Lamborghini's man at the top talks past, present and future

Stephan Winkelmann, Lamborghini's president and CEO, looks like some dashing 1970s advertising hero and it's easy to imagine him in a white turtleneck sweater, sucking on a Marlboro with a slender lady draped on either side.

The suit is always sharp, the hair never anything other than fashionably tousled and the sideburns are quite pronounced. Stephan Winkelmann, Lamborghini's president and CEO, looks like some dashing 1970s advertising hero and it's easy to imagine him in a white turtleneck sweater, sucking on a Marlboro with a slender lady draped on either side. As ambassador for the world's most extreme sports car manufacturer, he just works.

Lamborghini is the ultimate survivor. Between its formation in 1963 and its buy-out by Audi in 1998, it lurched from one crisis to another, suffering bankruptcy and owner changes while still managing to cling on for dear life with a confused model line-up that included the outrageous Countach and the ill-fated LM002 off-roader. There's always been something about it that made it unthinkable for a world to exist without it being there.

To turn its fortunes around, Audi knew it needed the right man at the helm and Winkelmann accepted the job at the end of 2004 after, he says, he'd thought about it for seven weeks. And while it's easy to dismiss Lamborghini's turnaround in fortunes as simply a matter of bottomless parent company funding, in reality much of it is down to this man's strategies and single-minded determination.

He was born in Berlin to German parents, one year after Lamborghini started building cars, and grew up in Rome. He once served time in the German army as a paratrooper before a career in finance. Since 1994, he's been working in the auto industry, initially for Mercedes-Benz and then Fiat, eventually being appointed CEO of its German operation. He's seemingly a perfect blend of Germanic precision and Italian verve - precisely what Lamborghini needed from its top man to lead it into profitability.

But just as the company was getting into its stride, the global markets shrunk due to economic meltdown. From building more than 2,000 cars in 2006, last year saw 1,302 deliveries. "Lamborghini was always clear that it wasn't immune to the global recession," he says, as I caught up with him after the Dubai International Motor Show (where the company reportedly had more than Dh17 million in sales) . "However, we anticipated it well in advance and put in place procedures to give us manufacturing flexibility during this period. We consolidated our dealer network and did not expect significant investments from our partners. All markets were affected, particularly the USA and Europe and also the UAE, but China grew during this time."

He says the UAE and Middle East region generally is a very important market to Lamborghini. "Like many other markets, we certainly saw the recession hit the Middle East, but our dealer network remains strong, and last year we saw the official opening of a dealership in Bahrain.

"We have seen an incredible response to the Aventador from the UAE. We held a private VIP preview for our customers in Dubai last year, before the car's official launch and there are orders worldwide for more than 18 months for Aventador."

As for the near future, new construction methods are king at Lamborghini. "Our most significant developments include our investment in carbon fibre technologies, with our own laboratories and production facilities," he says. "We have also continued our relationships with strategic partners including Boeing and, more recently with Callaway Golf, which has a range of carbon composite clubs borne from our R&D relationship. We are receiving substantial interest from third parties in the technologies developed by us. There can be many applications for our carbon fibre expertise throughout the worlds of aeronautics, yachting - anywhere where lightweight engineering technologies are required. Lightweight engineering, with a focus on power-to-weight ratios, is a key part of the future for Lamborghini models." He also says that the company's clothing range now has a carbon fibre bag in it: "The first time this material has been used in this application."

And speaking of future models, Winkelmann, while remaining coy regarding any exact details, offers a grin and says: "We will produce a third model line [which is contrary to what he told me four years ago but hey, you need to adapt to survive] and we're looking forward to announcing that in the near future." Us too, Mr Winkelmann. Us too.

Published: December 8, 2011 04:00 AM


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