Tom Purves: 'It's all about waftability'

Chief executive explains the timeless appeal of the Rolls-Royce motor car to Sarah Arnott
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The Independent Online

It is quintessentially British, a by-word the world over for old English class, quality and success (although the majority are sold in the US, several to rappers). Tom Purves, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, describes the essence of the brand as "waftability". "Waftability means quiet perfection, bags of torque, accelerating quickly without fuss," he says. "It means the sort of car you would drive for 12 hours and like to carry on for another 12, but that is also as much about arriving and departing as about the journey."

The Phantom is certainly sumptuous. But it is British in a rather modern way. Since 1999, Rolls-Royce cars has been owned by Germany's BMW, after a convoluted three-way deal whereby Volkswagen got the Crewe factory and the rights to Bentley, and BMW got the Rolls trademark and nothing else. Rolls-Royce the company still exists, of course, but has nothing to do with the cars. And BMW's first move on getting hold of the badge, grille and iconic flying lady was to rent an old bank building in London's Park Lane, set up a drawing office, and design the Phantom from scratch.

For Mr Purves personally, his appointment as chief executive a year ago is a return. He has worked for BMW for 24 years, including positions in Kuwait, Switzerland and running the US operation. But before that he spent nearly two decades working for Rolls-Royce, having joined an apprenticeship there straight from school. "I am one of those lucky people who, from the day I was born, knew I wanted to be in the car business," he says.

Though played down in the all-English marketing, the BMW connection is crucial. "The engineers we have in Munich draw on BMW knowledge and use infrastructure which we simply could not afford," Mr Purves says. But most of the work is done in Britain, at an environmentally friendly, cedar-clad factory also built from scratch in a characteristically unobtrusive corner of the Goodwood estate.

Not only is the plant super-green – boasting, among other things, the biggest "living roof" in Europe – it also enjoys glorious views over the South Downs to the nearby race track. It is here that rock stars come to choose their interiors. And it is here that Rolls-Royce's 800 workers, of 21 nationalities, transform the "white body" metal box that arrives from the continent into the most luxurious car on the market – each one worth £300,000 with no extras, though only 15 per cent of customers take it that way. The vast majority of Rolls-Royces are bespoke, some as much as doubling their price as seat configurations are remodelled, and fridges, wine cellars and safes are added.

The factory is calmly quiet, more like a workshop than a car plant. Each car takes a minimum of 720 hours to put together, with awesome attention to detail. In the wood shop, 20 layers of wood, glue and aluminium are fused to create a veneer that is flexible, yet super-strong. The paint-shop applies six coats, available in 44,000 colours, followed by seven hours of hand polishing. The leather shop takes the hides of between 15 and 18 bullocks to craft a single luxurious interior. The opulence is difficult to over-emphasise.

The car's ceiling is clad in cashmere, spangled with star points at once subtle but bright enough to read. The seats have been engineered and re-engineered so that even the heaviest behind does not push the cushion against the door and wear a crease in the perfect leather. The clunks and clicks of every ashtray and hidden dashboard gizmo has been tested over and over in the on-site acoustic booth to ensure they have a suitably Rolls-Royce timbre. If not, then it is back to the drawing board.

"We have one foot in the jewellery business and one in the automotive industry," Mr Purves says. "Our competition tends to be with another property or a boat or a plane, rather than with another car, because frequently our customers have lots of cars in the garage anyway."

Mr Purves – who drives a BMW as his company car "out of practicality" – straddles two worlds. On one side is the world where perfection is standard, nothing is impossible and money no object. On the other is the reality of business. Since the Phantom's launch in 2003, sales have grown steadily to last year's record of 1212. But the recession's cold wind blows even here, and although orders were strong until the collapse of Lehman Brothers last autumn, demand has dropped by 25 per cent since.

"Confidence just went out of the world's entrepreneurs," Mr Purves says. "They saw the first recession in their lifetime where the banking industry was damaged, and it was like the plumbing going wrong." Historically Rolls-Royce sales are not affected by stock markets. But falling house prices is a different story. "Shares can be going down and we will still be selling more cars, but if property markets are affected, then we feel it," he says.

This year will be tricky balancing act. Mr Purves not only has to rebalance supply with a demand, but he is also overseeing the introduction of the much-awaited, entirely new model – the Ghost. Nicknamed the "Baby Rolls", it is a massive undertaking for Rolls-Royce, requiring a £40m investment in the Goodwood factory to build a mezzanine floor and second production line, as well as training for everyone from engineers to retailers. So far, even with the recession, customer response has outstripped expectations. Some 1,200 buyers have already either ordered a Ghost or made a firm statement of interest, and the vast majority are new customers. "The interest has been much better than what we had planned even under good circumstances," Mr Purves says, slightly baffled.

The Ghost has all the qualities of a Phantom but is smaller. It is also cheaper – a mere £165,000 in its standard form – although Mr Purves prefers "less expensive", or even "more approachable". But the price tag is unlikely to be the clincher. Rolls-Royce customers are a varied lot: there are the rock stars and Saudi princes, but just as many are entrepreneurs who have worked since childhood with the Rolls-Royce as an emblem of success.

"It is a different world, one to which most of us have difficulty relating," Mr Purves says. "I've seen a situation where someone couldn't get normal finance so they sold a Picasso." What they all share is a desire to buy into the idea of perfect luxury. At this cosmopolitan yet most British of factories, Mr Purves' job is to make sure nothing shatters the dream.

CV: Tom Purves

Mr Purves is married with two children and enjoys golf, music and motorcycling.

July 2008 – present: chief executive of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

1999 – 2008: chairman and chief executive of BMW (US) Holding Corporation and president of BMW North America

1996 – 1999: Rover board member

1989 – 1996: Managing director, BMW

1985 – 1989: Sales director, BMW

1967 – 1985: Joined Rolls-Royce's car division as an apprentice engineer, moving up through a series of management positions over the following 18 years

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