Bentley CEO sees new challenges but more potential for ultraluxury brand

The rollout of Bentley’s latest Continental GT has been slowed by WLTP emissions rules and work needed to refine its Porsche-based dual-clutch transmission.

Adrian Hallmark’s appointment in February as Bentley CEO marked his return to the ultraluxury brand 12 years after the Briton left. Hallmark was closely involved in the launch of the Continental GT, Bentley’s first car under Volkswagen Group ownership, and he departed as the brand’s sales director. He initially stayed with the VW Group, rising to executive director for Asia, before leaving to oversee Saab’s global sales. That job lasted just 11 months, after which he moved to Jaguar Land Rover, eventually becoming group strategy director. Hallmark returned to Bentley at a tough time, but he told Automotive News Europe Correspondent Nick Gibbs that the current losses will be short-lived. He also explained why Bentley does not need a sports car.

You have been Bentley CEO for more than six months now. How had the company changed in the 12 years you were away?
Most of the good things that were here are still here. There are a lot of extra ones as well. The brand has gone from 1,000 sales to 10,000 sales to become consistently the biggest ultraluxury brand out there. Although we are not as successful as Ferrari in terms of net profit, we have made money for 13 of the 15 years since the GT was launched. We have got a strong business model. The big change is the environment we now face. If I look forward 10 to 15 years -- the investment, the direction, the future of luxury, how we fit into that -- the variables have massively changed. But so has the potential.

Is there potential because the number of high-net-worth individuals is forecast to grow?
They are. We started using that as a basis for our planning 15 years ago. At that time the number of people with more than $1 million in stocks and other investments was 6 million. That has gone up to 16 million today, and the prediction is it will rise to 20 million by 2025. The irony is that even with 16 million high-net-worth individuals today, only a few tens of thousands per year buy ultraluxury cars.

What would tempt more of the world’s super rich to buy ultraluxury cars?
About 40 percent of our customers would consider buying an EV. But more important, the two major demographic segments that we don’t currently sell to -- the upper liberals and the post-moderns -- account for 40 percent of high-net-worth individuals, and an EV is even more appealing to them than to our customers. They tend to buy Porsche and Tesla now. We see full-electric cars as another growth opportunity in a five- to 10-year period. In the meantime, all nameplates will have a hybrid option before 2025.

Will your full-electric car be a stand-alone model or a version of an existing vehicle?
I can’t say yet, but our mission is to define grand touring. Whatever we do, it needs to be a continent-muncher [long-distance cruiser] but with style and comfort that is unrivaled. So when we build an electric car, it will be a Bentley first and foremost, and it will be an electric Bentley second.

You have said the car will come “before 2025.” Why is there such a big window?
The problem is, with the size of our vehicles and the frontal area we push through, current battery-power density limits the size of the car with a credible driving range. The Jaguar I-Pace is the perfect-size car for the battery technology, but it’s too small for us. It’s all driven by power density of the battery, but there’s nothing industrialized in the supply chain before 2023-2024-2025. Only then does it open up the size of the vehicle and the category you can make a credible battery-powered car.

Will a plug-in hybrid be enough to tempt this untapped group of super rich?
No. It’s an interim technology.

So who will Bentley’s plug-in hybrids appeal to?
Hybrids for us are the answer to CO2 and compliance challenges but also country- or city-specific legislation challenges. Forty-five percent of our cars are driven in cities, and they are used on a regular basis. When cities start to shut out combustion engines, we want to create products that are fully future-proof for that interim period. That’s the reason for hybrids. Not to expand into brand new customer segments.

Does your Bentayga plug-in hybrid qualify as an ultralow-emissions vehicle (ULEV, which produces 50 g/km of CO2 or less), making it eligible for tax breaks in some markets?
No, it does not.

Will it need a bigger battery?
Yes, and we are working on it, both now for range and for the compliance figures to get it to the ULEV category.

Is the hybrid available now?
No. One of the reasons we have had a tough year is the WLTP’s (Worldwide harmonized Light vehicles Test Procedure) effect on us has been close to catastrophic. We have done a lot of work to ensure our cars will comply with legislative requirements, but we have been stuck in the queue because we were not quick enough. The hybrid should have been on the streets right now. Instead, it has been delayed until February or March. We have a lot of interest and it’s ready, but we cannot release it because we do not have the certification. We have had to make choices; and the hybrid, unfortunately, went to the back of the queue. We have had to be ruthless in that prioritization.

Did WLTP also cause you to drop the Bentayga diesel?
Yes and no. That was really because of a reduction in demand for diesel over the last couple of years. Then we got delayed by WLTP, and by the time we would bring it back in, we would almost be ready for the next round of legislation. The V-8 gasoline engine will more than compensate.

VW Group financial reports have made mention of the slow rollout of the new Continental GT. What has been the issue there?
A number of things, none of them fundamental, but they are frustrating and time-consuming. First, we have chosen to use the world’s finest dual-clutch system for sports cars [which comes from sister brand Porsche], and one of the challenges we underestimated was refining it for an ultraluxury application. The second key thing has been WLTP. And on top of that, we are obsessive about gaps and rads [precision of panel gaps and surface radii, or body curves], as we call them. We don’t let it go until it’s right, so we are just taking our time to get it right. The double punch has been the shift in WLTP.

Is the GT fully available now?
It has been since July, apart from the WLTP stoppage. We are running at capacity, the order bank is good, the car is getting rave reviews, and it’s a winner. We did it exactly the same the first time I was here. We delayed that first GT by eight months because it was not better than the Audi A8, and that was the standard.

Now that the Continental GT is up and running, will the next quarter be profitable, or even the full year?
It definitely won’t be a profitable year. Will the last quarter be profitable? Probably. We have gone through the difficult period. This year is a conversion year to a better business model, and next year you will start to see significant growth and a return to normality in terms of profit.

Bloomberg

“We see full-electric cars as another growth opportunity in a five- to 10-year period,” Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark said.

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