The man who now owns Jaguar and Land Rover (JLR), Indian industrialist and billionaire Ratan Tata, has come to the U.S. for a visit. But he’ll only drink Tetley Tea.
Why Tetley? Tata owns that company, too. In fact, the family-owned conglomerate operates 98 companies in seven different business segments.
That doesn’t mean Tata's new luxury auto business will not have the chairman's undivided attention; at least for now. Mr. Tata, who just paid $3 billion to acquire Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford, wasted no time flying over to the United States to meet some of the brand's oldest and biggest dealers.
It was his first visit to a Jaguar dealership. Anywhere. And also the first time in memory dealers have laid eyes on their top factory decision-maker.
"I've been a Jaguar dealer for 40 years," says Norm Tompkins, owner of San Jose British Motors near San Francisco, whom Tata invited to lunch. "In all the years Ford owned us, I never met a single Ford executive."
Tata flew all about the country with his top executives and a male personal secretary aboard the chairman's private jet, making friends wherever he went.
In Wilmette, Illinois he met up with Aron, owner of the 55-year-old Imperial Motors, one of the first Jaguar dealers in the United States.
"I was never hugged as much by my own father as I was hugged by him," Aron admits. "He embraces you and touches you, which is a good thing. To me, that's the sign of a very warmhearted person.
"I'm telling you this," Aron says, growing serious: "He's going to make something out of Jaguar. We're in good hands now. My son can see his future here now."
And then Mr. Tata really got into the meat of his visit by inviting Aron and a few other Chicago area Jaguar and Rover dealers to a steak dinner at Chicago's Peninsula Hotel. Tata asked the dealers to tell him their ideas and wishes for their brands, and he got an earful.
Dealers asked the new owner for a convertible Jaguar sports car. They explained that Bentley, owned by Volkswagen AG, has become a fierce new competitor for them and that Jaguar must have a higher-end car to compete with Bentley.
Tata nodded and wrote that down. His newly named Jaguar global CEO, David Smith, also took notes and asked questions.
They told him Jaguar customers have embraced the just-launched XF sedan. More than a few of them reported they are sold out of their XF allocation for the year.
The next day, Tata and his group came calling on Aron's dealership. Aron laid out a spread of fresh fruit, decorated with small Indian flags and served with, of course, Tetley tea. As Tata strolled through the dealership, his managing director for global automotive activity, Ravi Kant, sat down across the desk from Aron and asked a few questions.
" 'Mr. Aron,' he said to me, 'How many technicians do you have here? What is your profit margin on parts? What is your absorption rate?' " (referring to the percentage of a dealership's operating costs covered by the service department).
"What is your absorption rate!” Aron flaberghasts. “Can you imagine the head of an automaker bothering to travel around the world to sit here and talk to me about such day-to-day business details? And he wrote down my answers!"
Then it was out to the West Coast to hook up with some dealers in the San Francisco area. The group was treated to lunch at the Campton Place hotel. (Yes, he owns that too.)
Over lunch, the new CEO Smith told Rover dealers that shedding vehicle weight to improve fuel economy will be a top Land Rover priority; most likely by switching from steel to aluminum components wherever possible.
Dealers also learned of some major corporate changes. Tata will be moving the companies' North American headquarters out of California, where Ford placed them, to return them to the East Coast to be closer to their British factories. And there are rumors flying around that it wants to involve the fabled Italian design house, Pininfarina S.p.A., in more Jaguar designs.
As to the West Coast dealers' dreams and wishes, one Jaguar dealer asked Tata to consider developing a new XK-E--the iconic British sports car of the 1960s that introduced many buyers to the brand.
According to those in the room, Tata smiled and nodded as he wrote down the suggestion, agreeing, "That would be an interesting project."
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