a manufacturing facility in my life.
But in three years, I’m proud to share that I worked in different areas in one of the largest manufacturing plants in North America: the Oshawa assembly plant for General Motors in Canada. It’s the most JD Power-decorated assembly plant in the world. So I was learning from the best. I’ve worked in the chassis department, I worked in the paint shop, I’ve worked in the trim department, putting together the interiors of the vehicles. And in a short period of time, I ran the entire assembly plant on third shift which, to me, was the ultimate test.
Then, in April 2014, the global leadership team made a very daring decision to position Cadillac as a global, progressive luxury brand. Cadillac has always been an iconic luxury brand, but we wanted to do two things: we wanted to make sure that we position Cadillac as a contemporary brand that appeals to millennials and Gen Xs and Gen Ys, and position it as a true lifestyle luxury brand. Where what we call the “next-generation luxury buyers” associate with the brand and what it means and what it stands for first, and then fulfill that promise through delivering the best-designed and engineered vehicles in the world.
Why is that an important direction for Cadillac to head in? I know the company’s made a concerted effort to engage consumers in different ways in recent years, beyond just your typical car shows and TV ads.
If we look at the Gen Xs, the Gen Ys, the millennials, the mindset that they have is completely different from the baby boomer luxury buyers. If you look back 10, 15 years ago, one of the highest-searched Google terms was “executive MBAs” because back then, the theme for the previous generation was “How do I become a successful executive at a large corporation?” If you look today, what is one of the most-searched terms on Google? It’s “how to build an app.” And if that tells us anything, it’s that the new generation’s mindset is really one of an entrepreneur. They have a certain point of view about life, they have an independent spirit; they have a passion towards driving the world forward. Redefining the word “can’t” and demolishing any boundaries to get them to their aspirations.
It’s no longer just about the product of the car – it’s important – but it’s more what does that brand stand for, and what it means to my lifestyle and my principles. So, with that in mind, we made a very conscious, strategic decision to shift our direction into a lifestyle brand, and figuring out what Cadillac as a brand stands for. Creating this world of Cadillac, what we call our world of “Dare Greatly.”
That strikes me as a pretty good mantra for anyone, not just a car company. Do you try to reflect that motto in your everyday life?
I want to that emphasize that it’s not a tagline, it is a mindset. It’s a culture, and I think it has to start in your personal life before you bring it to your professional life. There’s no such thing as impossible. And I think that needs to first be reflected in our daily life. The way we live our life, the way we interact with our friends and family, the way we think and the way we walk and talk at home.
And it has to be genuine and authentic. We can’t say we’re going to dare greatly. You just have to dare and show the world that you’re daring. I can give you a quick example: over the last couple years, we’ve said we don’t want to just dare by how we market [cars], we need to dare in our personal lives. So, we’ve created some real-life challenges – we call them “Cadillac Dare Greatly Challenges” – and we’ve chosen some really out-of-your-comfort-zone challenges. It started by preparing the team physically and mentally to conquer Mount Washington in March of this year. It was almost eight months of preparation – none of us are mountaineers or have any technical skills – and it was -40 degrees celsius, it was +50 MPH winds, and we said we’re going to go on an 18-hour, non-stop hiking and mountain-climbing challenge as a team. And we’re going to conquer our fears, we’re going to conquer ourselves, before we conquer Mount Washington. And it was a transformation. It was a personal transformation that led to a professional transformation.
What were the biggest takeaways from that?
It really helped all of us to push our personal limits. What we learned out of it was when you’re physically and mentally telling yourself, “That is it, I have nothing left, I’m all done,” you still have at least 25 per cent in the tank. Before we got to the peak, we had some team members truly almost physically shutting down, and we still did it. But we did it as a team. So when you push the boundaries mentally and physically in your daily life, those business challenges? You approach them with arms wide open. You actually wait for those moments, to prove to yourself and the world that daring does move the world forward.
Earlier in the year, we partnered up with [Apple’s Steve] Wozniak, with [fashion designer] Jason Wu, leaders who dared greatly and moved the world forward at times when many people thought it was impossible. And when you teach yourself the impossible is nothing, then great things happen. Not just to you, but to humanity.
Why do you think it’s important for the company to look outside the automotive bubble for inspiration like that?
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when you get handed an 114-year-old iconic luxury brand and you get asked to reinvent it. It’s a big responsibility. But the good news is, the sky’s the limit. We’re looking to disrupt the business, we’re looking to innovate. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. So I am open to any creative, innovative ideas. It doesn’t matter if it’s influenced by the automotive or non-automotive industry.
Obviously, Cadillac’s been around for a long time, since 1902. How important is it to make sure that the company keeps moving forward and taking risks, instead of just resting on its laurels?
It’s always been critical. But it’s more critical than ever because our automotive industry itself is in an evolution stage. If you look at what’s happening in the industry in the last few years, with how vehicles are more connected to customers, the autonomous vehicle innovation, reimagining the customer shopping experience, and the influence of virtual marketplaces. So, for Cadillac and any automotive brand, innovation absolutely needs to be in the heart of everything we do. And that’s where the mindset and the culture comes in, because for you to truly innovate and differentiate yourself, you have to take big risks. And you cannot just fall back on your previous success. So, our evolution strategy is not a one-year or two-year strategy – we’re working on a 15 to 20 year journey where we have said we are going to dare and take risks in every key success pillar of our business. We made a major commitment to the world two years ago; it’s one thing to say that you’re going to dare and you’re going to take risks, it’s something else to do it. So we announced a 12 billion dollar investment that’s going to allow us to take Cadillac almost into every segment in the luxury market. So that’s one, in terms of investment.
In terms of product development, just in August, we’ve revealed our new design language to the world. Cadillac has always been known for its bold and sophisticated design elements. But it needs to evolve. Just sitting around counting your big wins from the past is not the mindset or the culture of Cadillac. So the launch of our concept vehicle the Escala in August – which is the third in the trilogy of the Ciel and the Elmiraj – is a glimpse to the world of how daring and how bold the evolution of the design language of Cadillac is going to be.
The third element is the customer experience. We have reimagined that experience, and we have added a virtual element to that. And I would say, we have innovated and showed the world that the customer experience doesn’t have to start and end in retail. It can be a brand-immersive luxury experience. The biggest step that we’ve started with is in the Cadillac House in Soho in New York, which is not a retail space, it is a purely brand-immersive space that actually allows us to express what Cadillac is all about in a non-traditional way. Not only built around cars, but built around brand values. We are partnering up with local talents and Cadillac is acting as an incubator for those young talents to be able to share their ideas and their creativity with the world. But that concept of Cadillac House that started in Soho in New York, I can tell you will not stop there. It will be a global approach to the way we want to provide those innovative customer experiences, and that’s definitely something that we as Canadians are looking at in areas of Toronto and other key cities as well.
Looking ahead, what excites you most about the future, of Cadillac and the automotive industry in general?
Canada is the third-largest market for Cadillac around the globe; it is a strategic market. We’ve doubled our business since 2013, we’ve had three all-time record years, including last year, 2015, and we are on track to deliver a fourth all-time record this year. And the reason that makes me excited is it’s actually fun. It’s fun to take risks and push limits. To be given the responsibility and opportunity to go and dare greatly, both personally and professionally. And what really brings it home to me is the fact that is really drives results. Daring behavior drives daring results. Now, I’m not saying in every case it’s going to happen right off the bat, but it’s a matter of taking the risks and then almost being proud of the times that you’ve failed. And this is very much of a Canadian truth, it’s not about how many times you fell down, it’s about the times you found the strength within to get up and do it again. It is about the journey as much as it is about the destination. So that’s what really excites me. There’s a lot of passion around what we do, and what I always say is, the best is yet to come. We’ve just started.