The newly launched Phantom Series II has subtle visual refreshments with extensive technology upgrades, says Geoff Briscoe, Regional Director, Middle East, Africa and Latin America at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in a conversation with Akshay Bhatnagar. Excerpts.
In the Middle East region, Rolls-Royce had a good year in 2011 and the upswing has continued in the first half of this year also. How comfortable or challenging it is for you to move in as the Regional Director for Middle East with such a great performance by the company in the recent past?
It’s definitely a great time to join the region for couple of reasons. We are blessed that it is still a growing market. We are up by 22 per cent this year already and the growth is not going to subside as the demand by our customers is continuing to grow in the region. It is a nice time to be here! We are happy that we have a strong stable market here.
Bentley grew by close to 48 per cent during the same period in the region. Does it mean that Rolls-Royce has not been able to optimally utilise the business growth opportunities in the region?
I don’t agree with that. Bentley has grown at a faster rate than us in the region because their base is very low. We are not really competing with Bentley. We sell far higher number of cars compared to total Bentley sales in the region. We are very strong in this market and very happy with that position. In fact, it is the strongest in relation to Bentley in rest of the world.
Do you think higher sales in top end luxury car segment indicate strong signals of global economic recovery?
I wish the rebound is there for the real. In the Middle East, we can definitely see it as reflected in our growth. But it is quite a challenge in Europe and I’m not talking about just the auto sector but other industries as well. When Europe sneezes, other markets catch cold. The US is a different matter as there are definite signs that the economy is emerging again and starting to move. But no economist’s prediction can be trusted with complete confidence. For Rolls-Royce it is very important that these strong economies do well because being a real top end luxury product, we very much needs these economies to do well. If they are going to do well, we are going to enjoy a greater success than we are achieving now. Going back to the Middle East, there is a greater demand as each quarter goes by.
What percentage of your sales in the region is bespoke?
It is almost 100 per cent. It is difficult to find a Rolls-Royce in the region that is not bespoke. In the Middle East, I always use the saying that customers are exporters of Rolls-Royce’s ideas. Their ideas are unique to the cars; they are unique to the area. There is no doubt that our cars in the region looks different due to the design combinations our customers choose. The Middle East is way, way ahead of rest of the world in it.
With such a high degree of bespoke sales, what difference do you find in the customers in the region in terms of taste and lifestyle viz-a-viz rest of the world?
Naturally, we are creatures of our environment. The weather patterns here are very different to rest of the world; everything is bright and colourful here and it is reflected in the cars as well. They are bright, colourful, strong and make a statement. The trim combinations, stitching, various design selections, are all driven by the customers. As I said they are exporters of ideas. Rest of the world takes ideas that come from the minds of the customers and dealers of the Middle East.
With such a high involvement of the customers in designing the car, what is the unique role of the dealers like Al Jenaibi International Automobiles in the whole sales process?
If I put in percentage terms it is half and half. I’m amazed by the creativity of the dealers here. Before we launch a car, we might ask the dealer to come up with a design for a new series. And some of the themed cars they come up with are stories. They are so passionate about developing a theme, developing a story. We do that in any case of course. We have our designers working on all sorts of things for the Middle East. But there is no better invention than the inventions done here. And our dealers definitely play a role here as they develop their own cars, their own stories and when they are with a customer in the showroom, they are so passionate because it is their own story. It is not something that Rolls-Royce has come up with necessarily. It is their special story and they love telling them. That’s how and why they sell Rolls-Royce which makes us what we are today in the region. Our dealer network plays a big, big part in our success story in the Middle East.
What is the essence of the newly launched Phantom series II?
As we are a low volume car company at the top end of the luxury goods, we have the ability to really listen to our customers and hear what they have to say to us. During the launch of Phantom Series II in Oman, I’m going to meet and listen to 20-30 of our customers. Our customers know more about the cars than we know most of the time. They are with it most of the time and so passionate about it. So they told us that they don’t want a radical change in the way the car looks. They said the look is stunning, stay with it; make the necessary evolutionary changes and get the technology right by bringing all the latest technologies in the car. We listened to our customers and made the changes to come up with Phantom Series II.
Can you take us through some of the key visual and mechanical modifications in Series II?
As I said before, sophisticated but subtle visual refreshments have been introduced both on the exterior and interior of the car while extensive, under-the-skin technology upgrades have been introduced. On the exterior front, the thoroughly modern front of Phantom Series II remains striking and artistically elegant. Above the redesigned front bumpers, we have introduced new, cutting-edge rectangular LED headlights with curve light functionality. Phantom Series II is the first car in the world to offer full LED headlights as standard equipment.
In terms of looks, don’t you think the second series of Phantom has gained more resemblance towards Ghost?
I don’t agree with it. Phantom is the king of cars. There is a gap between Phantom II and Ghost and it is intentional. They are very different cars and have very different buyers. They haven’t got closer. They stay exactly where they should be.
Going back to your previous question, on the mechanical side, the ultra silent, 12-cylinder engine remains unchanged and is now married to a new 8-speed automatic gearbox which enhances drive dynamics and maintains the serene, effortless Rolls-Royce ride comfort. We have also redesigned and modernised the Phantom’s driver interface. Every model in the range now benefits from new driver assistance systems, such as; the satellite navigation and information system, now with a larger monitor for enhanced convenience and functionality. Front, rear and top-view camera systems are also new additions.
What are your expectations from it in the region in term of sales?
Phantom has been successful in the region any way. It is definitely one of the strongest markets in the world. For Series II, we already have many preliminary orders at this stage which is a very good sign that we are going to see a good double-digit growth from the car.
You have a new design director in place. What is the brief to him?
I’m not in a position to answer this question. What I can say is that the passion among our design team is staggering. They live and breathe the brand every moment of their life. The design centre is buzzing with lot of action and I’m sure there will be consistency in our design strategy despite the change.
What’s the next plan of Rolls-Royce in terms of the launch of a new model or a further upgrade of say Ghost?
Of course, there are always new models in the future; otherwise we wouldn’t have a future. The customers want to see change as I said before. Our lifecycle is much longer than a normal car lower down the scale. We will launch new models in time. I won’t talk about them now. We are always full of surprises; we want to stay that way. We are done with our planning cycle for the next 5-10 years. We know exactly what we are doing.
Are you working on a sportier and faster car?
I think there is always a danger in trying to go one particular way or the other. We are Rolls-Royce. Ghost is a sportier model and Phantom was always intended to be the way it is. So we’ve already done that in a way and our intention is never to proliferate the brand. If we do that, we have too many cars out there, we cease to be exclusive. That would be a wrong way to go. I think we’ve got the right mix now. What we will do in the future, you will hear about that in the coming years.