Exclusive: New Lotus CEO talks SUVs, Esprit and the future

Meeting Lotus CEO
26 Sep, 2014 4:09pm Jack Rix

New Lotus CEO Jean-Marc Gales wants hotter derivatives of existing cars plus an SUV by 2017, and we’re first to meet him face to face

Jean-Marc Gales is the man tasked with cleaning up the mess at Lotus left behind after Dany Bahar’s failed plan to launch five new models and acrimonious departure in 2012. As we discovered, there is a firm derivative-based plan in place for the next two to three years and more ambitious products  - such as an lightweight SUV and saloon – in the pipeline for 2017 and beyond.
You helped to introduce the DS brand when you worked for Peugeot Citroen – is a similar radical overhaul needed at Lotus? It’s different because we already have an iconic brand. There are few brands that have this history, founded by Colin Chapman, and you can attach many clear values to it. I want to return to those values because I think we lost them a bit on the way. ‘Light is right’, ‘agility’, ‘pure driving’ this is basically the Lotus DNA. We want to build on this very stable foundation and the future cars you see will be consistent with that strategy. You are going to see many things in the next two years that go in that direction.

Can you confirm then that for the next two years your product plan is based on derivatives of the Elise, Exige and Evora? Absolutely. They have a lot of life left, these cars – nobody has found a better way to combine light weight, ride and handling. With derivatives there are many things we can think of, and I wouldn’t exclude anything right now because the Lotus principles apply to every segment. We think about performance enhancements of course, ride and handling enhancements and we will take further weight out of the cars without compromise – we want future Lotuses to be easier to live with and easier to get in and out.

What about in the longer term? Will you bring in completely new models beyond the existing range to expand the business? I wouldn’t exclude it, we are thinking about it. The very first priority is Elise, Exige and Evora, but after 2017 there are many things we can envisage based on our core values, so you won’t see a two-tonne animal somewhere wearing a Lotus badge! The only segment I would rule out right now are commercial vehicles, but we were joking that you could even make them more lightweight.

You could build the lightest, best-handling crossover in the world, but it would still be a crossover. Is that really a Lotus? We believe it is. Without going into detail because this is still three or four years ahead, but we believe we can combine Lotus brand values with many possible segments and crossovers as you say. Nothing has been decided, but saloons and crossovers are certainly two segments that come to mind, I would say SUV/crossover definitely. If Lotus does an SUV or a four-door saloon it will be light, performance-led and it will have outstanding looks. This is what we want and this is in line with our heritage.

Will the engine supply deal with Toyota continue? Do you have any other joint ventures planned? Absolutely. We cannot and should not develop our own engine – most small car makes that have gone that route have disappeared. We are using engines from the world’s largest car makes that are reliable, good and we can trust them. It’s a mass-market engine but we make sure it sounds and performs much better. For further joint ventures we have a company close to us – Proton. So for joint-projects that would be the first port of call.
Dany Bahar’s five model plan: Was it the right strategy, wrong execution? Do you think it has tainted the brand? Execution is the key word. If we look at all five of those projects, I don’t think they were in line with the Lotus DNA. We don’t want to be seen as trying to be someone else, or emulate another company’s success, we are unique. The good thing is we have a very strong brand and there is a huge amount of good will towards us. That good will has not gone down.

Are there any plans to revive the Esprit project, reportedly the closest to completion when Bahar left, or salvage any of the technology? If you’re asking whether we’re going to pick them up and launch these cars, the answer is no. I don’t want to focus on the past, but there are some technologies and supplier relationships that we can take forward from the projects.
You recently announced a possible 325 job cuts – is there any further clarification you can give at this stage? There is no further news except to say that the collective consultation has started, so we have started a process that takes 45 days. It’s sad and regrettable, but unfortunately it’s necessary to safeguard the future of the company. In simple terms we need to reduce costs and increase sales, and we cannot avoid up to a maximum of 325 redundancies and we sincerely hope it’s going to be less.
How much autonomy will you be allowed to shape the brand to your own personal vision by Proton and DRB-Hicom? DRB is our ultimate shareholder and Proton is the holding company. They have supported us remarkably over the last 17 years for Proton, two years for DRB-Hicom, and very patiently. We define together our strategy and our strategy has been set in stone for the next three years, we know exactly what to do and where to go. And I’m very glad that they are fully aware of the power of the Lotus brand, so we are very close and in daily communication. After the last two or three years we had to do a lot of cleaning up and a lot of refocusing of the company on new product and selling more cars.

How are current sales figures looking and what are your short and mid-term targets? Sales are going up. The last quarter we sold 505 cars, the best for three years, and this quarter will beat that and we’re up in most areas around the world. We sold 1,220 in 2013, hope to sell 2,000 in 2014 and we want 3,000 the year after that – this is realistic given the new models we have planned and our expansion of the dealer network around the world. Of course, 3,000 is an intermediate step, we want to go beyond that, but I can’t say anymore at this stage.
Do you have a message for all the Lotus fans out there that are desperate to see the brand back to its best? Lotus is back. We never disappeared of course, but we are focusing again on what made us great. We think [Colin] Chapman would approve of what we’re doing. 

An SUV, a new Esprit, a new Elise: if you were the new CEO at Lotus what would your priorities be? let us know in the comments section below...