Maserati CEO Harald J. Wester On The Brand's Future

Maserati’s only debut at the 2014 New York auto show was a pair of special-edition cars, but that doesn’t mean the Italian brand is resting on its laurels. We sat down with Harald J. Wester, CEO of Maserati, as well as Maserati North America president and CEO Peter M. Grady, to learn what’s next for Maserati.

Peter M. Grady: The Ghibli is our first entry into this attainable price range. We’re pretty pleased with where we are so far. We’ve got a fair amount of growth to go in a number of markets. But if you go into New York, south Florida, L.A., our traditional markets, it’s been very well accepted. This is our opportunity to reach in to a number of consumers who would never even think about Maserati before.

Automobile Magazine: How do you reach those people?

PG: A bunch of different ways. We have our traditional ride and drive events, getting people into the car – these cars really do sell themselves. But we’re reaching into the digital side of the business, we’re doing a little bit of TV after the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl ad put us on the charts. The awareness we got off of that Super Bowl ad was spectacular. It spiked awareness. And the beautiful thing is, we’ve maintained that level of awareness. Really a watershed for Maserati here. We’re running now in some of the key luxury markets a cutdown, bookended by fifteen seconds on either side. Where it’s a version of that ad, with the same feel and texture. We’re on news and sports programs with it, that’s really where the demographic is. We’re getting a lot of good traffic in the showrooms. People are loving the car.

Automobile: Who’s looking at your car?

PG: If you’re a [Mercedes-Benz] E-Class driver at $499 a month and you walk into a Maserati showroom, you’re generally blown away by what you see. And you’re probably not as much of an enthusiast or an aficionado as what we would normally get. And those kind of people are discovering the brand and they’re trying to decide if they fit it. Then you’ve got some legitimate [BMW] 6-Series, 5-Series, [Mercedes] AMG types that come in and they’re converted. They’re loving the vehicles.

Automobile: How are you feeling about the volume so far?

PG: It’s good, we’re not satisfied, and we’ve got a lot of ways to go, how’s that? I’m not that interested in talking about volumes; traditionally, we don’t. We’re trying to become a player in this segment, so if we can be legitimate competitor and sell legitimate volume in that sports sedan segment then we’ll be pretty pleased.

Automobile: There was the idea, fomented by Mercedes in the ‘90s in my view, that you need to sell a million cars to have sufficient economies of scale. But then you see a Jaguar Land Rover, who sell a fraction of the volume, but manage to make money and deliver a very credible product. You seem to be following much more in JLR’s footsteps, as far as volume goes, and having driven it there’s no doubt Ghibli is credible, yet it too is a relatively low volume enterprise. Of course, for exclusivity, actually being exclusive has to beat saying you’re exclusive, while selling a million or more examples of similar cars. But as a manufacturing and business proposition, can you speak to making money at these lower volumes? Maserati would be happy to sell 50,000 cars.

Harald J. Wester: Yes. If you look back to 2012, from the old QP [Quattroporte], Gran Turismo, and Gran Cabrio, we sold 6200 cars globally. Now we have a new architecture, new engines, two new cars which we’ve launched. I can’t talk too much about the future – the SUV is on its way and will be ready Oct ’15, early ’16. As with any dogmatic statements, there are a lot of “buts” and “ifs” around it. If you talk about the extremely competitive mass-volume market, I think a million is a good number. We’re in a totally different business. The future of Maserati – and we sold 15,400 cars last year, 50 percent in the last quarter thanks to Quattroporte and Ghibli – we are going to make a significant step towards the 50,000 goal. Without making a precise number, I expect our global sales this year to be beyond 35,000. Obviously, the U.S. is an important portion. For the time being I expect it to remain. China has become a very important market for the Quattroporte. For the time being, it outsells Ghibli there. Totally different demographics than the rest of the world. Forty percent female. Average age: below forty.

PG: This is the demographic that everybody for twenty years has been chasing. In China, they’re buying the cars.

HW: So the answer is yes. We are making and always make money at volumes far lower than a million and the new Maserati, with more products and shared components and drivetrains, makes us well-equipped to compete.

Automobile: A V-6 engine is likely to show up in the forthcoming SUV (called the Maserati Levante). Will it be shared with Alfa Romeo, as well?

HW: No. We believe that you need to have – in this range of iconic brands and products – there are ingredients (like a well-functioning multi-media system) which just need to be properly adapted and work well, not creating problems, perfect function. And there are distinctive elements – for us it’s engines, transmissions, how the car drives, how it looks, the materials (there is no Maserati with fabric seats) and so on. So there is no intention to share this engine [with Alfa.]

PG: You don’t mess with the soul of the brand.

Automobile: Describe the interplay between Alfa Romeo and Maserati. There was much grumbling among Fiat dealers when it was revealed Maserati dealers would be selling the Alfa 4C sports car, which they said they’d been promised, along with the rest of the coming U.S. Alfa line-up.

HW: We will reveal this May 6.

Automobile: I’d keep Ferrari and Maserati together and let the Fiat dealers have Alfa. That makes sense to me.

HW: There are some critical issues within a combination of Ferrari and Maserati –particularly with the Ghibli and maybe the entry-level QP – you are entering a new business. You have a lot of customers trading in cars.

PG: It’s not an order-taking business, any longer. You have to have a legitimate used car business, you have to understand the customer needs that are different than what they are for the Ferrari owner.

The Ghibli opens up quite a bit of the U.S market for us. It’s a huge segment. Where maybe we didn’t have a lot of demand opportunity, now we do. So we’re expanding, we’ll be somewhere around 120 dealers in the U.S. at the end of this calendar year, up from 74 at the start of the year. And it’s not just a simple densification in some of these markets, it’s places that really have a large segment that we can hit. Some places you may not think of, but we’re underserved in the energy sector – Oklahoma City, Dallas, Houston we need expansion. There’s places like that we’re going into right now, where we’ve got some really solid dealers that have come to us and said ‘I like where this brand is going, can I be a part of it?’

We’re primarily going for standalone [dealers]. We’re not going into small markets where the business can’t stand on its own two feet. Separating from all the other brands because we really think we’ve got the product line. We’re requiring building a new showroom and we’re assuming that for the time being they’ll do some dedicated service at an existing location, we’ll dedicate technicians and stalls, then as the business grows…

Cross-shopping has been very positive for us. There are some fantastic dealers out there that really understand the space and Maserati is on their radar.

Automobile: Psychographics of the new Maserati customer?

PG: It’s real enthusiasts. The people who really love driving the car. There is a simplicity in driving the car where it’s more visceral than it is just transportation. If you go on the blogs, our target is exactly who seems to be buying the cars.

HW: From 1998-2002, I was the head of product development for the road cars at Ferrari. And that was the time that we were working on the fifth generation Quattroporte of 2003. I left Ferrari in early 2002, then went to Magna – the first time I worked for a supplier after 15 years with VW/Audi and then Ferrari – and then I came back in early 2004 and took charge of the QP. The first thing we did after some reorganization and Fiat product development was to fix the product issues with Maserati and then I took over the helm for [Maserati] in 2007. It took us seven or eight years to earn the right to go to the next level.

Automobile: We have heard the upcoming Maserati SUV is no longer on the Grand Cherokee platform and instead will rely on the pieces developed for Ghibli and Quattroporte.

HW: It’s a good thing for the brand. Technically it’s a little bit more tricky but we have fixed it. We won’t go to a million cars, but obviously sharing engines, transmissions, within the family is helpful from a cost perspective. It’s more an issue of the purity of the brand. It was both. It was component related. But it was also, we didn’t have a place to produce the car in Italy when the car was first discussed – it’s a big car, the dimensions of the body shop [were insufficient. But] we sorted it out. And for the purity of the brand, the credibility of the product, being 100% Maserati, it was always clear that it would be much better on something that is 100% Maserati.

Automobile: Which competitor is in your rearview mirror?

HW: We are competing with the real big guys. Sometimes it seems to me they have infinite resources, each and every piece of technology. Nevertheless, there are significant points where we distinguish ourselves. We have a clear strategy, a good understanding of what Maserati stands for and it is pretty much in line to our story the absolute opposite of volume. Offering a real alternative, how you say, in this sea of sameness…It seems to me, you work in New York City, you leave your workplace, you take the metro train home, I think if you would reprogram their remote controls, the people squeezing the buttons, they would open just another, black, whatsoever car and drive home without even recognizing that they are sitting in the wrong seat.

Automobile: Volkswagen’s about to unleash new high end SUVs from Porsche, Audi, Lamborghini, and Bentley. Does that mean that we can expect a Ferrari SUV one day soon?

HW: I don’t want to talk for Ferrari. But the answer is “no.”

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