W* talk to Rolls-Royce chief executive
The world of Rolls Royce is blissfully removed from the realities of regular life. Over 85 per cent of production is strictly made-to-measure, cars that are painstakingly hand-built by skilled craftsmen and women at the company’s ecologically sensitive Goodwood manufacturing site, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw in 2003 to blend into the idyllic West Sussex countryside (and recently, sensitively, extended).
On the day of our visit a hazy summer light engulfs this picture perfect setting, complete with smart villages and lush rolling green hills, dotted with healthy-looking cattle protecting their young offspring. The urban jungle we left behind couldn’t be further away, and the image of Rolls-Royce as a beacon of traditional British values is helpfully reinforced, not least for the many foreign buyers who make the trip to Goodwood.
We are here for a tour of this modest facility, to meet the crafts people in the wood workshop and the specialist technicians in the leather department. Most customers, or ’clients’, as they are referred to by RR, visit Goodwood personally and following consultation with the bespoke designers on site, follow the journey of their car from concept to production.
We are also here to meet with Rolls-Royce’s chief executive officer, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, who joined the marque from parent company BMW just over a year ago. Müller-Ötvös has worked within BMW AG for almost 20 years and was one of those responsible for re-launching the MINI brand back at the turn of the century
Rolls Royce saw a record year in 2010. Do you see this growth being sustained?
Last year we saw 170 per cent growth compared to 2009 - this is not a number we could duplicate this year. We launched the Ghost last year, expanded our dealer network, and speeded up the organisation. This year I see more of a sustainable growth.
Also, it is very hard to predict this segment as it relies on consumer sentiment. You see Rolls Royce cars are not purchased like other cars, but more like a luxury good -- a precious watch, a yacht or a family home.
Which markets are you eyeing up?
Asia has been one of our biggest growth areas and we have extended our dealer network there. We still see nice growth in the United States and the Middle East is doing fabulously since it came out of its recent crisis. Russia too saw some decline but now it is back on plan.
The Ghost is a smaller, more affordable Rolls Royce and most importantly more of a driver’s car as opposed to the typically chauffer-driven Phantom. Are you attracting new customers to the marque with this car?
The Ghost is 80 per cent new conquests - customers we’ve never seen before. They are coming from the top [specification] Mercedes S-Class or other luxurious cars. These are customers who can afford a Rolls Royce but admit that the Phantom isn’t their cup of coffee because they are mainly self-drivers.
Bentley has had phenomenal success with the Continental GT. Do you have similar model plans for the Ghost?
Be assured that we’re doing a lot of thinking and we would be mad not to do some derivatives out of the Ghost. We recently launched the extended wheelbase and this wasn’t just for the Asian markets, but also for the United States.
How easy is it for you to add another model derivative to the line-up?
Due to the way we build our cars, which is very much hand built, we don’t have to rely so much on making a second [production] line - it is more related to workforce and space. We are quite flexible here and we have more or less tripled our output in one year.
How far are you willing to expand the model range?
To make it very clear, our intention is not to go into Bentley production numbers -- not at all. Rolls Royce needs to remain highly, highly exclusive and we certainly don’t want see a Rolls Royce at every single street corner. These cars are so rare that they are perceived as being very special.
Do you feel there is ever a place for a small Rolls Royce -- a city run-around?
I wouldn’t say a smaller one than the Ghost. With Rolls Royce you’re linked to ample space and a relaxed comfortable environment. If you shrink the car it will immediately impact on how people sit and feel in these cars.
Would you consider a car that sits above the flagship Phantom?
We wouldn’t make a car that is more exclusive or more expensive than the Phantom. You can easily spec up these cars to £1m.
You recently reported your youngest customer, a 24 year old from India. Are you actively trying to attract younger buyers especially with the Ghost?
We are working to speak with younger people through Facebook and iPhone apps such as our Phantom Configurator, not to attract them necessarily to the brand but to keep it relevant and to tell our story.
Your production methods are incredibly labour intensive and rely on very skilled craftsmanship from the wood shop to the leather technicians. Is this something you can ever sacrifice?
Rolls Royce employs close to 1,000 employees worldwide. This gives you an indication of how efficiently we’re building cars when you compare it to say the number of employees at [Bentley HQ] Crewe. I would never sacrifice the workmanship.
How does this feed into the products?
Every car has to be bespoke and unique, and have the fingerprints of the customer. You could never achieve this with a fully automated factory -- no way. We always say there are 60 pairs of hands that work on each car from start to finish to make sure they are immaculate.
You need the passion of the people -- this is what drives the quality in the end. Talk to the guys and you will see how they love the cars and care for the results. Some of them are passing on their unique skills to their children and we’re developing our own apprenticeship programme here.
Is there an experience from your time at MINI and the rebirth of the brand that you can bring to Rolls Royce?
What I have taken from MINI is how important it is to stick to the brand authenticity. When I joined this company for two months I threw myself fully into the cars, the manufacturing, spending time on the factory floor.
Can anyone with money buy a Rolls Royce or will Rolls Royce start selecting its customers?
We sold 2,700 cars last year - that is very little in the real world. I call it a precious drop in the sea of automotive business. We never have to worry about exclusivity.
How would you describe your customers?
They vary. We have a customer in the US who buys a new Rolls Royce every year, very exclusive ones that are always a challenge for us to make. Some of our buyers don’t sell their cars on -- many of them are collectors.
You’ve recently launched the 102EX electric test car that is not only driven by an alternative powertrain, but inside you’ve used old leather for the seats and recycled wood for a new message. Do you feel this is the right environmental answer for Rolls Royce?
We are exploring the customers and the technology with this car and so far, I have to admit, we are getting an ambivalent feedback from our customers who have had a chance to drive this car.
Why do you feel this has been the case?
It is the engineering precision that is symbolised by the 12-cylinder engine itself that for many people symbolises Rolls Royce. They say if you take the engine out something is missing. Others are saying, nice idea but the range at 120km is not satisfying and the 8-hour battery charging time is too long. Some say [with the silent electric engine] there is too much road noise. Anyway it is early days as the car is being tested worldwide.
So how do you see Rolls Royce looking at sustainability?
We have cut emissions on all our cars but our customers love the feel of the drive -- the waftability as we call it. It is a magic carpet ride and for this you need a certain performance. This goes back to the authenticity question -- we don’t know the answer until we find a solution that delivers this waftability.