Tales from Abu Dhabi’s world-beating Rolls-Royce dealership: make it match my lipstick …

Arno Husselmann, the general manager of Abu Dhabi Motors, sells more of the marque than in Beverly Hills or Mayfair. His secret? Give them what they want, and they will come back for more.

Arno Husselmann says the competition for Rolls-Royce is luxury options such as yachts, not other manufactures. Delores Johnson / The National
Powered by automated translation

Arno Husselmann believes there is one reason, above all others, why more Rolls-Royce cars are sold through his dealership in Abu Dhabi than in any other in the world.

“This is a city that understands luxury, it has a penchant for luxury. Everything is done at a premium here,” says the general manager of Abu Dhabi Motors, which has just won the award for the best-selling dealership in the Rolls-Royce worldwide network for the third consecutive year.

That is quite an achievement. The UAE capital buys more cars through this dealership than the well-heeled inhabitants of Beverly Hills, the glamour hub of California, or Mayfair, the wealthiest part of London’s swanky West End, or Beijing, the capital of nouveau riche China.

Mr Husselmann, a 56-year-old South African, has been selling Rollers in Abu Dhabi since the company was acquired by BMW in 2003. He has learnt that it is best to give UAE customers what they want. Your fancy is for a diamond-inlaid interior? Or stars twinkling in the car roof? Or bodywork the colour of your lipstick? Your wish is Mr Husselmann’s command. (These are all real requests at the Abu Dhabi dealership that he was delighted to satisfy.)

As you might expect, he waxes lyrical about the attractions of the car itself. “The Rolls is the absolute pinnacle of automotive luxury. It’s a big, powerful car, symbolising excellence in engineering and technology, with British craftsmanship. It’s a global symbol of luxury, unsurpassed by any other. People talk about the ‘Rolls-Royce of pens’ or the ‘Rolls-Royce of watches’. No other motor brand has that cachet,” he says.

Abu Dhabi’s love affair with Rolls-Royce has been long-standing. There are old photographs of fleets of the cars in the 1960s, with big sand tyres, because the capital’s road system was less well developed back then.

Under BMW’s ownership, Mr Husselmann explains that the car won an early endorsement in 2003, when Sheikh Khalifa, the President, visited the British Queen in London and also took delivery of a new BMW version of the flagship Phantom. “It was a very proud moment for us,” he says.

The Rolls-Royce has always been regarded as the official vehicle of royalty. “People were in awe of the car. It was the car the Ruler owned, and you knew that other people were wondering whether they should presume to own one too.”

The other challenge back then was simply getting hold of enough cars to satisfy local demand. Only the Phantom was available on global allocation from the Britain-based manufacturer, and there was a six-month waiting list in the region. “Other places got priority over the Middle East, and we had to wait our turn,” Mr Husselmann says.

Several factors came together to solve that supply bottleneck. BMW turned out variants of the Phantom, as well as two new models, the Wraith and the Ghost, which appealed to a new class of potential customers. The Phantom has been the quintessential chauffeur car, but the new models were designed to be actually driven by status-conscious owners.

This spread the appeal, and a new class of customers was created. “High-net-worth individuals, captains of industry, high-ranking government officials – lots of people want to own a Rolls now,” he says.

But even now, supply of the car is deliberately limited to preserve its exclusivity. Some 4,000 are manufactured each year in a plant at Goodwood, in the UK, of which about 25 per cent are sold in the Middle East. Some 1,200 have been sold through Abu Dhabi since 2003.

The other factor was the oil price, which began its long upward climb just about the time of BMW’s ownership, and jet-propelled demand for luxury goods in the UAE. Does the recent slump in the price of crude herald a fall-off in local buying power?

“We’re not going to be permanently immune to economic downturn, but we witnessed an increase last year and we’re predicting another one this year. In the upper luxury segment people are less affected by economic conditions. These are rich people regardless of economic conditions,” Mr Husselmann says.

The Abu Dhabi Motors dealership is very willing to accommodate their idiosyncrasies.

“We’re pretty quiet during the day, because these are busy people. But Thursday is a big sales night for us. We often get customers calling in to see cars in the early hours at the weekends.”

Those customers are ready to shell out a minimum of about Dh1 million for their car, but that can rise exponentially according to the amount of customisation desired. “We call it ‘bespoke’ rather than customised, but it’s a significant revenue generator for us,” Mr Husselmann says.

“We go to the furthest boundaries of capability. If a customer wants unique, exclusive, rare or precious, we will give it to them. In Arabia, the wealthy will always take pride in their vehicles, and want to make them unique. They don’t take much from the shelf,” he adds.

Rolls would never do anything offensive or something that would devalue the brand, he says, but he does note that there have been some “brave” colour combinations over the years.

Looking ahead, local demand could be influenced by the new model being planned under Project Cullinan, named after the world’s biggest diamond. This is BMW’s plan to make a Rolls version of a sports utility vehicle. “It’s not quite right to call it an SUV because there’s nothing ‘sporty’ or ‘utility’ about Rolls. We’d rather call it an all-terrain vehicle, and it has been inspired by demand in the Gulf, because here they like that kind of vehicle. The appeal is that it’s even bigger and safer than a Phantom,” Mr Husselmann says. The new vehicle is expected to be on sale in 2018.

Virtually all the luxury car makers are driving into the SUV space. Bentley and Maserati have launched models, Aston Martin is working on a project, and Porsche sells more SUVs now than it does sports cars. Mr Husselmann believes even Ferrari will have to join the SUV race.

The other project under way is the Black Badge concept, which in July will launch versions of the Wraith and Ghost with a more powerful, younger and more “aggressive” image, designed to appeal to younger drivers, which would seem to be well aimed at UAE owner-drivers.

Talk of the opposition seems to almost offend Mr Husselmann. “The only manufacturer that goes for a similar market is Bentley, but we outsell them easily in the UAE.

“We don’t really believe we have a competitor in the ultra-luxury car market. The competition for us is other luxury lifestyle options, like a yacht, a jet or a work of art,” he insists.

As if to show that the success of the Abu Dhabi showroom is not just a one-off, he is planning to open another outlet in the capital, in Khalidiya, which will be the biggest in the world in terms of floor space.

If all these plans come off, Mr Husselmann could be well on the way to realising his ultimate dream. “I currently drive a 6 Series BMW, but maybe nearer my retirement I’ll have a Rolls-Royce. I’d love to own one,” he says.


Follow The National's Business section on Twitter