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Q&A: Lamborghini CEO Stefan Winkelmann

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Q&A: Lamborghini CEO Stefan Winkelmann
Keeping fast company.
by Paul A. Eisenstein      (2005-08-29) 

His clothes are elegantly tailored, the jacket draped across his shoulders, Roman style. A pair of dark, wraparound sunglasses shelter hazel eyes from the California sun. The accent is Italian, but when approached by a colleague, he switches from English to flawless German. A youthful and trim 40, Stephan Winkelmann was raised in Rome by German parents. And, he contends, it makes him the perfect man to bridge the two sides of Lamborghini.

Based in the Modenese suburb of Sant'Agata Bolognese, the 43-year-old supercar maker has long lived in the shadow of its nearby rival, Ferrari. Since signing on as CEO last January, Winkelmann has been searching for ways to shift the spotlight to Lamborghini. Whether he succeeds will depend, in large part, on how much support the Italian automaker gets from its German parent, Audi. The Volkswagen AG subsidiary acquired Lamborghini in 1998.

Winkelmann was in Pebble Beach, California, this month, for the annual Concours d'Elegance, an event Lamborghini used as backdrop for the debut of the automaker's radical new show car. In a wide-ranging conversation with Publisher Paul A. Eisenstein, Winkelmann spoke about what's in store for Lamborghini, including possible production plans for the Concept S.

TCC: You were comfortably ensconced in Germany , running the home-market operations for Audi. So why leave for Lamborghini, a company that makes fewer cars in a year than Audi sells on a bad day?

Winkelmann: Audi called and asked me if I'd like to do it. They needed a marketing expert and wanted someone who understood both the German and Italian mentality. Frankly, for me, it was a dream come true. This lets me run a company, 360 degrees, everything from marketing to manufacturing.

TCC: How important is Audi's support?

Winkelmann: "Without Audi, Lamborghini couldn't exist. They bring money and technology. Audi is becoming a more sporty brand because they are investing more in technology - technology that Lamborghini (otherwise) couldn't afford. We can benefit from these huge investments, but we must maintain the huge discipline that is the pillar of what Lamborghini stands for. Lamborghini is uncompromising, extraordinary - and Italian.

TCC: How is Audi's investment paying off?

Winkelmann: Lamborghini is 42 years old. For the first 40 years, we never sold more than 250 cars. In 2003, it rose to 1300 and last year 1600. We have decided to stay at the same volume this year.

TCC: Why?

Winkelmann: For one thing, we've had to deal with the image and awareness of the brand. But we also have to deal with (building) a support network. Back in the 1960s and '70s, dealers would come to the factory to pick up cars. Now we need a modern network. We grew our dealers from 65 to 80 last year, but Ferrari has over 200 worldwide.

TCC: But eventually, don't you need to grow more? Wouldn't you like to be as big as Ferrari?

Winkelmann: We don't need to grow to Ferrari's numbers, but we do have to grow. The balance between low volume, high image, and (strong) economic results is a triangle that is tough to maintain. With the launch of the Spider next year, we will reach about 2000 units in 2006. Not only in existing markets, but new markets like Russia, Malaysia and China.

TCC: There've been a lot of new players entering the ultra-luxury segment in recent years, like Maybach, or expanding their presence, such as Aston Martin. What does that mean for a company like Lamborghini?

Winkelmann: The market for high-lux is definitely growing because there are more manufacturers - and collectors. Our cars are often the fifth or the tenth or even the twentieth in a garage. But people are not just buying something good looking and fast. They now want quality, for sure. The average mileage for a Gallardo is a lot more than for the Murcielago, sometimes 20,000 miles a year, because owners are driving it every day. That's a big change for Lamborghini.

TCC: Ironically, hasn't that required you to give more content in a lower-priced car - the Gallardo - than one would normally expect in the top-line Murcielago?

Winkelmann: We're offering luxury and comfort packages, navigation, rearview camera. But we have also had to stick to our roots.

TCC: I've heard it said that Lamborghini really isn't in the automobile business.

Winkelmann: We are selling luxury. If you look at our cars, they are not something you need. It is irrational. We have to market to people in the luxury world. That is one reason we are here (in Pebble Beach ). They don't want us to be anonymous. They want to be able to meet us.

TCC: You're also using the Concours to show off the Concept S prototype. Any plans for production?

Winkelmann: We want to see what the reaction is and then we will decide by the end of September whether to build a limited series of this car. The initial reaction, by the way, has been strong.

TCC: People are using the word, "radical," to describe the Concept S, but to us, something like Porsche's Cayenne SUV would be truly radical.

Winkelmann: Actually, we like to say the Lamborghini LM2 was the first super SUV. And then there was the Espada 2+2. So if we decided to do these body styles again, we would hope people would accept them as true Lamborghinis. But at the moment, we are not planning other models.

TCC: Soaring fuel prices are finally beginning to impact car sales, according to analysts. Your cars may not be big, but they aren't exactly fuel-efficient, either. Any concerns?

Winkelmann: So far, fuel prices are not affecting us. But it's not the money that's the issue, but social stigma. If super sports cars are not seen as coherent with (society), that could be a problem.

TCC: Finally, let's turn to racing. Unlike Ferrari, Lamborghini has never been big on motor sports, but we hear that might change soon.

Winkelmann: If you look back in our history, (founder) Ferruccio Lamborghini said we didn't need to go racing because our cars speak for themselves. For the time being, we're not planning to enter racing, but we are looking carefully at what kind of championships we would join if we did enter. We will see next year.


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