INTERVIEW: Ferrari accelerates in the Middle East — with a passion

(Illustration by Luis Grañena)
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Updated 09 February 2020

INTERVIEW: Ferrari accelerates in the Middle East — with a passion

  • The regional head of the world-famous Italian car maker explains his plans for a big drive in the Saudi Arabian market

Giorgio Turri is a man of passion. He uses the word a lot to describe his role as general manager for the Middle East of the famous Italian car maker Ferrari, both for the head-turning vehicles he sells in the region and for the people who buy them in increasingly big numbers in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s interesting to see the evolution, from a cultural perspective, going on in Saudi Arabia, and we have a lot of passionate clients there. They love Ferrari, they love to ‘spec’ their cars according to their taste and expectations, and they really love the brand,” he told Arab News last week.

It has been a busy few days for Turri and for Ferrari in the Middle East. He launched the Club Challenge, a service to get Ferrari owners behind the wheels of some real racing cars on fast tracks across the region; the following day New York-listed Ferrari had announced financial figures for 2019, showing a big sales jump across the world, notably in the Arabian Gulf region; and then he had unveiled the new super car, the Roma, for the first time outside Europe.

“On a global and regional perspective, I have to say it has never been so good before. We are closing an amazing year,” said Turri, who was born up the road from the Ferrari global HQ in Maranello, Italy. You could say that passion is in his blood.

The luxury car business in the region has always been good, outselling most other regions in proportion to its population size. Arabs love fast, high-spec cars, and the historic abundance of cheap fuel has driven a search for the perfect mix of style with performance. Ferrari, whose famous Prancing Horse badge has been in the region for 26 years, has led the field against strong competition in the up-market speedster stakes.

“Ferrari is about performance, luxury, client engagement, technology. It is about all that,” said Turri. The “Passione Ferrari” Club Challenge he launched in the Middle East — the only venue so far outside Europe — encapsulates all those values, offering Ferrari owners, in return for around $100,000 per year, the chance to drive full-performance racing cars on some of the best-known tracks in the region — in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Muscat.

“There is a world of owners who like very much to enjoy their own cars on the road, and there is another set of owners who want to be involved in racing events and competitions,” Turri explained.


BIO

BORN: Parma, Italy 1978

EDUCATION: University of Parma, Economics

CAREER

  • Product manager, Maserati
  • Marketing and communications manager, Olimpia Splendid 
  • Global trade marketing manager, Technogym
  • General manager, Ferrari Middle East

Saudi Arabia will join that list of high-speed venues when the track at the Al Qidiyya resort near Riyadh is completed, which is expected to be the biggest track in the world, some time in the next 18 months. Turri expects an eager challenge take-up by Saudi drivers, who were heavily involved in the Ferrari motorsport festival that coincided with Riyadh season last year.

“We have a really amazing Ferrari owners club there. They drive in the Kingdom a lot, and even come over to the UAE and Bahrain, and to Italy when we have an event there. They are quite passionate and it is good to see this kind of passion in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

The changes under way in the Kingdom with the relaxation of conservative rules on leisure and entertainment is also a positive factor for Ferrari.

“What we can see is that there is a different atmosphere and you can feel the good vibrations there. People are ready to have fun and to enjoy their own country, and what their own country can offer.

“These good vibrations and atmosphere are also reflected in consumer behavior and expectations. Buying a Ferrari is a moment of reward, a moment of pure enjoyment, and if the mood and the surrounding atmosphere is positive it can only be better for us,” he added.

The Middle East was a stand-out element in the one of the other big events for Ferrari last week — the announcement of financial results for the 2019 year. Ferrari sold more than 10,000 cars for the first time in its history, producing revenues of €3.76bn ($4bn), 10 per cent up on the year. Adjusted net income rose 8 per cent to €699m.

Ferrari launched five new models in 2019. “We can work on serving our clients with a strong portfolio of potential orders, and that way we can plan how the business will evolve. Today, we have a very good portfolio and every confidence our plans can be sustained,” he said.

Among the best-sellers was the eye-catching F8 Tributo, a classic two-seater sports car in the Ferrari tradition which some experts called the most powerful V8 road car ever made.

Ferrari shares were listed in New York in 2015, but initial public offerings (IPOs) in the luxury car world have not always been a recipe for success, as British car maker Aston Martin has found. How can an up-market car maker, with all the capital-intensive investment needed for research and development and technology in new models, overcome the swings of the sales cycle?

“You will appreciate the fact that we are still a relatively small volume manufacturer, and our volumes are kept under control. Our model is based on one simple statement — delivering to the market something less than what the market demands. We have the pleasure to launch a lot of new models and there is always a lot of demand, but we would like our clients to appreciate the fact that it takes time to receive a Ferrari,” Turri said.

“So I would say it’s a beautiful moment for Ferrari and the market is responding very well to us. In general the luxury market is doing well, but specifically our segment, which is luxury sports cars.” 

Customers seem happy to wait as long as a year or more to receive their new car, and to spend that time in consultation with Ferrari designers in the lucrative process of customizing their purchase. 

“Personalization is an important part of what we do, as our Middle East clients always demand the best and are genuinely interested in one-off creations that are tailored minutely to their individual desires and tastes,” Turri said.

Ferrari customers — who will spend a minimum of 800,000 dirhams in the Dubai showroom on, for example, the Portofino luxury tourer — will not scrimp when it comes to splashing out of luxury additions. “There’s no ceiling when it comes to the most expensive car, it all depends on the model and what the requirements of our discerning clientele are,” he explained.

He hopes the next big seller in the Middle East will be the Roma, unveiled with much Italian pizzazz at a ceremony for Ferrari enthusiasts. Launched under the banner “La Nuova Dolce Vita” — the new sweet life — the car is a classic mixture of Italian style and Ferrari power. The early order book was “impressive,” Turri said.

The big trend in the luxury car market in recent years has been the move by all manufacturers to develop and sell SUVs, which are especially in demand in the Middle East. Ferrari — not famous for family-oriented cars in the past — has bided its time, but is now planning the Purosangue (Italian for “thoroughbred”) to challenge in this segment. Turri is not prepared to share many secrets about the new marque, expected to hit the market in 2022.

“We don’t use the word SUV because it’s not what we have in mind. Ferrari is different and the concept we have in mind will be an expression of the essence of Ferrari, combining the performance and the fun to drive with a higher level of versatility,” he said.

The other thing very much on the minds of the strategic planers in Maranello is the need to make the fast car industry more acceptable in the era of increased environmental awareness. Last year Ferrari unveiled its first hybrid electric-petrol car, the SF90 Stradale, and there will be further refinements of this concept.

“We are exploring all the different technologies that can help us be compliant with the future constraints on the environment, but with a clear philosophy in our mind: we would like to use the tech in a way that can improve the performance and the fun-to-drive factor, not only help to be compliant with the constraints and regulations. 

“It is our duty to be compliant of course, but it is also our duty to the clients to keep improving the performance,” Turri said. And, of course, raising the passion level.


INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

Updated 07 June 2020

INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

  • Head of TVM Capital on the challenges and opportunities, successes and failures, of the COVID-19 crisis

Helmut Schuehsler has had what you might call a pretty challenging time of late — and it is by no means over.

He runs the health-care investment firm TVM Capital Healthcare from Dubai, at a time when the reputation of the medical business is being called into question due to the scandal over NMC Healthcare. The UAE’s biggest provider has gone bust with more than $4 billion in unaccounted debt.

Schuehsler operates in the private equity investment sphere, which itself is facing bigger issues than ever before, especially in health care and more so in Dubai, after the 2018 collapse of Abraaj Group, once the private equity flagship in emerging markets.

And there is the small issue of the most significant health challenge humanity has faced in over a century — the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed the economic fundamentals of the medical industry beyond recognition in the space of a few months.

“Things are coming apart,” Schuehsler told Arab News on a Zoom call from his house on the Palm, Jumeirah, where he has been self-isolating for the past three months, apart from a couple of visits to the doctor.

He was referring to the global medical infrastructure and specifically to the problems with the World Health Organization (WHO), rather than the TVM business, for which he still sees big opportunities in South East Asia and the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.

As a professional investor with more than 30 years’ experience in health care, he holds firm views on the way the international community has responded to the pandemic crisis.

“Humanity is not handling this very well. We should have had a strengthening of the WHO. It is irrational to destroy international cooperation in the face of an international challenge. We’re doing things in a very myopic way,” he said.

He uses the term “titration” to describe the policy response of lockdown followed by reopening and, sometimes, reimposition of curfews and travel bans. Titration is a chemical process in which two compounds are mixed together in varying quantities until they neutralize each other.

“It is a case of titrating openness against social distancing. In the beginning, it was all about not overwhelming the capacity of intensive care units to ensure people had access to beds. Now, we are managing better. The public and private sector have made room for that. The first phase of the response — providing critical health care and devices — is coming together,” Schuehsler said.

“Now you’ll see a gradual reopening and closing, again and again. The danger of an exponential growth in infection rates does not go away. If people stop social distancing and we have demonstrations and concerts with thousands of people, it will go exponential tomorrow,” he explained.

He sees some cause for optimism in the work of the pharmaceutical industry — in which TVM has been a big investor over decades — to first develop effective therapeutics and, finally, a vaccine.


BIO

BORN: Vienna, 1959

EDUCATION: PhD in social and economic sciences, business administration, Vienna University of Economic and Business

CAREER

  • Investment manager, Horizonte Venture Management, Vienna
  • Managing partner, TVM Capital, Munich, Germany

  • Chairman and CEO, TVM Capital Healthcare, Dubai


“I think that by the end of this year there will be between two and five drugs that will gain emergency approvals for marketing in Western Europe. That does not mean they will be available worldwide, but availability will be just around the corner, depending on manufacturing times and how long it takes to set up distribution systems. These will prevent people from becoming so sick that they have to go to hospital,” he said.

On the possibility of a vaccine, Schuehsler believes there could be something available by the end of next year. He does not like talk of a “silver bullet” to take out the virus, however, partly due to the long development and processes of testing and approval necessary for vaccines, and partly because of a growing sentiment worldwide against vaccines.

“It’s only a silver bullet if people are actually using it, and we all know there is a growing resistance movement against vaccines, which is unfounded and which endangers people, especially children. If we want to see our children dying again from polio or measles or chicken pox, we should stop vaccinating them,” he said.

The overall response by regional authorities in UAE and Saudi Arabia has been “OK,” he said, especially considering the distraction caused by the volatility in global oil markets.

“The confluence of those two elements — oil and the virus — has caused a difficult situation for governments. They have to spend a tremendous amount in terms of getting their pandemic response up and running,” he said.

Schuehsler was a pioneer of the biotech investment business in Germany, with a network of investors in Europe and the US, before looking at the growing health-care market in the Middle East in 2009.

Now, TVM is also expanding in South East Asia, a region Schuehsler sees as having great potential in the post-pandemic world.

The pandemic will change the way he does business. In the UAE, with its sizeable expatriate populations, some medical services will change as people leave; others have already gone through a period of contraction during the most intense phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

Fertility treatment, for example, via the Bourn Hall clinic in Dubai, saw a sharp decline in business in April, Schuehsler said, though that has recovered “a bit” last month.

About four years ago, he began to look at Saudi Arabia, the biggest health market in the Middle East. The growth there has been patient and deliberate.

“Saudi Arabia is a much larger market, with different economics and setups, but we consider it to be a very attractive area. The country is the focus point of the Middle East.

“You need to believe certain things when it comes to Saudi Arabia. For example, that the Vision 2030, the opening up and diversification of the economy, will still happen even despite the COVID-19 and oil crises. You have to believe that they will stay the course and that things have been simply delayed and not indefinitely postponed. But we are making that assumption,” he added.

TVM does not invest in hospital chains, but rather in more specialist medical businesses: Long-term acute care, home care and disease management, ventilated care, fertility and reproductive treatment, and the manufacture of medical devices via an Egyptian subsidiary.

Schuehsler has expanded from the UAE to the Kingdom via the Manzil Healthcare Services brand in Riyadh and the Cambridge Medical business in Dhahran. The medical devices business recently signed a partnership deal with the well-known Olayan Group to expand distribution in the Kingdom.

He believes there are still opportunities to invest despite the crisis but warns that the investment outlook has changed.

“Deal making is less clear to me. For an investor, this is not a particularly great time because none of us can predict the future. If you look at a company that has lost half its business and you think you can do great deal, then maybe,” he said.

Timing of investment decisions takes on critical importance, he added.

There is also potential in introducing investors from the US and Germany to Saudi partners. 

“There are a lot of German companies that have good connections in Saudi Arabia, and Saudis appreciate German technology and products. There have been many contacts made with the Saudi government and health-care industry. We can help investors from Germany because we have excellent relationships in the Kingdom,” he said.

During his career, Schuehsler has raised more than $1 billion in committed capital from global investors, overseen 120 investments in the health industry, and been involved in more than 80 major transactions over the years, including the lucrative sale of his ProVita International business to NMC in 2015.

He understands the concerns of investors, employees and patients in the health business and how to avoid the pitfalls that have bedeviled health care and private equity recently in the Middle East.

“TVM has all the transparency and governance you could want. We run our business in the Middle East in the exactly same way we would have run it if we’d been in Boston or Munich,” he said.

“I think people look at private equity and health care with suspicion because so many bad things have happened. We get caught in this, but we are the most internationally minded player in the way we build partnerships, the way we compensate people, the way we run our board meetings in portfolio companies.

“That’s what I’m trying to put in place: Openness, transparency and compliance in the markets we invest in. That’s our contribution to broader society,” he added.