Bentley management will face a critical decision in the coming months: whether to develop an all-new third product line to compliment the ultra-luxury maker’s mid-range Continental and top-line Mulsanne offerings.
The decision will be handed to a management team led by new CEO Wolfgang Durheimer, who takes over from Franz-Josef Paefgen, the executive who led the British marque through some of the most dramatic changes it has faced in nearly a century of carmaking. Paefgen steps down as chief executive on February 1st, though he will remain a Bentley consultant.
In a conversation at the Detroit Auto Show, Paefgen told TheDetroitBureau.com he is looking forward to retirement, which comes after “nine years develop(ing) Bentley into a company in a stable situation leading the luxury segment and strong enough to grow further.”
Skeptics might question just how stable the brand has been over the last several years. After hitting an all-time peak of 10,014 in 2007, worldwide volume plunged to just 4,616 in 2009, leading to sharp cutbacks on the company assembly lines.
Despite plunging revenues, however, work continued on the Volkswagen subsidiary’s two critical product lines: the all-new Mulsanne flagship, and the newly-redesigned Continental GT. Their timing proved fortunate, if not prescient, said Paefgen, arriving just as the global luxury market begins to show signs of a turnaround.
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Orders for the $285,000 Mulsanne sedan have been exceeding even Bentley’s most optimistic initial pronouncements, reaching 230 in December, the first month on the market. Preliminary expectations are that the $189,900 Continental GT – which got its formal U.S. debut at the Detroit Auto Show – will also ride the wave of an improving global economy.
But the boom-and-bust cycle that Bentley has gone through, in recent years, has the maker looking at its overall business strategy, seeking ways to balance things out to minimize the impact of the next downturn.
“A challenge for my successor will be to decide on a third product line,” Paefgen told TheDetroitBureau.com.
Exactly where such a new model would fit in is unclear, but several well-placed sources suggested that if approved, the third product would likely ride atop a modified version of one of Bentley’s other two platforms, rather than getting an entirely new architecture of its own.
Broadening out the line-up is only one of the issues facing Bentley and its new boss, the 52-year-old Durheimer, who had previously been the board member in charge of research and development operations for Volkswagen AG.
That experience could come in handy considering that one of the toughest challenges will be to keep Bentley in compliance with strict new rules, in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, that will push for improved fuel economy and lower emissions.
Asked whether Bentley can survive with a 62 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, Paefgen insisted, “If the law doesn’t allow certain technologies, we will find others.” The maker, he noted, is already planning to deliver “significant” improvements in mileage and is migrating to flex-fuel powertrain technology. But whether a battery- or hybrid-powered Bentley is in the cards will be a decision that Durheimer will have to wrestle with.
Paefgen’s departure has been long rumored, many observers expecting he would leave in 2010. But, “Last year…in the middle of a crisis…was not the right time to leave,” he said, suggesting he wanted to wait until Bentley was “at least 90% back” before handing over the reins. “It is only fair to hand over a company that is ascending.”
While many executives talk about the projects they have lined up post-retirement, the affable Paefgen seems genuinely excited about having an open schedule ahead. “I need to slow down a little. That is the key thing,” he said, noting his excitement at getting a chance to catch up on personal projects, including the various classic cars he wants to restore – and even helping a daughter “hang up pictures” at her new home.
But Paefgen won’t vanish entirely, at least not right away. He has signed an agreement to continue serving as a Bentley consultant – though he is also ready to walk away from the company if it doesn’t work out.
“Nothing is worse than being a consultant,” he says, “to people who don’t need one.”