SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - For 40 years, Italy's Lamborghini has thrilled elite buyers with its sleek and speedy sports cars. Now, after losing money for most of its history, the company is on track to earn a profit, the company's CEO says.
"It has lost money of several investors," managing director Giuseppe Greco said in an interview that ended with an informal road test through the streets of San Francisco in a bright orange Lamborghini Gallardo. "Lamborghini himself lost money."
It seems odd that a company specializing in top-of-the-line $250,000 cars has been losing money for so long, yet the high cost of development and the quantities produced -- only a few hundred a year -- made profitability an elusive goal.
Now Lamborghini is shifting gears.
"Let me tell you a story of a company that did not want to die," Greco said as he joined about 40 other Lamborghini cars in a noisy, sometimes bumpy drive through the city to celebrate the firm's latest model, the Gallardo.
Automobili Lamborghini has changed hands several times since Ferruccio Lamborghini started building high-performance sports cars in 1963. It went bankrupt in 1980, lost money for Chrysler and then the family of Indonesian President Suharto.
In 1998, Volkswagen AG's Audi division bought Lamborghini, and Greco now forecasts an end to losses following introduction of the Gallardo -- a bargain, relatively speaking, at $165,900.
"We already broke even last year. This year, also, we will break even. Next year, we start making money," he said.
Greco is hoping, with a third of its business now in the United States, to quadruple car output from 430 in 2002 to 1,700 to 1,800 by next year -- a company record.
THE EXCLUSIVITY FACTOR
The company expects a 2003 turnover of 170 million euros ($192 million) but is still cautious about ramping up output too much, lest the cars lose their cachet.
"One value they have to have is exclusivity," Greco said. "When one of these guys goes out and has his car valet parked, he does not want to be parked next to another car like his. He's got to be unique."
Key to the company's success are customers such as sound engineer Brice Carrington, 35, a San Francisco area resident who has worked on Hollywood films such as "Spiderman."
"My father died in December and he died wanting to do a lot of things," Carrington explained the logic of owning a $320,000 top-of-the-line Lamborghini. "You're only here for a very short time, so you might as well have all the experiences you can."
Among celebrity owners are Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage and nighttime talk show host Jay Leno, who has several older models in his vast car collection, according to Greco.
Greco said having Audi as an owner gives Lamborghini more stability than in the past, but added that some cultural differences do exist between the Italian firm and German bosses.
"We are more synthetic, they are more analytical," he said. "Without going through the analytical part, you are almost always right, but sometimes you are wrong. That is where you sometimes have tensions."