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Mon 15 Jul 2013 01:17 PM

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Making sense of Maserati

Maserati’s overseas managing director Umberto Cini explains how the luxury Italian marque can hit its 50,000 vehicle production target by 2015.

Making sense of Maserati

Maserati has had little to rev about in recent years, with its last all-new model launch a decade ago. But now the famous trident symbol is back on the circuit and the Italian luxury car manufacturer is certainly in top form, with three new models to help it race from 6,200 sales in 2012 to 50,000 per year by 2015.

The first of the new cars, the Quattroporte, a family-sized sports car, was released in January, boasting the only Ferrari engine outside of a Ferrari. It will be followed by the all-new Ghibli — the brand’s first mid-size, four-door sports saloon and designed with the Chinese market in mind – this summer, and an SUV still to come in 2015.

The growth will also see the Modena-based company expand its international operations, with new sales points, including in the Middle East, and larger manufacturing facilities.

It marks a significant return for the century-old company, which until 2007 had failed to record a profit since it was bought by Fiat Group in 1993, and had come close to bankruptcy. It requires a big commitment and a truck load of new customers.

It’s hoped that many of those new Maserati fans will come from countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and their neighbours, and there is reason to have faith. Even before the new Quattroporte hit the road in January, Maserati had remained strong in the Middle East, where sales increased 37 percent in 2012 to 417 vehicles. The raw figure may be minuscule for an expansive region, but bear in mind only 6,200 Maserati-branded cars sold globally last year. This is truly a prestige brand.

Global overseas markets managing director Umberto Cini says the company hopes to leverage its increasing success in the region to help drive it towards the 50,000-car finish line.

Speaking to CEO Middle East from the driver’s seat of his beloved Gran Turismo convertible, the brand’s most recent model before the Quattroporte, Cini says new sales offices and showrooms will open in countries where Maserati already exists, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while it intends to open offices in new locations such as Jordan. 

“We are looking into Iraq at the moment [to see] if there are any business opportunities and wherever else there are opportunities in terms of volume,” he says.

“The Middle East, which is going through a growth phase, will have an important role. The Middle East countries will be moving from a weight inside the company of approximately six-seven percent to around twelve percent; so it’s going to be a two-dimensional expansion for the Middle East: growing the number [of stores] and growing the percentage share of the [company sales].”

The Maserati has a long history in the Middle East. The former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, is said to have been so in love with the car that he bought every one of the eleven units produced in 1974. No other model was released for about a decade either side of that year, making him one of the most exclusive car owners.

The firm is attempting to track down the current owners of those vehicles to confirm the story. “At that time, the Shah was deeply in love with Maserati, but we don’t know if all of them went there or only a few of them; we’re investigating at the moment,” Cini says.

But with Europe and to a lesser extent the US holding back the automobile industry’s recovery from the global financial downturn, just about every car manufacturer, from Ford to Audi, has told CEO Middle East that the region will be a key driver of their growth plans in the coming years. So how will Maserati, with so far such a small influence, penetrate the region?

“This is a growing area. I don’t want to say there’s room for everyone, but it’s definitely a growing area,” Cini says.

“All the manufacturers are looking for new potential markets, with Europe stagnating at the moment. Of course we are all looking outside of Europe, and the Middle East is an area that over time has proven to be growing steadily.

“Also during the global financial crisis, at least for Maserati, the Middle East was the area that lost less market compared to the industry. We lost ten percent [in the Middle East] compared to 45 percent across the entire world. This is a very stable market, with very good growth opportunities.

“Everyone wants to grow in the Middle East. [But] I’m quite confident to say that Maserati will grow more than other competitors for the reason that we’re growing our portfolio and not all the manufacturers will do the same. [Also], if we grow our portfolio it will always be at the very high end of the market, where there is a different kind of competition compared to the mass market.

“Maserati is an inspirational brand. We created an inspirational brand with our product, with the exclusivity of the product, with our heritage, with the Italian lifestyle associated with the product, which is now, yes, still Italian but much more technological, much more advanced. All those things together, they work well in the Middle East.”

Women, perhaps surprisingly, also help drive Maserati sales in the region.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not even allowed to drive, but they buy more of the exclusive sports car than female drivers from other countries, accounting for about one-quarter of Maseratis sold in the country. In the more liberal Arab Gulf state of Kuwait, the figure is 50 percent.

“Maserati has a very big share of female owners. Within that, the Middle East is among the highest and you would be surprised that we have also the highest share of female customers in the Middle East, which is in Kuwait,” Cini says.

“In Kuwait around 50 percent [of Maserati customers are female]. Twenty-five percent of the customers in Saudi Arabia are female customers, which is unheard of. If you didn’t know, you would never think about this.

“All the users are chauffeur-driven, or they take it abroad or they use it in compounds.”

So what is it that attracts women to the 100-year-old brand, which sells only 6,000 units per year?

It comes down to the sound and hormones, Cini explains, throttling the engine to prove his point as we travel along Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai.

“A study done two years ago in the UK proved that the sound of a Maserati car stimulates some hormones that are more present in women than men and this is one of the reasons why the Maserati car, and especially the sound of the Maserati car, is the favourite by ladies,” he says.

According to Cini, Kuwaiti women “love” sports cars and the proportion of female sports car drivers is higher there than the rest of the world.

“It’s not only the sound, of course. It’s the positioning of the car [that makes the Maserati popular] and the possibility of [having it] tailor-made,” he says.

“I had a customer in a [Middle East] country once that came with a Chanel bag and told me ‘I want a car like this’. So this possibility of custom-made, of exclusivity, of being really an exclusive, elegant, stylish car are definitely all elements that are appreciated by female customers.”

The launch of the Quattroporte is the beginning of a new era for the Maserati, with the cars becoming more global. In other words, they’re designed to meet the needs of varying desires from China to the desert and the US.

It is also much more custom-made these days, Cini says. But he’s also quick to emphasise that the brand’s long-held values, birthed by the Maserati brothers in 1914, remain the same.

“The Maserati has its own DNA. Our brand values are few but very deep in our heritage,” he says. “We have exclusivity, craftsmanship, style, performance and Italian taste. So these are the values that we’ll always maintain in our car.

“We have done some product changes that are in this direction. For example, the weight distribution of the car. Technically speaking it’s the most difficult solution to do but we wanted to do it because we have to maintain the handling in the experience, the drivability of the car.

“We decided not to have all the most updated technology in the car — all the electronic gadgets — because these are not in line with our craftsmanship. Whatever is needed is there, [for example] the latest technology in terms of the audio visual system [and] wi-fi. Everything is available but what we call electronic gadgets — night vision, for example — these kinds of things that are not necessary for the pleasure of driving.

“The style of the car is still in-house. We also keep the family element that we’ve had since forever, [as well as] the three side vents, the front grill [and] the line of the car from the front light to the rear light. These are elements that we still keep and we are still using, [as well as] the materials, the exclusive leather.

“So we are very deep in our roots but of course the world is changing; the customers are global, so we have to meet the expectations of the global customer. So it’s a Maserati that now looks at the global world as a marketplace.

“We will not change the DNA of Maserati, the passion of our car will always be there, the kind of product and the exclusivity of the product will always be there, but it’s a product that is now in line, in terms of characteristics and features, with the actual customer.”

The Maserati’s reformation has been devised in a rapid amount of time; the first meetings to discuss the brand’s future were held only two years ago. Cini says it would not have been possible without the full backing of the company’s parent, Fiat Group.

“With the support of the group we can do this kind of investment, financially speaking,” he says. “We [were able to] put together the resources to produce a new generation of car. To grow from 6,000 units to 50,000 units you don’t need only financial capabilities, you need know-how, you need manufacturers, you need location, you need a distribution network, you need a lot of things [and] of course as a standalone [company] it would never have been possible, but thanks to Fiat Group and networking we could get where we are now.”

Part of the brand’s future also involved Cini moving from Modena to Dubai eighteen months ago to set up the company’s first regional office in the Middle East, in a decision that cements the area’s importance in the business’s success.

“The Maserati over the years has changed quite a lot in terms of brand awareness, brand perception and product awareness in the Middle East,” the Italian says. “Of course we are directly present as a manufacturer and also we have the help of our partner around the region and we have invested quite a lot in terms of communication, in terms of presence, in terms of our reliability.

“For example, we have been among the first manufacturers to introduce the maintenance programme for our cars, so we have created, over the years, an awareness and positioning of the brand which is aligned with the local requirement.

“The Middle East is a bit different. Everywhere in the world we can somehow identify our customer. In the Middle East it’s probably the most difficult thing to do because you have very different kinds of customers you have to consider because this is a wide area.

“The UAE is completely different from all of the other countries just from the number of expats that it has. Saudi is different for the usage of the car and Kuwait is also different for something, as is Qatar. So if you put all these countries together it comes out that every customer is almost a standalone case.”

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