Tending the Garden

by Robert Konick

In gardening, growing Lotus tend to cause anxiety among horticulturists. This anxiety has no real basis as Lotus are actually fairly resilient and strong flowers.

Maybe this is the reason behind Colin Chapmans decision to name his car company 'Lotus' nearly 60 years ago. It certainly has significant meaning in the company's current circumstance. Surrounded by rumors of it's pending sale, the perceived weakness of it's parent company (Proton) and changing management, many have decided that the company is wilting. They stand ready to prune back the flower. While tending is a constant requirement, this company is far from dead.

The last 6 months have been marked by the departure of some of the higher ranking executives from the company including Duke Hale, Kim Ogaard-Nielsen and John English. The automotive press, including the highly regarded Financial Times, has jumped on this and declared the moves as "sudden" and "unexpected". They have declared the imminent demise of the company. In fact, these moves were planned as part of the restructuring plan Proton set in place some time ago.

Discussions with Colin Price (Communications Manager for Lotus Cars USA) and Robert Tickner (General Manager of Marketing for Group Lotus, Plc.) have revealed the true nature of the condition.

"John English set goals for his work at Lotus. Once the Elise and Exige were successfully launched and the dealer network expanded, he saw the change from Kim (Ogaard-Nielsen) to Mike (Kimberly, the new Acting CEO) as a good time to step aside and allow a transition to occur." Said Mr. Price during a phone conversation. "Mike's appointment is not as sudden as some see it. He has been on the board for several months. Proton specifically picked him because of his detailed knowledge of the company and the performance niche of the automotive market."

Mike Kimberly has an impressive employment record including Jaguar, Lamborghini, GM and, of course, over 20 years of experience at Lotus starting in 1969.

Mr. Tickner put to rest any concerns of Proton's supposed disengagement from the company. "Senior Proton personnel make up five of the six board positions.”

Protons commitment of significant executive resources represents a company putting their proverbial "money where their mouth is". This is in addition to a significant investment to expand Lotus' model line up.

Earlier this month, Lotus announced the Elise S, which will fill the hole in the line-up created by the passing of the Rover powered vehicles. The Europa S was shown at the Geneva show and will allow Lotus to penetrate the touring segment of market that they have been absent from since the end of the Excels production 10 years ago.

Mr. Tickner elaborated by stating that Lotus recognizes the need to branch out to other market segments. The Europa S will serve to offer a more comfortable "business class" vehicle, allowing Lotus to compete more completely with Porsches Cayman and BMWs forthcoming Z4 Coupe. It will do this while still keeping its core "Lotus characteristics" of superb handling and ride. Eventually, this car will bridge the gap between the Elise/ Exige and the forthcoming supercar. Unfortunately, the Europa S, in it's current configuration, can not be exported to the important North American market, Lotus' largest pool of buyers.

While Proton will admit to having held discussions with several possible strategic partners, none of these discussions have ever had any affect on their plans for Lotus. This includes recent announcements regards Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Chery and Jinhua Youngman Automobile Group.

"People assumed that Lotus would be next when Proton sold its stake in the Italian motorcycle company (MV Agusta). This move had nothing to do with Lotus.", said Tickner

This author will be the first to admit that he jumped on the wagon with the other doomsayers. Proton appeared to be a sinking ship ready to take Lotus with it into the abyss. Both Tickner and Price were firm about that not being the case.

"Proton has stated repeatedly their ongoing commitment to Lotus and growing the Lotus brand. There isn't anything else to discuss regarding unfounded rumors."

Some of this commitment can be found in the recent launch of the Lotus Sport brand into the North American market. As detailed in our previous article on the recent West Coast Lotus Meet held in California this past May, Lotus Sport plans to make it's presence known in the US. It presents Lotus with a unique opportunity to market it's highly advanced line of performance accessories to the brands largest market. Mr. Price explained

"The introduction of Lotus Sport into the U.S. market is a natural progression following the very successful introductions of the Elise and Exige. With over three thousand Elises and Exiges on U.S. roads it is an ideal time to introduce performance parts for these cars. The Lotus Sport Elise and Exige Cup are excellent showcases for the Lotus Sport performance parts. These cars are also an excellent way to introduce U.S. performance enthusiasts to Lotus Sport’s capabilities."

As usual, Lotus remains tight lipped regarding future plans.

"Lotus is always working on future products to meet marketplace demands and we will share details of these projects once they are ready for the marketplace. Proton has been very supportive of Lotus. Unfortunately given the competitive nature of the marketplace we can't discuss future projects, even with our very supportive customers, until the details have been finalized." Tickner said in response to our inquiry.

But it can be said that the best gardeners keep the public guessing. Surprise blooms and new arrangements are simply part of the artistry. Lotus continues to spread out and look to new market segments. We will be watching carefully the launch of the new Europa S and supercar to see if Lotus has indeed planted their new products in good soil. We need to make sure we don't get to far ahead of ourselves, remembering that Lotus is much more resilient than we give it credit for.