Fiona Sanderson interviews Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, Chairman of Ferrari.
If there’s one person who knows about luxury, it’s Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the Chairman of one of the world’s most eponymous luxury brands; Ferrari. No surprise then that he was recently commandeered as a key speaker at The Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in the auspicious surroundings of Churchill’s favourite Moroccan city, Marrakesh. So what observations did I glean from half an hour with the man who has invested over twenty years of his life in one of the world’s most revered brand of supercars?
Well, for starters, it must be said that Cordero di Montezemolo is utterly captivating; speaking in a Piedmontese drawl that drips with the very essence of the brand he represents. Yes, this is a man who knows how to charm at leisure; sharp, elegant, aesthetically pleasing to say the least, it is no small feat to be in the presence of such a highly esteemed figure in the world of luxury. Cordero, however, is incredibly laid-back about his rise to such dizzying heights. “I think that it is important to talk about life, rather than numbers in this kind of meeting,” the CEO smiles. “I like to transfer my experience.” Experience indeed, because Cordero has overseen a sharp turn in fortunes in the brand that is widely known to have struggled since the death of its founder, Enzo Ferrari, in 1988.
So, what it is about the Ferrari brand that Cordero believes holds such sway in the luxury market? “The myth, the history, the technology,” he smiles. “The new generation likes technology, innovation – this is the reason why I have re-built Ferrari. Maintaining the tradition, maintaining the feeling, but looking ahead.”
Looking ahead seems to be a recurring theme, because many would say it is this constant eye on the ball (and the future) that has kept Cordero at the forefront of his field. “I call Ferrari something unique in the world,” he states confidently. A statement backed up by its dogged expansion into new territories; China for example, which, in less than fifteen years, has become Ferrari’s second largest market. Cordero is not one to forget Europe, however, particularly the UK: “We have a long tradition over there; when Prince Michael of Kent calls me [he says] ‘Luca, Ferrari needs to be present at the Farrakka; The Queen will be there.’ I said, I’m very proud we’ll do something.”
No stranger to mixing with royalty then, as well as the crème de la crème of Formula One. Cordero has known and employed some of the most revered drivers in history in his time; many of them essential to the success of the Ferrari brand – the first that springs to mind, Fernando Alonso. What is it in Cordero’s opinion that sets him apart? “He is fantastic, particularly in the race….He is able to do 70 laps like a qualifying lap,” Cordero explains. “It is also very important – the work between Alonso and the team – not only on the technical side of course, but also psychologically. What I like is that even in difficult moments, he gives enthusiasm to the team. If we work like this, we all succeed.”
Praise and rightly so, but with the advent of Cordero’s dearly beloved ‘technology,’ are the drivers somewhat taking a back seat? “When I was the Ferrari team manager in the 70s with Niki Lauda or Jackie Stuart; at that time, the driver feeling was absolutely essential,” he says. “I’ll give you an example: if I am a doctor and you tell me ‘I’m sick’ but you don’t tell me where, how, what you feel – it’s difficult, so at that time, it was crucial to have a driver that could give a very clear feeling to the designer. Today, it’s very important but less crucial for one reason: technology. We put so many sensors on the car that the designer has a lot of information; the drivability, the plus and the minus [sic] so the driver is still important, but less so than before.”
The chairman is nothing if not exacting, even with his most successful drivers, ‘I am very….I don’t want to say tough. Even Alonso, even Schumacher, even Lauda….there is a good spirit but also…how can I say? [sic] They have to be responsible,” Cordero pauses. “I always say, when you drive for Ferrari, you don’t drive for yourself, you drive for the team; so if I ask you to do something, you have to do it. If not, you can build your own team!”
Cordero is impassioned by his subject matter, speaking animatedly on the spirit of sportsmanship. “In every sport, you have very good players or drivers and then you have the extra bit….There are a lot of drivers that are fantastic…but don’t have the extra bit.”
There it is – the five per cent that sets greatness apart, something Cordero clearly embodies himself, particularly with the attention to detail he imposes on his brand. “I am a maniac of detail,” [sic] he laughs when discussing the luxe interiors and vibrant colourways of the latest collection of supercars. “The new Ferrari 12 cylinder is a racing green and the leather inside is very chic. I like also the leather, with the smell. This is something important….We have four or five colours for the interiors.” Of course, Cordero drives his own souped-up version: “I’ve got a big Ferrari four wheel drive that is two seats in the back. I have two children; one is less than two years old, so you know, I like to enjoy it with the family, I like to have a powerful car – I don’t like to have a station wagon!”
Cordero’s eye on design and development has served him well, and led to a new range of personalised Ferraris. “We are now looking to do a sort of tailor-made car,” Cordero informs me. “My friend from Guess jeans, the owner Marciano, came and said, ‘I want the interior made of jeans!’ Of course, the Chairman acquiesced, happy to humour a client who shares his love of detail. A characteristic also extended to his high speed trains, though the CEO is quick to assert that this is not the first step in a planned brand expansion. “The train is nothing to do with Ferrari, it is my personal activity,” he states, musing at length on the advantages of a more relaxed mode of transport. “Italy by train is the best; you listen to music, look outside, you think….the atmosphere is fantastic.”
He does concede there are similarities between the brands however; ‘the reputation, the colour, the attention to detail, the attention to the client, the services, the innovation of technology….and our train has 30% larger windows than our competitors.” These factors combined have aroused Cordero’s passion for rail. “In Italy now with high speed, the train is not seen any more like a Grade B experience. It’s a sort of Metropolitan subway….You go to Sienna, you go sightseeing, eating good food, driving a Ferrari convertible. If you have a business appointment, if you have a lot of bags, it’s fantastic. They are very complementary!” Cordero is not so flattering about the UK’s rail services, however: “In my opinion, it’s because you don’t have high speed, but to be honest, your trains are terrible!”
Clearly, Cordero is a fan of La Dolce Vita: “In the modern life we live, does it make it more efficient to get to places quicker? The Internet – all these things? We have to make a little stop; if not, we become, all of us, psychological maniacs [sic] or stressed.”
The Chairman looks forward to having more time for rest and relaxation; his dream is to work less: “I want to have time to bicycle and enjoy my children,” for Cordero is well aware of the scourge of time passing. “There is a very good book on the Romans, on Roman philosophy, Seneca, that I always have in mind. He said, ‘listen, don’t be so stupid as to retire when you have 70 or 75 years old, because it is too late, you are not in good condition any more to enjoy life.’” Cordero is not about to make the same mistake, having dedicated the last twenty years to Ferrari, to developing, honing and rejuvenating one of the world’s most beloved brands. “I am happy to continue to work for Ferrari, because Ferrari is part of my life. I like the people, I like the product, the atmosphere, and that’s it.”
What more is there to say? Cordero looks wistful considering the years spent at the helm of one of Italy’s greatest companies; an anecdote moves him, “One very important personal moment for me was when I was called by Mr. Berlusconi to become his minister, at nine o’clock at night….I didn’t want to do it and I said, ‘listen, tell him in a nice way, I’m not interested’….Then at 10 o’clock the day after, I received [on my table at Maronello] the signature of one thousand workers and managers saying ‘please don’t leave the company.’ This was maybe the best moment in Ferrari; the appreciation. Normally, they say ‘no, he can go, we can get another one. It doesn’t break our balls.’ So that for me was a very important day.” Luca Cordero di Montezemolo – the utterly charming chairman of Ferrari breaking anyone’s balls – I really can’t process the thought….
Additional reporting by Alice Kahrmann.