Making Rolls-Royce Bespoke With Gavin Hartley

As far as exclusive car brands go, Rolls-Royce takes the cake. But if you want your exclusivity just that bit more exclusive, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a Rolls-Royce Bespoke division. We talk to Gavin Hartley, the Head of Bespoke Design about the growth of luxury personalisation, how one-on-one customer relationships are important in any industry, and the Rolls-Royce of champagne chests.

Is there an average day that you would have to contend with?

We’ve got such a high turnover of individual features that are running through Bespoke at any one time that I’m reliant on the team of bespoke designers to own most of those. I’m just digging into certain key strategic areas in a lot of ways. Both looking at key projects and things like collection cars and key accessories or lifestyle features that we’re looking at developing. We’ll have regular meetings on those.

A lot of my time is taken up with meetings, but they’re the ones to do with problem-solving. Most things that we’re setting ourselves as tasks are not generally straight-forward. The straight-forward things are not things that I need to involve myself in. I’m in a lot of meetings, but equally, they’re tending to be design-focused.

From that point of view, we’re dealing a lot with engineers. Within the world of bespoke, you’re dealing with a lot of existing framework of architecture. I think the challenge there is an enormous one, because it always has to appear that anything that we do is exactly how it was originally intended.

We have the advantage of starting bespoke early these days in terms of new vehicles, new models coming through. We can influence how those vehicles are designed in order to enable bespoke further down the line, so the bespoke is no longer an add-on.

Equally, the engineering challenges of working within an interesting architecture of a vehicle can make things quite challenging. There’s a lot of discussion with engineering. In a way, that suits my background, because that’s what drew me into designing in the first place. It’s very tough to have a focus, but also very functional and challenging from a technical point of view as well.

Is it true that the bespoke design group is bigger than the Munich design studios?

Yeah, that’s happened over the years. When I started off about 14 years ago, I was literally the design department. Just myself and one engineer.

But from there, we’ve grown to something in the order of 25. That’s including everybody. Colour and material designers and our technical support engineers. Mainly, we’re 3D industrial designers. It’s purely grown through customer demand, really. We’re just responding to a heightened level of desire of more individuals to have something that’s very personal to them.

You’ve got this really intimate time with the customer as well. Does that stand to influence the core product as well?

We’re influencing the core product by way of new development. We hear from the customer one-to-one on a regular basis. We’re well placed to understand their tastes and desires.

We’re trying to build a brand that resonates with a modern-day customer. We’re not just looking at heritage here. Listening to people and finding out what their preferences are and what they’re doing becomes very beneficial. Therefore we can share that with our counterparts in the other design studio.

We’re in a good position in that we can have that one-to-one dialogue. Occasionally, you’re dealing with technical parts there, you’re dealing with demographics and you’re dealing with different types of people. You’re always dealing with the picture of the average customer, when in actual fact, we understand that in the same way there’s no average day, there’s no average customer. We therefore have the privilege of being able to focus on a person who has an aim and has a character. Because in a way, everyone’s searching for their perfect Rolls-Royce. But that differs very much from person to person.

Could you describe YOUR typical customer now compared to 20 years ago? Are there certain traits? Are there certain qualities?

In certain cases, we’ve got customers that have been loyal to us and in a way, you don’t necessarily see a huge change in there. But I think there’s more that we can offer now. People are typically inspired by what they’re aware of and so we’re able to in a way create desire as well, both in terms of features but also techniques as well.

We could say the customer’s asking for more, but it’s partly because we are in a position to be offering more as our capabilities develop. We don’t stand still and just offer more of the same. We’re constantly looking to develop musings that will appeal. But equally, I think there’s more of an air of relaxation.

In the earlier days, there were the vestiges of that burden of history. There was still this feeling that to buy a Rolls-Royce, you have to do it in a particular way. You should have a sober exterior colour or a sober interior colour.

Those are almost like burdens of responsibility with the brand, because people take the Rolls-Royce brand very seriously. I think those burdens have been slightly relaxed. Therefore, we’re putting things slightly more relaxed in the vehicles with things like the Dawn and the Cullinan. There’s less of an air of formality. I think dealing with that builds on a feeling where people are a bit more free to do something a bit different.

That might come down to having the boldness to step away from the walnut to something that’s a more avant-garde type of wood, or even not wood at all. We’ve moved towards using other materials, whether it’s metals or technical fibres. I think our people feel a little bit more empowered to do that.

Sometimes our feeling is that we can show things at times that people haven’t necessarily asked for, but it could still be appealing. Because what we don’t want is people to seem too burdened by the heritage of the brand.

The heritage is such a big part of the brand from a design perspective, how do you walk that line between the future and that heritage as well?

I like to think of it as being respectful of the brand. But equally, it’s difficult to move forward if you’re looking over your shoulder all the time.

I think we also have to be respectful of customers and a changing world and pace. It’s a constant juggling act of trying to balance trends and requests of all sorts. Through to something whereby you want the brand to be continuing for another 100 years.

We have to both protect and build the brand. I think that’s what draws people to us in that they wouldn’t come to us if it was purely all about us as a big brand. I think what appeals to many of our clients is the fact that they’re able to talk to Rolls-Royce and not talk to an exterior aftermarket modifier of cars. They can actually talk to Rolls-Royce and have somebody’s permission in the way that they would like it. That’s quite a surprising thing really because the one-to-one discussion is a very powerful thing. I think the personal approach is something that our clients expect in other parts of their lives.

But the way we bring that together with a very, very well-known name like Rolls-Royce is quite a powerful thing.

Your clients expect a certain level of service and a certain level of quality. Do you take some of that back into how you conduct your management and run an organisation?

We don’t try to draw too many parallels with our clients, because they’ve had successes in many different ways and there is no set formula behind a Rolls-Royce customer. What we try and do is to be extremely organised and professional, but also personal. Maybe the connection there is that the more I dealt with our clients, the more I found that they’re extremely different but also extremely similar to us normal mortals and the fact that there’s a motivation that is common behind making decisions.

Many of our clients have been operating in an extremely rarefied atmosphere that we’re not living in. So the challenge is for the design team to be able to transport ourselves into a customer mindset.

In terms of how we operate, we’re always trying to strike that balance between being extremely organised. Because no one wants to come to an organisation that doesn’t feel the consummate professionalism. From the point of view, we have to be extremely organised and professional and diligent. But also extremely personable and aware that every single client is of the utmost importance.

We have to somehow juggle those two worlds of both industry and personal craft, if you like. If either one took over too much, then it would not allow us to do our jobs well. Going back to how we actually operate, we don’t build a car and then pull it apart, modify it and then put them back together again. Our organisation is set up to be able to build the car to the customer’s wishes in an almost limitless variety of ways. But we build it all together on a very, very slow-moving assembly line, but an assembly line, nonetheless. Each part is built with customer specification behind it. All of those parts have to come together at the right time in order for us to build a car in a modern and professional way.

It’s extreme like it’s organised; the logistics are all in place and everything else. And all of that is extremely dull and not very exciting. But we also have to therefore somehow bring all those personal aspects into that extremely organised work stream to get the best quality. It really is bringing together the two different worlds.

We recognise that in our customers as well. Often they’re very, very successful people in all manner of different ways, so they’ve got a manner of genius and good fortune behind them. But they’re also people who have weekends and holidays and families and all of those things that are separate from the things that have brought them success.

Can you talk through how you would construct the process of spending time with the customer and getting to know their personality?

I’ve used the analogy of going into your favorite restaurant. The fact you’ve gone to a restaurant because you like what’s on the menu, but you don’t always see what you want on the menu. You sometimes may want it cooked in a particular way or you may have a favourite dish that doesn’t have to be on the menu. Or you may want to elbow past the maître-d’ and get yourself into the kitchen and start cooking it yourself. We have clients who operate on all those different levels with regard to choices and our first port of call is a conversation to find a little bit about what the client may be looking for.

Sometimes it takes a few questions just to find out a little bit, not just about tastes, but about how this person is going to be interacting with the car. Is it a business vehicle? Is it something for weekend use? Formality? Informality? Exactly what the purpose is behind this. That allows us then to build on the taste, but also the sort of features that we may wish to suggest. If we just give everyone all the possible opportunities, it’s just so bewildering.

In the same way, if you were going to get a suit made, you don’t want to go into the tailors and they give you everything. You want to be inspired by someone who you know is going to make you look fabulous. But you trust them and they ask you enough questions to be able to offer you something.

I suppose we’re looking at probing with similar sorts of questions to find out how we can propose something that the customer will like. From that point of view, it’s a personal service with the people who come to talk to us in that way. We want to not just ask the mechanical questions, we want to ask enough questions that we can make some good proposals ourselves.

You trust a Savile Row tailor to make you look amazing. It’s that level of trust that we hope that we’re able to instill in our conversations that we have here at Goodwood.

It’s interesting when you talk about starting out and how things have now scaled-up. Did you have to learn how to make sure that that was embodied in the culture and that everyone was aligned with that?

We’ve always been careful and hands-on with regards to building the team. I’ve taken great care by surrounding myself with people that I like to work with. But also people that I think embody the right skills. It’s not that you’re just looking for the best designer, because there are a lot of talented designers out there but perhaps they aren’t fully right for what we do for the brand.

I’m not looking to replicate myself. I’m looking for a diverse range of skills that we can draw on. But there’s a certain quality and attention to detail, because certain people are drawn to that and it’s not just that they’re good at it, it’s that they are motivated by it.

If someone is motivated by a particular thing like that detail, then they’ll enjoy their work. And they will be more productive and they’ll enjoy themselves and will stick around as well.

From that point of view, I’m looking for certain characteristics that are probably consistent from person to person. But I’m also looking for individuality because we don’t want a load of clones. We want a diverse range of point of view, because that creates a more stimulating environment.

Is it difficult for you sometimes to stay at that management and strategy level? Do you find yourself getting drawn into certain hands-on aspects?

From my perspective, I have an enormous amount of trust in the people that work in a team and that makes life an awful lot easier to feel that I shouldn’t need to obsess over the details, because the people are extremely capable themselves.

It is difficult and I think the distance from the hands on is something that inevitably happens as a team grows. I think it’s down to good communication and a working relationships that means that the contact is there where it’s needed in order to maintain consistency.

That’s always the challenge of creating a vehicle with a team. But equally, you can’t just have a formula because that’s a little bit dull. What we’re trying to do is create things that are entertaining and put a smile on people’s faces. We don’t want anything that’s just dull but worthy.

You look at the Champagne Chest that we’ve just released into the public arena. That’s something that isn’t intended just to be a functional piece. It’s there for people’s entertainment as well.
Nobody needs a Rolls-Royce. Nobody needs a Champagne Chest. It’s an item of entertainment in many ways.

Would you want to do more auxiliary items like the Champagne Chest?

We’re not in the business of increasing our volume in any aspect, particularly because we’re drawn to the rarity aspect as well. We’re not expecting to sell a lot of those Champagne Chests in a way. As it’s an exclusive piece. It has its appeal in its exclusivity as well. I think it’s something which appeals to us. But I wouldn’t say that it’s going to be closely followed on by many, many of those types of big things. It’s definitely relevant to what we do, but I think the rarity is something that we don’t want to deviate from.

What do you see for the bespoke design group in the next 20 years? Are you seeing scale? Or would you be happy with a similar team that you’ve got?

I think scale is something we have to be careful about. I think the main thing is getting the right people. To have the key relationships and the right people on board who are talking to each other and enjoying what they do.

The right environment in the studio builds success. Not just financial success, but also relationship success. I think people who come to Goodwood appreciate not just the fantastic opportunity to see Rolls-Royces in various states of completion, but the fascination of the feeling that is there. It’s very different from other manufacturing plants. It’s much more personal. People have called it a family atmosphere, which is difficult to believe when you’ve got around 2,000 people.

We are addressed as a group by the CEO on a regular basis. There is this feeling of direct connection where the board members do not lock themselves away. They’re onsite and they’re very visible.
From that point of view, their one-to-one connection cuts to all these levels of hierarchy to the point where that sets up the character of the business. It’s not just the Design Department. I’d say it’s an atmosphere with Goodwood that then plays out into this personal relationship with our clients.

Is New Zealand on the radar for you? I can’t imagine it’s a big market.

No. But equally, I would say that it’s one that I’m aware of. My daughter has just finished spending time in New Zealand and, after visiting my daughter and having spent a few weeks enjoying the New Zealand countryside, I suppose I’ve got more of a connection to New Zealand then some other places.

It’s not a big market for us in terms of numbers. But again, what we do is irrespective of size and volume. We’re dealing with individuals. We had one particular couple that joined us from New Zealand for a consultation that I was involved in some months back and it was great to be able to help them enter Goodwood. They really enjoyed the experience of creating something that was a very personal vehicle for them.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

My perspective is don’t take things too seriously. That’s my philosophy.

I’ve worked with some inspirational people who’ve definitely affected how I’ve approached things. I think my problem-solving approach is one that is inbuilt, but its also been trained by the very talented people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with.