Ten Minutes with Eric Shepherd, Rolls-Royce North America President

Apr 10, 2015 12:30 AM EDT | Jeff Jablansky

Rolls-Royce is on a roll, selling more cars than ever and with plans in the works for a sport-utility vehicle. It's a rare occasion that the automaker has a stand at an auto show—blame it on the small cadre of ultra-high-net worth customers who obviate the need for a public show appearance by the brand—but New York is an important market to Rolls-Royce.

We caught up with Rolls-Royce North America CEO Eric Shepherd at the company's stand at the Javits Center.

Auto World News: How are things going?

Eric Shepherd: Business is continuing to be very well. Obviously, the Bespoke products that we're showing off here is what drives us right now.

There's no Ghost convertible on the stand.

We don't build any of those, that I know of.

We've talked about that in the past, and you hinted it wasn't far off.

Our new Drophead is set to launch probably second-quarter next year. We don't have any details on naming or positioning just yet. We're going to share that with some VIP customers, likely over the summer, and in the third quarter or fourth-quarter, we'll show the vehicle publicly, and then announce the name and strategy and all the specifications at that point. I've played around with the car at this point-we do have a test mule on the road-and I won't comment on what looks like or wrong, but I can say that unmasked, the car is the most beautiful Rolls-Royce I've ever seen.

You've had a chance to drive it?

I haven't driven it on the road yet. But it will match exactly what we expect from the driving quality of the Rolls-Royce.

When we spoke with Michael Fux, he was adamant that customers play a very influential role in product development. How much input do customers really have in your process?

With customers like Michael, we take valuable feedback from them when we're developing any new product or adapting something for the bespoke process in a current product. We have designers and a whole team to do that, who are incredibly creative, but a lot of times, what they're able to do is take a creative vision from one of our customers and then mold it into something else. Between the two creative minds coming together, the final product is more than the two came up with individually. I think that's where we're going to be with [the next Drophead], as well. It's certainly a car that people were asking for, and when it comes to market, and everyone sees the specifications, they're going to be absolutely blown away.

You don't like to talk about the competitive space, so let's discuss Lincoln and Cadillac, which have just unveiled new luxury sedans that will be at the top of their lineups. Have you seen them up close?

I haven't yet. I walked a little bit by the new Lincoln, and I know all the controversy that went on back and forth; I'll leave that between Bentley and Lincoln on the view of what that car looked like. In general, Lincoln and Cadillac, to have hot new products, is good for everyone. I hope that the models that they're bringing out show success for those companies. It's good for the whole market.

Is there a timetable for the SUV?

Not yet. We're still looking a few years out, but we've officially notified everyone that it's Project Cullinan. We like to have fun with [our names], even in the project phase. Cullinan is the world's largest uncut diamond. We think that fits very well into what we have for our design and our desire for what this product is going to be. We're not ready to give too many specific on that, just yet, but we're getting into the testing phases on some of the engineering. You're probably going to see a few things that we're going to talk about, maybe differently than we have in the past, because being a high-bodied car on the all-aluminum architecture that we'll be introducing, we'll have mules on the road. When those come out, we'll engage in this conversation so that people know what is real, and what is not.

You're selling more cars than ever. Which are your biggest U.S. markets?

The three key markets are southern California, Florida, and the New York/New Jersey metro area. They're all fairly even. Southern California is typically our number-one market, but our dealer of the year in America and globally was Palm Beach, Fla. That's not a volume thing, but they certainly had fantastic year-over-year growth that outpaced other dealers', when you look at volume-which, you know, is not the way we look at it. When you look at how they sold their cars, the Bespoke models they did, the way they take care of their customers, and the after sales and service environment, it was great to see Palm Beach not only win that award for North American dealer of the year, but for global dealer of the year as well.

Are you still marketing the Ghost sedan as a driver's car?

That's a North American thing. When you get into some of the other markets, like China, they want to be driven in a car like that. When you look at the standard-wheelbase Ghost, that's truly something for an entrepreneur or for a CEO, another piece of their business tool kit. It's a car that they can drive, and their little respite on the way home from the office. It's their commuter car that's an extension of their office, but at the same time, it has adaptability. If they're going to an event, they can be driven in that car, as well. It's the best of both worlds. For our market, we designed it around the driver, but [backseat passengers] have all the creature comforts.

Can you speak about Rolls-Royce and leasing in the U.S.?

The overall automotive marketplace in the U.S. is largely a lease market. A lot of times, that's very good for manufacturers, if it's done in the right moderation and balance. You get a natural cycle of customers coming back, and it helps to gain customer loyalty. ... It's not much different, from those perspectives, within the Rolls-Royce environment. We lease between 35 and 40 percent of our cars, which is probably a little bit lower than some other volume brands, but we feel that's a very appropriate place for us, especially with some of the new products that are coming out, like Ghost and Wraith. It's going to give us that natural evolution. These cars typically will have a little faster life cycle before they're updated than, say, the original Phantom, which was around for about 10 years in its first iteration. For those particular buyers, it gives them an opportunity to be in that edition of car, and then be ready when there's a Series II Ghost, like the one we just brought out, shortly after it's refreshed.

What are you driving these days?

I'm generally driving a Ghost. I go back and forth with the Ghost and a Wraith, but summer is coming. There may be a Drophead in my future.

How would you spec your ideal car?

The Drophead [on the stand] is specced almost to how I have specced my car coming in. I love the gunmetal [exterior] combination with the Mugello red [interior]. I have a Phantom Coupe coming first, before summer that I wanted to play around with and showcase some Bespoke opportunities on that, too. So, I won't be driving it long-term, and there are several customers who have said, "I want that car." Gunmetal wheels, black piping, and red carbon fiber around the dash. You know the beautiful woodwork from our other cars, but the particular car that I've built will have red carbon fiber everywhere. ... It really gives it a type of edginess that you don't often see on a Rolls-Royce.

Tell me a little bit about the response to Serenity from your American customers.

We had several American customers at the debut in Geneva that saw the car and were so blown away-not just with what Serenity was, knowing it was built for an Asian customer-[and] are now saying, "If you can do that with silks, what can we do now that we know you have the capability for?" It really opened up a discussion with several customers who said, "I had no idea to even think about that." All from us testing an adaptation with one customer, obviously in a stunning fashion.

Auto World News was on the ground and covering the 2015 New York International Auto Show. Check out our up-to-the-minute coverage of all the action in New York City, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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