There's no doubt that Rolls-Royces are one of the most eye-catching vehicles on the road today. People on the street see the distinctly bold front end, the Spirit of Ecstacy riding proudly upright, and the luxury paint jobs and know that somebody really important, or extremely wealthy, is sitting behind those glass window barriers. However, most don't fully understand that it is the craftsmanship inside the cabin that gives Rolls-Royce customers the true lifestyle they desire.
The high-class automobile brand recently opened a massive 9,200-square-foot showroom, the biggest in North America, and second-biggest in the world in Jericho, Long Island, housing the biggest customization room in the world. We were able to attend the opening and speak with the head of leather at Rolls-Royce Andrew Monachan. We had the pleasure to grill him about the artistry of leather production, what separates Rolls-Royce from other luxury cars, and how the company manages to keep up with the high demand and expectations of its customer base. Hit the jump to meet the man behind the leather.
Interview by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)
What do you do exactly?
It's quite simple: I have the best job, working the best factory, for the best company in the world. I run the leather shop at Rolls-Royce. So, my guys basically build the best quality interiors for the highest profile customers in the world. What’s not to love? It’s a brilliant job. You meet so many people, whether it's customers specifying their cars or working with the design team, it’s all great. I’ve been in the car business for a long time, but this is without doubt the best thing I could possibly do. It’s fantastic.
What have those five years been like with the company?
I’ve been running the leather shop for five years, but I’ve been with Rolls-Royce for 11. So, I basically came to the company when it was just a project. BMW had taken the brand over from VW, or the Vickers company, and Bentley and Rolls-Royce were split up. I joined shortly after that. And then I joined the team that was setting up the manufacturing process, so I’ve been involved since day one of those cars.
What were you doing before?
I was with With General Motors, working throughout Europe and ended up in Switzerland. I was bouncing around between there and flying around the world doing all sorts of great stuff. The company that I went back to that was part of GM got outsourced, so I was looking for a job when a headhunter called asking if I fancied working for a little niche operation on the South Coast.
Absolutely. You know, it’s not a hard decision to make. Working with GM was good, there were some good guys there. I still keep in touch with a lot of them, but it’s not like working for Rolls-Royce.
Were you doing leather work for them as well?
I was basically a production guy. I’ve been an engineer for most of my life, so engineering and then production management. When you’re running production areas, the technology can change, but the people remain the same. I’m a people manager, so I’ve got about 200 people right now, which is about the biggest team within Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. We need a lot of people building good interiors.
So how did you get into the leather work?
I was asked and didn’t refuse. And the interesting thing is you only need a sniff of what we do in the leather shop and it draws people in. So, people who have never worked with leather before get drawn towards it. Once you’re in, you start learning more day by day by day. I’ve made my own leathers. I went to find out how to make leather from skins so that I would understand everything about the technology, which is great, because you connect to the materials and it helps when I’m talking to customers to explain why our leathers are better than anybody else’s.
I was talking to a guy from another magazine this morning. And he said asked, "When you look at other cars, what do you like and what things do you not like?" The likes are easy, because I look around at all the different cars and I like the fact that their leather’s not as good as mine. It makes me a happy man. It’s because we went to a large distance when we were developing the Phantom that it had to really represent what we wanted from Rolls-Royce. It had to go back to that ethos that David Archibald spoke about, taking the best of what exists and making it better. But he didn’t finish the sentence: If it doesn’t exist, then invent it. That was the whole part of that Henry Royce quote.
In this case, the leather that had been used for historical Rolls-Royces had either gone, closed down, or wasn’t good quality anymore. We had to go back to the drawing board and find out what was the best thing on the market. See, you don’t look for automotive interiors, because they’re not good enough. So, you go to Milan and you look at furniture fairs, you look at what’s at the high end in yachts, you look at when people don’t have any limits on what they’re spending on a product made of leather, what do they go for? We found a father and son company in Germany supplying for furniture manufacturers supplying for yachts. They were a size of business that we could get involved with and we are about 60 percent of their business now. We are a big fish in a small pond. We are important to them and we have this symbiotic relationship where they continue to make fantastic, top-end leather for us, and we put it in the best motor cars in the world.
Where do they get their…
It’s only bull hides. The reason for that is, the cows, because they are giving milk, are too stretchy. They take on milk every day. The cows are also more valuable to the farmers because they use them for breeding and they keep them longer. The bulls get used for meat production. From about two years old, they’re about six and a half square yards surface size. So that’s a big hide. So they only come from certain places in the world, around northern Europe. Outside of that, bulls live far more open lives.
Our bulls live in lovely green fields with wooden fences and get fed high-protein meals every day. Basically, it’s a lazy life. They want them to be as lazy as they can be so they can get real fat, real quick, because that’s all meat, the meat goes onto them real quick. When you get Argentinean steak, the steak is good because the animal lives a really tough life. He’s running up and down mountains, he’s eating poor quality food, he’s fighting, he’s going out smoking, drinking, gambling. It's a tough life for those bad boys. And the meat is brilliant for it, but the animal skin? Terrible, it’s all stretched and torn. You can use it for shoes, but you can’t really use it for anything else. So we are quite selective as to where we get our raw materials from.
Aside from the selection of hides, what else separates your leather?
Then it goes to this finishing tannery and they do wonderful things, giving a coating that is one sixth the thickness of a spray coat that is used on all other high-end automotive leathers. Our thickness of paint is very, very thin, which means you feel the leather. That’s why it’s got the suppleness, the touch, the feel. It’s a drum painting system, and because it drums it on so thin, it actually goes down into the hair follicles on the painting across the top. If you think about when you rub certain leathers together you hear a squeaking. You get a cheap automotive interior, you hear squeak, squeak. That’s not the leather squeaking, that’s the paint squeaking on top of it. By having so little paint, and having it following the contours so well, our leather doesn’t squeak. When it was first developed for Rolls-Royce, we put it in to test. The guys who were testing it said, “Yes, of course it’s going to squeak, all leather squeaks." The designer said it wouldn't. Three months afterwards, they finish the test. They said, “You wont believe this! The leather doesn’t squeak!”
It wears well, develops a brilliant patina over time, and develops character. It will crease and it will form wrinkles, but it won’t crack. The cracking, again, is the paint, and if you don’t have layers of paint to crack, you don’t get cracked leather. It basically means that that car will go through your life and age with you.
About how many bulls does it take to do an entire car?
Eleven for a normal car and about thirteen for an extended wheelbase. It's a lot of leather, which is why it’s about meat production. If there wasn’t a leather industry, then there would be thousands, if not millions, of tons of leather that would be put into the garbage every week, because what else do you use it for? So we are actually providing an opportunity to use the skins sensitively and make the most out of them rather than putting them into the trash and using plastic instead. It doesn’t make any sense. You might as well use the natural material that’s there and treasure it.
So, I know that each Rolls-Royce, pretty much, is completely different from the other. Tell me about the customization and how important it is to your customers.
It’s absolutely essential, and it isn’t necessarily whether you want to do that customization yourself. It’s about what the brand means and what it means to people. We’ve never knowingly, as far as I'm aware, refused any commission from a customer. We’re not taste arbiters. We don’t say no, that color won’t go with that color. You’re the customer, you tell us what you want and we deliver it for you and exceed your expectations. It's a real challenge for us, but it also lets the customer challenge him or herself. It’s kind of like, "How high can I set the bar? What crazy thing can I ask these guys to do and they’re still going to do it?" They’re willing to test themselves as to how far they are willing to go and come back and test us. That works really well, because it keeps us edgy, it keeps us competitive, it keeps us thinking about the next guy that's going to come in and ask us to do something crazy and how we cant think about it before he asks us. That way, we can go, "Oooh, now that’s going to be real tough, do you want it tomorrow?" They might think it'll take months, but we’ve already thought of it, we’ve already got it there in our back pockets ready to go, which is why, at the moment, we are working with some exotic materials. We’ve already done some work with alligator, farmed alligator, which is used for its meat. We’ve done some stuff with ostrich. Again, farmed ostrich.
Instead of leather…
Yeah, it’s the skin of the animal. There’s a thing that says up to a certain size, you call it a skin and then above that, it’s a hide. So, it’s still a bull hide, or it’s a kangaroo hide. Ostrich skin, smaller, yeah? And they’re all turned into leather, the same process as to turn them into leather. What we are trying to do, therefore, is to make sure that we have the palette, smorgasbord if you will, of different materials. When the customer comes in and says he'd really like to do this. we say, "Okay, we can go with you on that. We’ve tried it out, here are the things that work, do you want us to come with you on that journey?" Some will, some won’t. And hopefully we get more that will than the ones that won’t.
That's the exciting thing, because you’re actually trying to think ahead of what our really demanding customers want. These customers are all-powerful, self-made men and women that really know what they want. They don’t need a car, they already have another 11. They’ll have the stuff for getting the kids to school and going to the business meeting, they have enough. It’s an extension of their personality. It's like when you put on a really good shirt, because you haven’t got a Rolls-Royce yet, you’ve got on a really good tailored shirt. It makes you feel fantastic, it’s almost part of you, you know? You feel stronger, fitter, and wiser. It does so many things to your ego that makes you feel much, much better than you actually are. And that’s what these motor cars are. They enable people to extend their personality and develop something that’s so much them, and that’s why they love it.
What’s an example of something you guys have run into and haven’t been able to do?
[Pauses] We struggle with whitewall tires. We did it, though, and we got it right in the end. We struggled a little bit with replacing the wood with carbon fiber weave, but we did that, too.
What difficulties were there with doing those things?
Oh, just making sure that when they were finished, they look Rolls-Royce. We can go out and buy a set of treads from Fred’s treads, or whatever it might be, and stick it on the car, and it will look ok, but it won’t look Rolls-Royce. We wanted to develop run-flats on the right rims and so on and so forth, because we’ve had customers in the past that don’t like running on our rims and go off and they’ll change them. They can do that, but, for us, that’s not what the car was for. We try to work with the customer and actually deliver him the rims, or tires, or whatever else they’re looking for. So, I can’t think of anything we haven't been able to do right now. There probably is, and I’m probably lying if I say that we’ve always done everything, but I can’t think of it. I will try and think of it, because it’s got to be accurate. If someone reads your article and they say, “Yeah, we’ve been able to do everything," I’m going to get it in the ear as well. They are going to say, “You lying so-and-so, that’s not true!”
So what is something you guys have been recently working on by trying to push the limit, what’s the next step?
I’d love to be able to tell you on when it’s photographed and in magazines, you’ll see it for yourself. We are working on some phenomenal stuff right now, both in terms of future motor vehicles, but also working with different materials and working with other companies that we haven’t worked with before and trying to challenge what we want from interiors.