x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

How Luca di Montezmolo keeps Ferrari in overdrive

Luca di Montezemolo has transformed the fortunes of Ferrari during his 21 years in charge, and tells Neil Vorano why the brand is better than ever.

The president of Ferrari, Luca di Montezemolo at the Paris Motor Show 2012, in Paris, France. EPA
The president of Ferrari, Luca di Montezemolo at the Paris Motor Show 2012, in Paris, France. EPA

The Ferrari stand at the Paris Motor Show feels like a highly exclusive nightclub. On the floor and just behind the private wall, among the shiny cars, flashing video screens and bright lights, very well-dressed people mill about looking important, trying to ignore the string of mere mortals outside the barriers who are hoping to get called past the rope controlled by a man who, for all intents and purpose, is the bouncer. So when you do get the wave, and the rope is unhitched for you to step inside, there is a very smug and welcome feeling that you've "arrived".

Behind the screen and away from the peons, the private party is well under way. In one room sits a Ferrari California, surrounded by swatches of leather and painted car parts - a display of Ferrari's bespoke programme. The busy place, however, is the lounge, set with white, leather couches, patches of that famous Ferrari red and a coffee bar packed with people trying to get anything free they can get their hands on. Of course, I'm no different, and I sit enjoying an espresso and light conversation amid the din of other conversations in the crowd. Suddenly, the noise dips ever so slightly; there's a palpable change in the atmosphere, almost electric.

A group of men has entered, swiftly walking through the crowd with purpose towards a meeting room hidden down a hallway. And the man leading the group, dressed in a sharp, blue pinstripe suit, with flowing grey hair, is the reason for all the attention. Luca di Montezemolo, the head of Ferrari, certainly has presence.

But I'm not here for the free coffee; after a few minutes, I'm shown into the meeting room for a private conversation with the charismatic 65-year-old. After greetings and taking our seats, his Italian charm makes a relaxed connection while slyly and firmly asserting his position in the world.

"I'm a good friend of Sheikh Mohammed [Al Nahyan], I like him very, very much. I think he is a good leader, and he's a person with a vision. He's a person I like, I admire, and he's a friend for many many years. Then I'm a friend of Khaldoon [Al Mubarak], the head of Mubadala. I was very pleased when they got the five per cent of Ferrari. I was not so in line with the decision of Fiat to buy back the five per cent."

Montezemolo - who also has a home in Abu Dhabi, which explains why I saw him at Jones the Grocer a few months ago - is comfortable hobnobbing with the elite; he has risen to become one of the most influential people in the car industry and business in general. He started off in the Fiat fold and, after a stint as head of Ferrari's Formula One team, he was given the reins of Ferrari in 1991 after the death of its founder and namesake, Enzo.

At the time, the company was on the brink of failure but Montezemolo slowly began rebuilding its fortunes with a slew of changes and a focus on quality.

"Despite the economic crisis, we will close this fiscal year with maybe the best year in Ferrari history; for sure, the top, despite the [financial] crisis," he points out enthusiastically.

"We are now present in 60 different markets in the world. And when I started 21 years ago, this geographic diversity ... back then, Ferrari was dependent on America, Italy and maybe Germany. Now, we are everywhere, even in China. It means that thanks to this increasing number of markets, if one country is soft for us, we can have a balance somewhere else. The United States is still our largest market."

Conversation comes easily to the Italian and he has strong opinions on the industry, not least of which concerning Ferrari's most famous occupation, Formula One. He led the team in the 1970s and formed the Formula One Teams Association in 2008. But recent rule changes in the sport that heavily restrict engine development get him excited, for all the wrong reasons, and he starts gesturing heavily with his hands in that typical Italian way.

"We have been there since 60 years, and we are still considering Formula One to be our best research platform.

"We are not a sponsor; we are a car manufacturer. I race because I want to transfer to my extreme cars technology and experience. If Formula One becomes something that is nothing to do with cars, why do we have to be in Formula One? I'm not producing satellites, airplanes - and we are on the limit. If we continue to increase the rules for aerodynamics, why? I'm pushing to maintain Formula One as an extreme technology formula, to use it as a transfer of technology."

Pushing the envelope of technology has been integral to Ferrari's resurgence in the last couple of decades. While not as reliant on carbon fibre as its Italian rival, Lamborghini, Ferrari still uses this F1-derived material in special, low-volume cars such as the Enzo supercar and its upcoming successor. But the brand has always been about much more than just technical innovation, and keeping the essence of what a Ferrari is has always been important to Montezemolo.

"I think Ferrari is a mix of something that not all the others have. Formula One - the only car manufacturer that has been there since the beginning - and always a red car.

"Second, Ferrari exclusivity. We always tell the client, a Ferrari has to be like a good looking woman: you have to wait, you cannot just go out and get one. So, you have to wait. The average waiting time for a car is one year; sometimes, that's too much for people.

"Third, there is a feeling when you drive a Ferrari, a feeling that is difficult to put into words. Maybe it's the music of the engine, maybe something more.

"As well, everything is done in Maranello. If you buy - I don't want to mention too much about my competitors, but maybe a part of the [competitor's] engine is made somewhere else. But from the foundry until the cars are ready to be shipped, the entire manufacturing process for Ferrari is in Maranello. It means our clients can follow a single bolt right to the finished car.

"We've got technology, too, but last but not least - beautiful. In maintaining heritage, I always say I want a Ferrari that looks ahead in terms of design - but even without the badge, if you see it in the middle of Abu Dhabi or Paris or Stockholm, you will say 'this is a Ferrari'.

"So all of these ingredients combine to make a Ferrari different."

Then, about 15 minutes into our chat, his PR assistant quietly and in Italian prods that the interview be wrapped up, but Montezemolo waves his hand in the air. "No, no, we have time. Go on, please."

So I have to ask, what drives him in the role of leading possibly the most iconic car brand in the world?

"Responsibility. I am entering now in a number of years at the saying of the founder [Enzo Ferrari], and I have had a lot of responsibility since 1991 to transfer Ferrari from the past to the future. Products, organisation, internationality. So it was that the Ferrari that he founded was fantastic, but when he died the company was in a difficult situation.

"I love cars; but I love to organise people, team spirit. And I like to have around me people that are far better than me; that is the secret. I like to give room to my collaborators but every strategic decision, from the smallest to the largest, I want to take. I give my people clear priorities and goals, and then push them to achieve those goals."

And then, with a slap on the table, he thanks me, gets out of his chair and offers a handshake. The interview is over, and it was he who made the final decision.