He loves speed, hates bureaucracy and told Ferrari: Go faster

Benedetto Vigna took the wheel of the world’s most iconic luxury carmaker in 2021. Photographs by Alessandro Cristofoletti for The Wall Street Journal
Benedetto Vigna took the wheel of the world’s most iconic luxury carmaker in 2021. Photographs by Alessandro Cristofoletti for The Wall Street Journal

Summary

A tech executive with a new management strategy took the wheel of the luxury carmaker. Then it was off to the races.

When he took the wheel of the world’s most iconic luxury carmaker, Benedetto Vigna quickly decided that something was wrong with the organizational culture.

Ferrari was too slow.

For a company originally built to race cars, this was something close to sacrilege. The problem, he discovered, was that Ferrari was being weighed down by its “bureaucratic mass index," his name for the excess layers of an organization. The only solution was one that would make Ferrari leaner and faster.

“When the environmental condition is changing at high speed," Vigna says, “you need to have a team that is able to adapt at high speed."

Since his first day on the job in 2021, Ferrari’s stock price has nearly doubled, and the company has outperformed the rest of the world’s biggest automakers. It’s now worth more than Ford Motor or General Motors. But that may not be the best way to measure Ferrari. In fact, Vigna doesn’t even think of Ferrari as a car company.

“It’s a luxury company," he says. “It’s a luxury company where, contrary to other luxury companies, technology plays an important role."

It manages scarcity and desirability to the point that there might not be a single product with a wider gap between the number of people who own it and the number of people who can only dream of it. Last year, Ferrari sold a total of 13,663 cars. Forget about buying one. There are so few Ferraris on the road that it feels like a rare occasion anytime you see one.

But even if Ferrari is unlike any other company, any company can be more like Ferrari.

The management philosophy that its chief executive brought to Ferrari’s bellissima headquarters in Maranello, Italy, applies far beyond this place that produces the sexiest cars on the planet.

Before he was a car guy, Vigna was a chip guy. At the University of Pisa, he studied physics and wrote a thesis on quarks and gluons. He took a job as a research-and-development engineer at STMicroelectronics, the French-Italian semiconductor company where he worked for more than 25 years, filed for hundreds of patents and climbed to division president. One product his group sold: accelerometers.

Vigna, 55, seemed like an improbable choice to run a luxury company that happens to make products on wheels. He was such an outsider that he drove his first Ferrari not in Italy but Silicon Valley, where a friend let him take an F50 for a spin. He never expected to find himself in the driver seat of the entire company.

But he was tapped for the job because cars these days are as much about computational power as horsepower. As a tech executive, he understood the forces reshaping the auto industry.

As an Italian, he speaks about sports cars with such reverence that he makes the name Ferrari sound like it has five syllables. When he was a boy, he carried a backpack with a red Ferrari on it, and he fiddled with the antenna on his roof so he could watch racing on television. He once snuck away from home for the weekend without telling his parents to watch a Ferrari driver win the San Marino Grand Prix.

Ferrari has been synonymous with opulence, meticulous craftsmanship and ridiculously fast cars for nearly a century. The key to the company’s success is the same now as it was then.

“Factories are made of machines, walls and people," Enzo Ferrari once said. “Ferrari is made most of all by people."

I asked Vigna about that quote. He started talking about vegetables.

“Imagine an onion," he tells me. “The center is the people. The layer outside is the product. The external layer is the process. The process makes sense when you have a product, and it’s only through the motivation of the people that you make a product. This is the way I see the company. And if you see the company this way, you have to start with the people."

So he did. Once he traded semiconductors for supercars, his first act as CEO was interviewing as many of Ferrari’s people as he could. By the end of his listening tour, he’d spoken with 300 employees in every role imaginable. He finds it odd when executives believe more of what they hear outside than inside their own companies. “Some consulting company offered to help me," he says. “But the best consultants of a company are the people themselves."

From the outside, Ferrari appeared to be humming. The stock price was up. The company’s operating margins made the industry salivate. The employees were motivated and highly competitive.

But talking with them opened his eyes to three problems that only people inside the company could see.

There were too many silos. There was a bit too much distance between the CEO and the rest of the company. And the bureaucratic mass index was much, much too high.

As a result, the Prancing Horse was too plodding. At one point, Vigna counted nine levels of employees in a cybersecurity meeting and noticed that only the lowest-ranking person had anything useful to say. The bloated hierarchy came as a shock to Vigna, who was used to the flatter structure of startups and the speed of tech. He restructured groups and reduced the number of organizational levels to lower the company’s BMI and get Ferrari moving at a pace more to his liking.

Vigna discovered something else during those conversations that floored him: There were people at Ferrari who had never been in a Ferrari.

After the company invited employees to a test track to experience the cars for themselves, he says one woman came up to him on the verge of tears. She had been mounting Ferrari’s dashboards for decades, but only after seeing her work in action—at several hundred kilometers per hour—did she really understand her job.

Vigna also sought out the people who had spent the most time in Ferraris: the test drivers. “Our first clients," he says. Their feedback makes the cars more efficient and more emotional, as the Italians like to say. They want Ferraris to be fast. They also want Ferraris to be fun. Which meant Vigna wanted their input.

He bumped the test drivers from six levels below the CEO to three with the goal of accelerating the flow of information. That’s because he sees a direct link between process and product.

“When the test drivers can tell the engineers what they think, there is a clear improvement in the experience you are able to deliver to the client," Vigna says. “They cannot be nested under the engineers. Otherwise, it’s like asking the server how is the wine."

He believes that smaller, nimbler teams are capable of hitting another gear.

“People can give the best of themselves if they feel important," he says. “The more people you have in a team, the more duplication of role, the less important the person is feeling."

But tinkering with the company’s engine didn’t mean replacing it altogether. Even after he reorganized the company, Ferrari employs more people today than when he started, which Vigna attributes to growing horizontally instead of hierarchically.

“When you change the culture of a company, it’s never a revolution. It’s an evolution," he says. “If you have a revolution, you will have a lot of passive resistance and you will be inefficient. You will waste a lot of energy for a small gain."

One sign of that evolution will soon be found in Vigna’s garage. The best part of being the CEO of Ferrari is getting to drive a Ferrari. He recently bought a red Purosangue, the company’s first four-door, four-seater model, which carries a sticker price around $400,000. He pulled out his phone to show me a photo. “Look how nice it is!" he says.

Ferrari is also evolving away from its traditional internal-combustion engine. Last year, hybrids accounted for close to half of sales. Next year, the company plans to unveil the first electric Ferrari.

All of which might sound like painting a Ferrari hot pink. But not to Vigna.

“This means the company has been able to adapt to the complex environment," he says of Ferrari’s hybrid sales.

Of course, EVs will have their own complexities. During our interview, I noticed a frenzy of activity around Vigna and figured someone was bringing him an espresso. As it turned out, someone was plugging in his computer. “We are running out of battery," he said.

There are many ways to gauge success at Ferrari, from stock price to Formula One and 24 Hours of Le Mans races. But when I asked Vigna how he thinks about success, he cited another metric.

“Simple," he says. “We need to transform to make sure our clients are our fans. The more our clients are our fans, the higher the success."

He also needs them to be fans before they’re clients. In fact, he wants them to be fans before they’re even toddlers.

When his daughter, now a teenager, was born, he bought her a Ferrari teddy bear. “My wife was very upset," he recalls. “She said, ‘I was supposed to make the gift of the bear!’ " But the future CEO of Ferrari was unsympathetic.

“Next time," he thought, “be faster."

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com

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