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Is this the only man in the world who can bring Alfa back to U.S. shores?
By: Gavin Green
Date Posted 07-14-2005
Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, 55, is the boss of both Alfa Romeo and Maserati. He is charged with making two of Italy's greatest carmakers profitable and successful again. A former BMW executive who ran the sporty M division (M3, M5, etc.) and later Rolls-Royce, Kalbfell joined the Fiat group at the beginning of this year to head up Alfa. It was, he said at the time, "an opportunity too good to refuse." A few months later, during a purge of non-Italian Fiat executives — Fiat Auto chief Herbert Demel (from Austria) and Maserati boss Martin Leach (U.K.) were both sacked — Kalbfell not only survived but was promoted. He was handed the top Maserati job, on top of his Alfa Romeo responsibility, in April. Inside Line's Gavin Green spoke to Kalbfell in the U.K., asking him first about the United States.
When will Alfa Romeo be back in America?
An international brand has to be in America, but we are not yet in shape to go to America. We don't have the resources, a big enough product range or the infrastructure. America is the strongest and most demanding market in the world. We have to be well prepared. We won't reenter America until we're ready, and I can't give you that date now. In the meantime, we must sell more cars in Europe, grow in other major markets outside Europe — Asia and the Middle East, for instance — and prepare carefully for America.
Alfa Romeo sold 175,000 cars last year worldwide, almost half in Italy. What are the sales goals?
Three hundred thousand in the medium term — but that's before America.
Would the Alfa 159 be a success in America, as it is?
I think so, yes. But it's not just the car. Everything around the car has also to be absolutely tops. We do not have an infrastructure in America.
Wouldn't the new Spider [to be unveiled this fall in Europe, and to go on sale in Europe next year — and to be based on the 159] seem an obvious car to spearhead Alfa Romeo into America?
The Spider is a very well-known model name in America, thanks to that movie [The Graduate]. I think the new Spider would give us a tremendous opportunity in America….
What are Alfa Romeo's strengths?
Amazing brand recognition around the world and excellent technology — absolutely on par with our rivals and maybe, with the 159, even better than our rivals. There is so much technical ability at Alfa Romeo. It surprised me when I joined. Alfa Romeo invented the common-rail diesel engine, not Mercedes, and Alfa Romeo also really invented the compact sport sedan market, not BMW. The innovation and technology is still very strong.
And the weaknesses?
Sales and marketing. Not just the dealers, but the whole network. Quality is also not good enough and we have to work on it. We need to improve our customer relationships, too. Alfa Romeo is very much a relationship brand. It is one of the most emotional brands in the world, the magic of rosso. But we need to give customers some good common sense, rational reasons to buy Alfa Romeos, too, like quality, ease of use and comfort.
The new Alfa Romeo 159 uses partly General Motors-developed engines and a part-GM-developed platform. Will this help with the car's U.S. launch?
For sure. The engines comply with GM emissions standards and the platform also complies with all international standards. But they are very much Alfa Romeo programs, too. Only we will use this platform, and the engines are also unique to Alfa Romeo — because of their components and tune.
Why leave Rolls-Royce and BMW to join Alfa Romeo?
The challenge. At Rolls-Royce I helped build up the project, and it is now a mature business. I am more the man for new challenges. Alfa Romeo is also such a great name, with such opportunities. It's amazing how many people have owned an Alfa Romeo in the past and have real passion for Alfa Romeo. I also honestly believe that Alfa Romeo not only has a great past, but a great future, too. While I care about the past, I care much more about the future.
Will Maserati dealers sell Alfa Romeos in America?
Some, yes. Most Maserati dealers would like to sell Alfa Romeos. But we have only 47 Maserati dealers in America and we would need more than that for Alfa Romeo. But we do want to start slow and grow. We do not want to start with a bang.
What's it like being a German car boss working for such a quintessentially Italian company?
I'm from Munich in Bavaria, in southern Germany. Munich is often referred to, by Bavarians, as the northernmost city in Italy. Besides, after six months working in Italy I feel more Italian than German.
How will Maserati and Alfa Romeo cooperate?
They remain separate companies. The link is me, as manager, and their common Italian DNA. Maserati will continue to use some Ferrari mechanicals, including engines. But there will be more parts sharing in the future with Fiat and Alfa Romeo. Maseratis will become more affordable cars. To do that you cannot continue to have the same parts costs as Ferrari. Jointly, I see Alfa Romeo and Maserati as the Italian alternative in the premium car segment.
Alternative to BMW…
Not just BMW, but they are the premium leaders.
But BMW is the target?
Sure. For instance, the 159 is absolutely aimed at 3 Series buyers. I think we have a good chance. People in this segment absolutely want change. We are offering a handsome and convincing alternative.
You want Alfa and Maserati ranges to dovetail.
That would make sense if we are to compete in the premium market. At the moment there is a big gap between the most expensive Alfa Romeo and the least expensive Maserati.
Will you build 4x4 or crossover Maseratis and Alfa Romeos?
It's possible. We are looking at many possibilities.
How will future Maseratis change?
I want to make Maserati a more accessible brand, closer to Porsche. Sales will increase to 10,000 a year in the next four to five years from last year's 4,600 worldwide. But the heartbeat will remain the Quattroporte. Maseratis will remain everyday usable cars, too. One of the biggest differences between Ferrari and Maserati customers is that the average Ferrari driver does between 3,000-5,000 miles a year, while the average Maserati customer does 20,000 miles. They are cars for using and driving and enjoying every day.
 

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Re: Is this the only man in the world who can bring Alfa back to U.S. shores? (bgluckman)

Alfa Romeos are all FWD now, correct? Nothing really wrong with that, but I wonder how that fact would stack against them when it comes time to fight for BMW's sales?
 

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Re: Is this the only man in the world who can bring Alfa back to U.S. shores? (GTurboI)

My dad had an alfa when i was a little kid. I'd love to own one of these myself quite frankly. Karl-Heinz Kalbfell will hopefully pull this off quicker than we all think.
 

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Re: Is this the only man in the world who can bring Alfa back to U.S. shores? (jastevenson)

Uh, Alfa just hired James C. Selwa, formerly of Rolls-Royce NA as "Alfa Romeo-Maserati North America CEO".
He is bringing the rear or AWD 159 Sedan here within the next 2 years!

This is in my new issue of Autoweek, just came today. This week's stories are not on their website yet.



Modified by TRiAD at 3:12 PM 7-23-2005
 
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