Improving on tradition4 March 2014
Leather International catches up with Andrew Monachan, general manager of leather at Rolls Royce to discuss the subtleties of discerning customers and keeping standards in check.
How do Rolls Royce customers and prospective customers perceive leather and how they want it represented in their cars, and how does that impact how you source raw materials?
In the super-luxury segment, price for raw materials isn't necessarily the driving factor. We don't really worry either. It's more of a concern to understand what people class as leather and people's perception of leather. We try to have a very natural feel, a natural touch on what we put on the inside of our motor cars. I get a lot of criticism from historic Rolls Royce owners who say that leather was much better in the 1950s. But I say that that product was so heavily painted with as much lacquer as possible, so you're actually sitting on paint rather than leather itself. But when you talk to people in that bracket of purchasing about that, they have their view and they don't like to be challenged.
How do attitudes differ from one product line to another and how does it affect cost?
We have Phantom, which is our higher-end product, and Ghost, which is our high-end product. And we do notice a difference between those sorts of people who are paying €250,000 for a car, versus those who pay €500,000-plus. Because when you're getting someone to spend that much at the higher-end for a car, their understanding of materials is a lot deeper. They'll understand where we're sourcing the veneers from and the materials surrounding them. And it's a much easier sell that they connect with the sort of things we put in the car, like leather. Because for us, when you're talking about something that is heavily painted and embossed, for me it's closer to cardboard than leather itself. And in true luxury, why would you ever want that? I find that quite a struggle. Another thing we try to steer away from is to have embossed leather. We don't try to make leather look like something it's not, like snakeskin or alligator. It has to be the genuine article. That's really important in our market -- the naturalness of the product and the honesty of the product. And maybe that's why the pricing is not such an issue. Money is no object, but value for money is.
Keeping materials as natural as possible is one thing, but how it's put together in the car is equally important. What is Rolls Royce's approach to craftsmanship?
Those are the two main things we use as unique selling points: the naturalness of the materials we have and the amount of craftsmanship we put into the product when we are producing it. When people come to our Goodwood facilities to see their car being produced and see 300 people doing the interior as opposed to about 150 building the car, it gives them a real insight into how much craftsmanship goes into it.
Alternatives to leather are getting better in terms of quality and natural feel. What is Rolls Royce's attitude toward synthetics?
Synthetics don't really come up as part of our profile, with the exception of one market, which is India; they still play with the idea of having a synthetic leather substitute inside their cars, but a very high-end synthetic. Most of the other regions where they don't want leather they go towards fabric.
What are some of the challenges you face in terms of sourcing the best raw materials?
The door panels, especially on the extended wheel-base Phantom, are massive, and when you're looking to have that as one piece of leather, it's a big challenge. So we're focused on one breed of Simmental. We can't use anything smaller than five square metres for surface area, so these are big animals. As a result, access to the markets where those animals are represented is fairly restricted.
How do you approach sustainability and traceability?
Probably a key benefit for us is that in most of the markets where we source our raw materials, the level of animal husbandry is extremely high. Not only that but the bulk is used for meat production, so there's a strong line in terms of traceability of meat that we can tag on the back of. We can trust in the sources we have knowing that if some things like steroids are getting into the food chain, there's going to be huge problems. So if we're taking from food-chain sources, we can be relatively comfortable that bulls are responsibly reared.
And how does that effort and information get passed on to the customer?
When I speak to customers or dealers, it's really important for me to detail various aspects of the leather and why our leather is what it is. It's not the same thing that's being done at Aston Martin, Bentley and Maserati. It's something unique. Customers don't want to be talked at, schooled or coached; what they want is a glimpse into worlds they don't quite know about. If you can do that in an appropriate way, depending on the market, and make that connection, and go through the process of teaching, then the distinction is made clear.