When the time came to decide whether the new Aston Marton V12 Vanquish would go ahead with its autumn launch, Wolfgang Reitzle took a close look at the new supercar and decided it simply was not ready. In particular, Reitzle was not happy with the air vents. They were borrowed from the Ford Ka. 'Jaguar parts are OK, but we can't have Ford components seen in a car like an Aston Martin,' he said.
Rather than launch the two-seater at the Birmingham, England, auto show in October as planned, Aston Martin will unveil the V12 Vanquish at a later date. Such perfectionism has been the hallmark of the 51-year-old Germans tenure as Chairman of Ford's Premier Automotive Group of luxury brands. It is a style that characterizes BMW's former product development chief: from his trademark shiny suits, swept-back hair and meticulously trimmed mustache to his golf game, which has become his primary passion when he is away from his job.
'I'm looking at the cars again and again and again,' says the man once nicknamed the Errol Flynn of the car industry. 'Sometimes I look seven times in a row at a certain product, and when I come back the eight time, I see something I didn't see before.'
On his monthly visits to the various brands, associates say, Reitzle devotes every hour he can spare in the design suites examining product plans. Reitzle, a native of Bavaria, will need to spend all of the time he can to get the details right. When Ford President Jac Nasser first created the job for Reitzle in March 1999, it seemed a job nobody but a superman could do. Reitzle must manage five luxury brands in three countries on two continents. This most German of car executives was expected to transform one Swedish, on American and three British luxury brands into a global luxury powerhouse.
Each of those brands - which include Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, Lincoln and Volvo - has an ambitious growth target. Yet somehow they must avoid stealing each other's sales. Jaguar, for example, plans to grow from 50,000 units in 1998 to 200,000 by 2003. To do so, Jaguar must expand from two models to four or five.
What is more, these business plans were mostly set before Reitzle started. Shortly after taking the job, he was asked if Jaguar's growth plans were too ambitious. Reitzle took a deep breath and responded carefully: 'It's a good idea. It can be done, but nobody ever did it before. Keeping Jaguar's position as a top-quality brand, quadrupling sales and maintaining the high standard of service ... it's a challenge, yes.'
Volvo, Premier's largest volume brand, wants to grow from 450,000 units this year to 600,000 by 2004. Meanwhile, the company is expected to raise profit margins from 3 percent to at least 6 percent. Earlier this summer, Reitzle brought Hans-Olov Olsson back to Gothenburg from Volvo's North American operations. Olsson must shake up a company that some at Ford though had grown a little complacent.
Land Rover, Premier's latest acquisition, was under Reitzle's control when he was the second-in-command at BMW. The German automaker struggled to make Land Rover profitable, and Ford's Nasser admits it will be at least two years before it returns to profitability. Reitzle has not set any official targets for Land Rover. But Land Rover could grow from about 180,000 unit sales last year to 300,000 within a few years worldwide.
One industry observer believes the Premier Group's sales targets are too ambitious. 'I think it's a pretty big challenge, and Premier is unlikely to meet its goals,' said Susan Jacobs of Jacobs & Associates, an automotive research and analysis firm in Rutherford, New Jersey. The world's luxury franchises are chasing the same general age group: baby boomers over age 50. Jacobs says brands that already have a rapport with boomers - such as Lexus, Mercedes and BMW - will have the advantage.
'BMW's image is the one everyone wants a little bit of,' Jacobs said. 'Everyone is adding performance style and better handling. So BMW is taking actions to prevent people from conquesting their buyers. If you can't conquest BMW's potential market, it's unlikely you're going to be meeting your conquest goals.'
BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz already have extensive model lineups, including sport-utilites and hybrid vehicles. That makes it easier for them to keep loyal customers. 'The Premier Group has to take a more limited approach,' she said. 'Everyone won't have a sport-utility vehicle because Land Rover is there. Longer term, I think that will hold them back. They have to do communal product portfolio planning and their competitors don't.' Volvo and Lincoln in particular are trying to change their images to appeal to younger buyers. But they still have lots of cars on the road that reinforce the old image, Jacobs said.
But Premier will not limit its brands too strictly. Despite the acquisition of Land Rover, Volvo is going ahead with its own plans for an all-wheel-drive sport-utility hybrid vehicle known within Volvo as an FUV, for family utility vehicle. Reitzle feels Volvo is one brand that still has plenty of room to stretch out. A Jaguar sport-utility now seems unlikely, though. The acquisition of Land Rover alleviated pressure on Jaguar to develop a sport-utility. Reitzle believes Jaguar and Land Rover fit naturally together in a dealership setting.
Ford is a far different company than the comparatively homogeneous BMW that Reitzle left behind. There is a larger bureaucracy at Ford, and Reitzle must protect his brands from corporate meddling. 'You have to have a certain sporty side to avoid fighting the wrong battles in the company,' he said. 'After one and a half years with Ford, I'm far from being able to state that I know the company, but I have a certain idea.'
He has learned to like the advantages he gets from being part of Ford's size. 'What you can learn from a big corporation is how to manage complexity, to drive down costs, to get synergies and to make use of the sheer size,' he says. 'Managing complexity is something you don't naturally learn in a smaller company, where you have a highly focused approach.'
Reitzle still is an enigma within Ford's corporate world, but his top subordinates appear to be comfortable with him. Richard Elsy, director of product engineering at Jaguar in Coventry, England, says Reitzle has encouraged the brand to upgrade its forthcoming X400. 'Wolfgang has encouraged us to go the extra mile on things like fabric and materials,' Elsy said. 'He's enabled us to justify some of our actions to make this a great car.'
Aston Martin's Vanquish is the first example of a car launch by Reitzle. other programs, including the upcoming Jaguar X400, which reportedly will be called the T-type, already were well advanced when he joined Ford. But engineers say Reitzle gave them permission to add the kind of small but crucial refinements they hope will make the car competitive with BMW's 3 series and Mercedes' C class.
Under Reitzle, Jaguar has not waited for a midlife facelift to improve its crucial S-type sedan. The 2001 S-type models will feature improved handling. The cars will get a new refined power steering system from ZF, an electronic dynamic stability control system, and a computer active technology suspension. Contrary to some predictions that he would clash with Ford global product development chief Richard Parry Jones, Reitzle and Parry Jones get along famously because they both share a passion for the same thing: product. 'They're great mates,' one Ford insider says. Reitzle also greatly admires Jac Nasser, the man who hired him. Nasser and Reitzle were by no means strangers and had built a mutual respect over the years. Said Reitzle: 'Some years ago he showed me around the product development department at Ford and I showed him some things at BMW. We also met often at events such as auto shows, where we would often show each other around our stands.'
That friendship allowed Nasser to act quickly after the epic boardroom battle on February 5, 1999, that say Reitzle and BMW chief Bernd Pischetsrieder leave the company. 'After I left BMW, Nasser was the first guy who called and said, 'could we talk?' Given my circumstances, I was not going to say no.'
His travel schedule is among the industry's most demanding. He was interviewed for this story in Stockholm during the introduction of the Volvo S60 sports sedan. he had flown there on a corporate jet from a Royal Air Force base outside London. The next day, he was to fly back to England for the press introduction of the V12 Vanquish. But plan changed, and he flew to the United States instead.
He tries to visit each brand at least once a month, so that means trips to Irvine in faraway Southern California; Coventry, Gaydon and Newport Pagnell in England; and Gothenburg in Sweden. When he does stop to rest, Reitzle enjoys his new home in London. He spend the few free weekends he has in the city with his girlfriend, German TV presenter Nina Ruge. In Munich, Germany, Reitzle and Ruge cannot go out in public without attracting media attention. But they can go to restaurants and galleries anonymously in London. He sold his house in Munich.
Reitzle drives his Aston Martin DB7 or Jaguar XKR from his flat in Chelsea to Premier's headquarters in Berkeley Square. Whenever he travels, he likes to stay in small 'designer' hotels that give him new ideas.
WORLD OF FASHION
He looks outside the auto industry for ideas to inspire Premier. He has hired a consultant out of his personal funds to keep an eye on design trends. Reitzle admires the style of the Vendome Luxury Group Sa, which manages a group of luxury brands that includes Piaget watches, Alfred Dunhill leather goods and Mont Blanc pens. Reitzle also loves living in London because of the numerous golf courses around the city. He was introduced to the game just five years ago by a friend, German pro golfer Bernhard Langer. Typical of his perfectionism, Reitzle soon became good at the game.
When he visits Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, Reitzle rises before dawn and goes jogging around the Fairlane shopping center just across a highway from Ford's 'Glass House.'
Wolfgang Reitzle wants to be remembered as a man who defied the odds and made the grand plan work. He believes there are few auto executives who can mastermind the acquisition of other companies, then run them successfully afterwards. 'You need people who are able to outline a good strategy and are strong on the day-to-day operations. This is an area where you don't find that many people who have the ability. Frankly, I'm one of the best persons with these abilities.'