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The Luxury Car's New Customers Are Not Crusty Old Men

A few years ago, following a spot of financial bother, Rolls-Royce was taken over by BMW. Infused with German fortitude, the spirit of this British icon has risen again. CEO Torsten Muller-Otvos tells how the brand has evolved

Published: Apr 21, 2011 06:57:31 AM IST
Updated: Apr 29, 2011 04:13:11 PM IST
The Luxury Car's New Customers Are Not Crusty Old Men
Image: Vikas Khot
Torsten Muller-Otvos, Chief executive officer, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Name: Torsten Muller-Otvos
Designation: Chief executive officer, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars
His Challenge: Regaining quality standards that had slipped in the 1980s; restoring customer
confidence in the brand
The Way Ahead: Considering alternatives like hybrid or electric cars while maintaining brand image

Rolls-Royce has been a symbol of luxury that goes back generations. How has that evolved?

The people who drive Rolls-Royce are stars, celebrities, royalty and self-made entrepreneurs so that [the fact that it is a symbol of luxury] still holds true. That is combined with this unbelievable detailing in terms of craftsmanship, which a Rolls-Royce is. We have gathered together in Goodwood — our plant — the best experts you would imagine in wood, leather, embroidery technologies, inlays in wood for the magic carpet ride. It takes over 400 hours to build each car and all those stories are still true, otherwise it wouldn’t be a Rolls-Royce; all that myth is very much still alive.

In the modern age, is the challenge of sustaining that myth more difficult?

I would say it is not more difficult, but you need to be 100 percent authentic. We can’t talk craftsmanship and then not prove it. You need to show substance — what is in your car, what is the customer service you are doing? For instance, here in India, all our dealerships have set up flying doctors to help customers even when they are far away from Delhi or Mumbai. Our dealers in these cities also give the utmost customer service. The big risk with the new media is that when something isn’t working you will be faced with some critical reaction. So, if you ask me what’s the challenge given new media, it is that you need to be authentic, you need to be spot on and you need to be honest and you need to prove every day what the substance of your brand is and what your brand stands for.

In the last 10 years, what are the new things that have gone into the vehicle?
What has been completely [re]engineered is the whole noise insulation system that goes into a Rolls-Royce. The whole body, the way we paint and polish the car three or four times — this is unique. And what we call the mirror effect, when you look at the paint, you see yourself. It means that we polish the car four times. This is a technology which was developed by Rolls-Royce and refined over the years.

What was the challenge when BMW took over Rolls-Royce?
The first clear task was to bring back authenticity to the brand, bring back what the brand stood for over the decades. And that is utmost quality. The Silver Ghost, which is the most famous car of Rolls-Royce, has proven what the Rolls-Royce is — sustainability, quality and excellent engineering. This was brought back. The Phantom was always the pinnacle of the Rolls-Royce brand. We started with the Phantom and this was exactly the right strategy to bring back the conviction among people that Rolls-Royce is back in terms of quality craftsmanship. 

This is now the second stage where we have brought in an additional model [Ghost] into the range which has always proved successful for the brand. Last year, we have sold 2,700 cars in the world, which proves that the brand is really strong.   

Who would you consider as competition for Rolls-Royce?
It might be some other car manufacturer but quite often it is business jets, it is helicopters, it is jewelry, it is a new home in South France or whatever. In a real sense, these are our competitors. Because it is very much about spending your money to reward yourself for what you have achieved in life. It is a symbol of success.  

The Luxury Car's New Customers Are Not Crusty Old Men

When one thinks of Rolls-Royce, for some reason one always thinks of crusty old men. How do you make sure that the Rolls-Royce sinks into the soul of young, self-made guys as well?
Hopefully, I am not looking like a crusty old man! When we launched the [Phantom] Drophead Coupé, we brought an even younger breed of customers into the brand. And now with the Ghost, once again, there is a shift in generations. The Indian market is a perfect example of that. Our youngest customer of Rolls-Royce Motor cars in the world comes from India and he is 24 years old and he has earned his money from his own business. We see a lot of entrepreneurs here in India, very successful business people, fluent in different languages. It is amazing to see what kind of people today are sitting in a Rolls-Royce. And it is definitely not the crusty old men.

What are flying doctors?

Flying doctors are technicians coming from the dealers who arrive in a plane. For instance, if a car has been sold in Chennai and if the customer should face some technical issues, then one of those technicians jumps into a plane, goes down with all the equipment and then repairs the car right where it is and then flies back to the dealership. These local technicians get trained in Goodwood, in our plant, in the so-called Sir Henry Royce Institute, which is our technical institute where every single technician in Rolls-Royce is trained over a long, long period.  

Does a Rolls-Royce sell itself rather than you having to market it?
No, I think you always need to sell even precious high-end goods. Because selling is not pushing cars; rather, you invite customers, you give them guidance how to “spec” a car and that is the sales business in its true sense. And of course this is needed.

In a Rolls-Royce, you can select out of 40,000 different colours, there is a huge array of trims in the interior, whatever leather you would like to have, drink cabinets, refrigerators. For that reason you need an excellent sales person who can advise you [so that] in the end the car you specify is your personal car and you are absolutely happy with that.

What is the most outrageous demand you have received from your customers?
We never rate the taste of our customers. Every car is special and we accept every wish of the customer if it is technically feasible and if it does not contradict safety regulations. As long as it is possible for our engineers to do it, it is up to the limits of your imagination. So everything is possible and if somebody would like to pray in a Rolls-Royce, why not? It is his personal choice; I would never rate that. I am happy to do that. If this satisfies your soul, if this is what you are looking for, let’s find a solution for that. 

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(This story appears in the 22 April, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sid

    Expected a deeper article -- there would be so much to write when its Rolls Royce. This doesn't even scratch the (mirrored) surface.

    on Nov 12, 2011