LOS ANGELES – Amy Marentic had never visited China and knew little about the country so far away from her hometown of Grand Haven, Mich. But, she noticed, China increasingly made news with its surging population and changing culture.
It intrigued her.
“My passion is anticipating needs of consumers,” she said. “I’ve worked in everything from engineering to product marketing. And I said in my profile that I wanted to go to China.”
Notes in her Ford profile didn’t go unnoticed. After two decades at the company, Marentic was asked to pack her bags. Now she leads Ford’s luxury brand, a sector critical to the business strategy of a firm playing catch-up in the world’s largest auto market.
As president of Lincoln China, Marentic is tapping what appears to be an insatiable appetite for luxury goods. Lincoln sales have risen sharply under her direction.
“You know how luxury in the U.S. is, where people walk in wearing jeans and T-shirts and they’re not showy? China isn’t there yet. They wear Prada and Gucci,” she said. “I didn’t get it until I lived there. They value luxury like we’ve never seen.”
About 64 percent of the luxury buyers are in a “family life stage,” vs. fewer than 20 percent in the U.S., Marentic said. Average luxury customers in China are in their mid-30s. And, unlike the U.S., a lot of first-time car buyers choose luxury vehicles. Chinese families often prefer cars and SUVs that can hold children, parents and grandparents at once.
“In China, 48 percent of the time a luxury owner only has one vehicle, so you see the customer choose a utility,” she said. Lincoln just announced the MKX SUV name change to the 2019 Lincoln Nautilus, in part because consumers struggled with letter names.
Lincoln only recently entered the Chinese market, and sales are growing steadily: From 140 in 2010 to 45,729 through the first 10 months of this year. “I have 80 dealers selling more Continentals in China than total in the United States,” Marentic said.
The government recently lifted its one-child limit, so families are growing. And while people enjoy owning cars, the government has restricted how many vehicles can be on the road, partly in response to population and pollution.
As a result, the one vehicle that families buy needs to be exceptional. The experience is unique in China, said Kumar Galhotra, president of Lincoln. Vehicles are displayed like objects of art in dealerships designed to feel like art galleries, he said.
“And we learned having a uniformed doorman is important,” Galhotra said.