Monday, 4 April 2016

Fiat heir Lapo Elkann aims to be a key player in car customization

Lapo Elkann: “The mission is to be the fashion, style and design house for everything in motion.”

Lapo Elkann has re-entered the auto business with Garage Italia Customs, a Milan-based company that specializes in custom bodywork, paint and upholstery. Elkann, whose great-grandfather Giovanni Agnelli co-founded Fiat, has held numerous roles in the family business. As head of brand promotion he campaigned to transform the 3+1 concept into what would become the rebooted Fiat 500, which has been one of Europe’s top-selling minicars for nearly a decade. He left Fiat in 2005 after nearly dying of a drug overdose. Two years later he started Italia Independent, a lifestyle and clothing brand featuring Italian products. Last November, he opened Garage Italia. Elkann detailed his plans for the business and shared his views on the auto industry in an interview with Automotive News EuropeEditor Luca Ciferri.

What is the mission for Garage Italia?

The mission is to be the fashion, style and design house for everything in motion. We have customized cars, motorcycles, helicopters, private jets and boats. Automobiles are the core of our activity because I am mad about cars. Secondly, cars account for about $93 billion of the global $590 billion in annual spending for customization.

What are your key goals?

My first goal is to reach breakeven in about three to four years on the roughly 8 million euros we’ve invested so far. Long term, the sky is the limit. The number of wealthy people is growing worldwide and they increasingly want something tailor made to properly express their tastes and dreams.

Is there is any link between Garage Italia and Ferrari’s Tailor Made customization program you helped set up?

I had the great opportunity to work on Ferrari’s Tailor Made project as well as on their one-off program. I really loved that and I learned a lot. But, with all due respect, Ferrari Tailor Made is [customization] 2.0 while Garage Italia is 5.0. Why? Because we have no constrains on the brands and type of vehicles [we can work on]. Everything that moves could be customized by us. We have worked for BMW, Fiat, Mercedes, Jeep, and Smart, just to name a few.

When will Garage Italia expand?

We will open a second atelier in Miami, probably in the second half. Then we will add something in the Middle East.

What is you ultimate goal at Garage Italia?

What we currently do: cooperate with exemplary Italian companies such as Brembo, Pirelli and Alcantara to create products that offer state-of-the-art technology and perfect beauty. To do so, we will continue to have cross-fertilization with the art, product design and fashion worlds.

What is the price range to have Garage Italia customize a car?

From 1,000 euros for a partial exterior wrapping to 6,000 euros for a full wrapping. Custom painting ranges between 5,000 and 15,000 euros. The same range applies to revising an interior, but you can easily reach 300,000 euros is you select special treatments such as a carbon fiber instrument cluster wrapped with marble and a handbrake lever with the same finish as a samurai’s katana sword handle.

Do you work on the powertrain?

That is not our core job. We want to promote Italian craftsmanship to make a vehicle’s look and finish unique. If the customer wants higher performances, we recommend high-end tuners.

What about one-off units?

My drawer is full of dream cars and one day I would like to be able to build some of them. However, undergoing the full homologation process for a one-off unit would be too much for a company that is less than a year old. That being said, my motto is never say never. So maybe we could start by doing some custom-designed cars for the movie industry.

With your brother, John, and sister, Ginevra, you are a powerful shareholder in the parent company that controls both Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ferrari. What does this mean to you?

I am extremely happy that my brother is running these businesses. He is very good at it. This lets me be an independent entrepreneur who can follow his personal interests on a daily basis thanks to a wise brother who takes care of the family belongings.

What will the auto business be in two product cycles, say around 2030?

Since I do not work at an automaker anymore, I only have indirect insights based on the things I hear and read. I believe that autonomous driving and car sharing will continue to grow in importance. Cars have to become much more environmentally friendly because society cannot support unsustainable mobility anymore. The question is: Will the solutions come from traditional automakers or from disruptors such as Apple and Google? The automakers that will survive and thrive will be the ones that can leverage these new technologies. Those left behind by these disruptors sooner or later will face extinction.

What would you say if an automaker offered you a full-time job tomorrow?

Right now I would say, “No thanks.” I have 310 people working for me at Italian Independent Group and another 40 at Garage Italia. These people are my daily priority. Once these companies grow and are able to stand on their own two feet, I could eventually consider a full-time job either in the auto industry or in another industry.

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