The Top Gear interview: Dany Bahar
You reach the cigar room of the May Fair Hotel via two polished corridors and a discreet staircase. It’s quiet this afternoon, but it’s a place that’s surely seen its fair share of dealmaking, dollar signs getting airborne on a haze of pungent smoke.
Top Gear has agreed to meet and photograph Dany Bahar here. You remember Bahar, of course. A born salesman with charisma to burn, he helped fashion Red Bull into the behemoth it is today, before being personally selected by Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo to help propel the Prancing Horse forward on a wave of lucrative new brand initiatives. Then, in 2009, he surprised everyone, not least his boss, by upping sticks and moving to Norfolk to become CEO of dear old Lotus.
Bahar brought with him a remarkable roster of talent, including AMG’s mercurial engineering genius Wolf Zimmermann, Donato Coco (the man who designed the Ferrari 458 Italia), ex-Porsche man Dr Frank Tuch and many other Ferrari and Bentley people in senior roles. An advisory board of equally heavy hitters – Bob Lutz, Burkhard Goeschel, the late Karl-Heinz Kalbfell and Gordon Murray among them – supplied the brains trust.
His vision for Lotus was predictably ambitious. Top of the list was a new Esprit, backed by a raft of gorgeous supporting models, and a rather random cast of showbiz acolytes. Bahar smelt money; others, a rat. The Lotus faithful were appalled, but the thrust upmarket was surely the only way the company could survive. Then, in 2012, Lotus’s owner Proton was taken over by Malaysian conglomerate DRB-Hicom, and all hell broke loose. There were allegations of misappropriated company funds and gross misconduct. Darkness enveloped Hethel. Inevitably, there were lawyers.
Bahar hasn’t spoken about what happened, until now; indeed, there are still some things that can’t be said. He’s an engaging character, with immaculate hair and a big smile. Time to find out what he’s up to.
Top Gear: Your new project, Ares, sounds cool. Tell us about it.
Dany Bahar: Ares is a new kind of automotive atelier created specifically to cater for people who need a car that’s unique, hand-crafted and extraordinary. Maybe you remember Ferrari’s Atelier and Special Projects division? That started during my time in Maranello. Now imagine an independent atelier, where you have access to all the brands and can respond to client requests for sports cars, SUVs, shooting brakes… It opens up a whole world of possibilities. We’re only changing the parts that are visible to the client, like a total makeover inside and out, and we leave the hard points, the mechanical structure, the electronics infrastructure and the suspension untouched.
TG: What talent have you recruited?
DB: Mihai Panaitescu [ex-Pininfarina] is the designer. Wolf Zimmermann [ex-Lotus and AMG] runs the technical aspect. We charge €700k plus, which is expensive, but not out of this world for a design exercise. Apart from one company in Turin, all the top suppliers are in the Modena area, which is why we’ve set up there. We spent eight months analysing the market and realised that nobody is doing it in a truly structured way. We will work on different models in time. I live in Dubai now, and there’s lots of interest there, as you can imagine.
TG: Are you a true car guy or someone with an eye for a good business opportunity?
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DB: I care a lot about cars. But I’m an entrepreneur, not an engineer. I’ve always had other side projects, along with the managerial roles I’ve fulfilled. Whether I have a good eye for an investment, we’ll see. In this specific project, I believe there is a real market there, a real opportunity for a business with good margins. I think it’s worth exploring, because the OEMs won’t be able to follow it at the speed we can.
TG: After the Lotus debacle, weren’t you tempted to walk away from the car industry?
DB: I wanted a bit of time for myself, firstly. We’ve chosen somewhere we really love to live with the family, and I’ll oversee my projects from there. This one just happened to be a car business, but it could have been anything. I also have business interests in yachts and watches. I like to go from here to there, to create new stuff. Success, failure, success, failure – that’s how you learn. I like my freedom. I’m not corporate.
DB: No. It’s too boring for me, although you can probably make a lot more money there! I need to see dynamics, to see things working, and most of all growing. I love to see product. Since 2004, we’ve owned an Italian shipyard. It’s a difficult business at the moment, but I love it. Clearly, my interests lie in the lifestyle area. I always try to spot the synergies. The watch company is a start-up with a couple of friends. It’s fresh and new and, if all goes well, we should see something before Christmas. But I’ll never go back to being a manager at a big company. [pause] Well, one should never say never, but let’s just say I’m much happier now.
TG: In light of what happened subsequently, do you regret leaving Ferrari? We heard that Luca di Montezemolo took your decision very personally…
DB: It would be very interesting to hear what you think happened. Only two people knew to begin with, and then only four… Any boss who structures a company, who hires and fires and builds a team, is bound to be disappointed when one of his people says, “I’ve found something else; I want to move on.” Some people react very emotionally, some aggressively. [pause] Sometimes I have regrets, sure. That’s normal. In my eyes, Ferrari is the best company in the world, and I have the highest respect for Mr Montezemolo. He’s a remarkable man; I learnt a great deal from him. But you are right: people don’t normally leave Ferrari. You either have big balls or you are stupid. I leave it up to you to decide which category I belong in! But [Montezemolo] agreed it was a big opportunity. By the way, it wasn’t about being the CEO [of Lotus] – my job at Ferrari was probably bigger at that time. It was about the opportunity. I love the Lotus brand. It’s a fantastic company. It deserves much more.
TG: What exactly did you see in Lotus? You saw something there deeper even than some of its most partisan fans.
DB: I learned a lot from Ferrari, especially with regards to history. It’s taken 67 years to build what it has. Perhaps I was naïve, but I saw similarities. Being pragmatic, you start with the foundations. Maybe the Lotus heritage is not currently present in people’s minds, but at least you don’t have to create everything from scratch – the history is already there! The 007 Esprit. The Ayrton Senna connection. The JPS cars. Seven F1 world championships… All there. Obviously it was more difficult than I thought, but there was so much wonderful heritage… I thought with the right investment and the right people, we should be able to unlock that potential. Look, I’m ambitious. If we wanted to achieve 100 per cent, I would go for 110.
TG: Famously, you revealed five new models at the Paris motor show in 2010. Some observers thought you were mad.
DB: It was a hugely ambitious plan. But would it really have impacted on the media and clients if we’d turned up with one car? “Lotus announces a new Esprit.” It’s not earth-shattering, is it? It’s also not me. Now imagine going there with a real intent, with the ambition to be a great carmaker again, with four, five cars… some people were positive, some negative. That’s normal. I like polarising opinion. When a product polarises, it develops a character. I learned that at Red Bull – it’s not always a bad thing to polarise. You need a strong character to build a brand. Building all five cars was our best-case-scenario business plan. We could have turned the company around with one car, and the second would have been a bonus. Everyone involved in the business was aware of that, all the investors and shareholders. But we needed to make a lot of noise and demonstrate real intent, because nobody would have cared otherwise. Before Paris, many of the big-name automotive suppliers weren’t interested in working with us; this all changed when they saw the plan.
TG: Did the criticism and depth of feeling surprise you?
DB: It prompted a lot of internal discussions. Back in Colin Chapman’s day, he knew he couldn’t survive with small, affordable cars – unless you’re selling 50,000 of them. It’s just not practical, and also impossible with Lotus’s facilities. He knew that, and we knew that, but suddenly it looked like a bulldozer had arrived to ruin the Lotus legacy. But that wasn’t the legacy! Towards the end of the Chapman era, he was working on more expensive V8 cars… Lotus had endured 15 years of losses. The combination of low volume, low price, high production costs and low margins… it won’t work. And you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that. [pause] We should have communicated more efficiently to the real brand adherents that there would always be a lightweight, stripped-out Lotus. But equally, they would have to accept a bigger car, a different-looking car, because that’s the model that would keep paying the salaries and keep subsidising the unprofitable stripped-out cars.
TG: Let’s clear up some of the information around your arrival at Lotus, the plan you were forging and what subsequently unfolded.
DB: The plan was clear, long before I joined. Proton wanted Lotus to move upmarket, with new models. My dialogue with Proton began during a meeting at a motor show – I can’t remember which one. They were looking for fresh blood, and I wasn’t the only person they spoke to. I guess they liked my approach – it was new and fresh. My logic and arguments made sense. They still make sense today. I recall that during a motor show, a Ferrari colleague said, “Dany, watch this car [the Evora] – it’s interesting…”
TG: That is interesting. Not least because I always suspected you strongly disliked the Evora…
DB: That’s completely untrue. But the car started on the wrong foot. It didn’t fulfil its development targets. We had to make our business with the existing product, push it and build it properly. It worked. We sold 2,700 cars [including the Elise]. Lotus was on the right path [it had a £160m turnover in 2011, compared with an £89m turnover last year]. The Esprit was delayed by six months but was still on course for 2014. It’s nothing unusual to be delayed by six months in the automotive industry. We were weeks away from the first prototype hitting the road. I believe it would have changed the economics at Lotus completely.
TG: Didn’t the brand side and the business side get confused, though? Do you regret Sharon Stone and Brian May and all the show- business distractions?
DB: [laughs] Who could regret Sharon Stone? Those five minutes in Los Angeles… nobody will ever take them away from me! Seriously, Aston, Ferrari, Bentley, they all have amazing showrooms and celebrity relationships. They’re doing exactly what we were doing. The guy who’s paying £100k-plus for a car expects to buy more than just a product – he’s buying into a lifestyle. The brand element follows the strategic decision about where to position the product. You have to understand that of our total investment, 90 per cent went into the product. The celebrity aspect didn’t cost us anything at all. And I still believe Sharon Stone helped promote the brand far more effectively than traditional advertising or marketing would have. I also agree that it led to a disconnect with the traditional Lotus client. But you won’t change anything without trying.
TG: There was genuine excitement at the beginning and real momentum...
DB: The Proton relationship was fantastic. There were some critics on the board, but it’s normal for them to challenge you. The key people supported us, and got the vision. In Malaysia, it’s different, and the political system is part of it, but they all seemed supportive.
TG: So what the hell happened?
DB: DRB-Hicom bought Proton. It came as a total surprise. Proton didn’t even know it was coming. My contract had just been extended for another three or four years. We knew nothing until the press statement was made.
TG: Our understanding is that the total investment pot was around £770m. How much had you invested by then? £250m?
DB: [pause] No, not that much. £180m, I think. [pause] I have difficulties when I can’t understand why someone is behaving a certain way, or has made a certain decision. I knew they didn’t like my face, but at least take the car and make it a success. I don’t even care if someone else takes the credit! The engine is fantastic, there’s some amazing technology there, but they didn’t even look at it. They simply cancelled everything. [pause] I’m a realistic guy – it’s not exactly unprecedented for a company to get sold, and for a new owner or shareholder to arrive and change the CEO.
TG: Why didn’t it play out that way?
DB: It is best that I don’t discuss it further, I’m afraid.
TG: But the rumour mill cranked up. You allegedly used company funds to finance an extension to your house… [pause] Did you have a corporate jet?
DB: [firmly] No, we didn’t have a corporate jet. We had a deal to use one from time to time. I believe everything was – and is – in the public domain. Every shareholder has their own style, and it’s not for me to judge whether it’s right or wrong. Anyway, it’s all done and dusted now: we reached a settlement with Group Lotus and DRB-Hicom, with all parties agreeing to withdraw their claims against each other.
TG: What about the damage to your reputation?
DB: My reputation isn’t my number- one concern; it never was. I live my life, I’m happy, I’ve moved on already, the people who know me know…
TG: Come on! You were Dietrich Mateschitz’s [Red Bull boss] protégé, being talked up as Montezemolo’s successor at Ferrari, a former CEO at Lotus – you can’t seriously tell me you weren’t bothered by what was happening…
DB: No, that’s not what I’m saying…
TG: But you were the guy embroiled in a messy court case…
DB: Well, I had two big job offers just afterwards, one from a big car company, so it didn’t affect me that much. Do I care? Not really. But I am bothered by some of the things that were said, because they were not true. I believe my reputation was damaged, yes. My biggest initial disappointment [when it ended] wasn’t the damage it did to my reputation, it was disappointment for the 25 people who joined me, who had uprooted their families and moved to Norfolk. As the boss, I felt I had really failed because I couldn’t protect them. They were my guys, and I felt responsible. I was emotional about that.
TG: How do you feel, now that the dust has settled?
DB: I don’t regret a single moment of my time at Lotus. A good friend of mine, a journalist, passed on his favourite saying to me, and I really believe it: “There are three kinds of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch what happens and those who say, ‘What happened?’” It was a great experience. We were trying to do in a year what other companies would take five years to do. It was like boot camp. We had a phenomenal team, committed to the end, and the support we had from Proton before the sale was second to none. There was a great atmosphere. If you can attract the right people to help you, that’s the biggest sign that you inspire trust. Lotus was the biggest learning curve in my career, and it’s a very special brand. I wish it all the success in the world.