For a moment it seems Harald J Wester, Alfa Romeo CEO since 2010, is about to break the habit of a lifetime and reveal that bit too much about his company’s future.
This is not usual. German-born Wester spent the first 14 years of his career as a young mechanical engineer rising rapidly through the ranks of the monolithic Volkswagen Group – where only those expressly authorised are free to speak in public – so he hardly ever utters a word out of place, even in his second language.
We’re discussing Alfa’s much-publicised expansion plan, announced last summer in Milan, to use eight new models and a much-delayed US launch to boost volume from last year’s sub-80,000 units to 400,000 in 2018 – and as an outsider, aware of the firm’s ropey record on expansions, I can’t resist saying it looks a scarily steep mountain to climb.
Wester is as reasonable and softly spoken as any country vicar, but you can tell that after 15 months of justifying the recovery plan, he’s a little fed up with having to rationalise the validity of his task, especially when the interviewer poses the obvious supplementary: if you couldn’t succeed before, how can you succeed now?
“Look,” he says, with an edge of exasperation, “a volume around 400,000 for all those new models won’t even be a particularly big success for Alfa. Some would say it represents too much new product for too little volume. In the second generation, an investor would probably expect sales to go significantly beyond those numbers.”
How big could Alfa become?
For a second, there’s a hint of an open goal: how much Alfa volume might the investor foresee? How about 600,000? In my dreams, I’ll get a positive answer and an exclusive. The prospect of Alfa Romeo volume achieving viability is especially enticing to someone like me who has chronicled the company’s losses and failed recoveries for 40 years. But the glimpse of a farther future goes in a flash. “Our first job is to make a start,” he says with finality.
“An important part of our job is to make the existing Alfisti happy,” he acknowledges. “It is wonderful, knowing how many people have continued to support our brand in its bad years. But there are not enough of these people available to build a strong future. We have to find more customers, and the way to do that is by providing what they want. Fancy niche models will not contribute very much to our stability.” He does not say “like the 4C” but it is clear this is what he’s thinking.
Where are these new customers? Wester slips into the ‘professor’ guise he wears rather well. Last year, he explains, around 90 million cars were sold worldwide. Nine million were premium cars – and a remarkable two-thirds of those fell into just four sectors: full-sized saloon, full-sized SUV, mid-sized saloon and mid-sized SUV. Who can be surprised that Alfa plans to launch products in these classes to build its eight-model future?
“Let’s talk Maserati for a minute,” says Wester, continuing the lesson, this time with his second CEO’s hat on (perhaps there will be time to learn something of Abarth, the third string to his busy bow). The total volume of the classes into which Maserati’s models fit makes a million sales worldwide. Of those, 550,000 are SUVs. “You can remain pure and ignore the crossover trend,” says Wester. “But if you do, you can look forward to a beautiful death.”
If his Alfa plan works, Wester says, it will right most of the company’s enduring wrongs by bringing back exciting and emotional products, greatly increasing car manufacture and car-making jobs in Italy (where the Alfas are to be made) and restoring the company to sectors where decent margins can be earned. It sounds like a kind of Italian Nirvana.