Tue, 12/10/2013 - 10:45 -- bw2342
Aston Martin V8-Vantage

Looking every inch the Bond man, Ulrich Bez, the CEO of Aston Martin, stands before a packed room of Columbia Business School students, tieless but precisely tailored and wearing a pair of $1,000 leather sneakers.

Flash back to the year 2000. Ford Motor Co., which owned Aston Martin, needed to bring the 100-year-old brand back to life — and relevance. They approached Bez to see if he’d take it on. He had the right credentials, having worked for BMW, Porsche, and Daewoo. “It takes a lot to impress me,” recalled Bez. Aston Martin, the sports car with a rocket for an engine that James Bond drives in 11 of the franchise’s 23 movies, “had a mystique,” but “it was not competitive,” said Bez.

To return the brand to its former glory, Bez concentrated on reinstating quality and taking back the Aston Martin design in-house. The cars are still handmade, but Bez, who earned his engineering PhD from the University of Stuttgart, installed a modular system in which each part connects to other components. “It's five to ten times faster than hand-tooling the individual parts, so it allows small volume. It’s more efficient too, but our motive was to boost quality.”

Since Bez took the wheel in 2000, Aston Martin has gone private. Sales have grown more than fourfold. Some 50,000 of the company’s total 65,000 cars have been produced in those 13 years. And around 80 percent of Aston Martins are now sold outside of Britain. Here, Bez shares his thoughts on everything from the definition of a luxury brand to what sells in China to the future of automobiles.

On what it means to be a luxury brand

“Aston Martin was not as luxurious a product it could be till about 2004–2005. Aston Martins start at about $120,000 and go up to around $2 million, but price doesn't define luxury. Luxury is all about honesty and integrity — don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t expect plastic to behave like leather or hand-stitching to come without some imperfections.

“Luxury doesn’t deal in commodity. We made a concept car, the CC100, inspired by the 1959 DBR1, for our 100th anniversary this year. Ten people said they wanted one but we said no. That’s not what we are about. For example, Louis Vuitton, to me, is less a luxury than a mass market product. On the other hand, exclusivity doesn’t equate to luxury.”

On the paradox of perfection

“I always strive for perfection, whether it’s with an engine or a sun visor. But perfection is also the death of innovation. You can always make something different, but change should make a product better and not modify the way an Aston Martin looks, smells, sounds. And there are different kinds of perfection. A race car before the race is perfect. After the race, it may be splattered with insects, but it’s still perfect.”

On what it means to be the Bond car

“It is part of what makes us the ‘coolest car brand’ and second only to Apple among all brands [according to the annual CoolBrands list].”

On growth

“Apple has not altered the iPhone substantially in the past ten years, but it came out with the iPad, which changed its business. Similarly, Aston Martin may face changing markets. Geographically, we’re not even close to our volume potential.”

On China

“China has a completely different mindset than other markets. Europeans and Americans had mobility for a long time, and China made great leaps in mobility in the last 20 years. From my experience, successful Chinese businessmen tend to buy the biggest car they can find and hire a driver. We have to work with our dealers to explain the experience of driving an Aston Martin so they can transfer our values to customers.”

On the automobile’s future

“Further out, in 20 to 50 years, I expect that most cars will be driverless. As cars become mass transportation, they will move at a guided speed, and drivers won’t be able to change lanes or turn on lights. Sports cars have a future outside mass mobility, though, with people who want to experience acceleration on special tracks and roads.

“And hydrogen will be the future power source. Electric cars have some big problems: We’ve not yet solved how batteries can be disposed of. The cars can’t go far without recharging. To recharge on hydrogen takes about as long as to fill up on gasoline, but it doesn’t pollute — China may be a huge market. Today there are no hydrogen cars because there are no hydrogen filling stations; and there are no stations because there are no hydrogen cars. The first step will be hybrid hydrogen cars.”

On the future of Ulrich Bez

“I’m 70 years old and I am ready at any time to step down as CEO. First we need a CEO for the next 10 years. Someone who understands the brand, is knowledgeable about many things — you have to understand emotions, politics, medicine, all manner of things when designing a car ten years out.”