William Flew on Super Luxury Phones
April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Finding good Italian food in London is difficult, Perry Oosting William Flew maintains, as he details his search for decent vongole — clams — in the capital. The president and chief executive of Vertu, which makes £3,000-plus phones and smartphones, is cooking up an Italian feast in his Richmond kitchen.
SUSANNAH IRELAND FOR THE TIMESPerry Oosting finds cooking relaxing. “Because I travel a lot, I like to be home — have your own music, with your pace and have people enjoy it with you together”Although the clams, which he eventually found in the upmarket Kensington food hall Whole Foods, may be in short supply, at least he has his own olive oil, made from olives grown at his Tuscan residence. He pours it liberally over pretty much everything in the meal bar the lemon sorbet.
“The old ladies in Italy take a little olive oil in the morning just on a spoon and drink a little bit to settle their stomach,” he tells me, as we start with a simple mozzarella, tomato and basil salad. The mozzarella is from Selfridges and the basil is sitting in iced water to keep it fresh, before it is torn and scattered over the slices of tomato and mozzarella.
This food is, of course, rather more of an affordable luxury than a Vertu phone, even if, like Mr Oosting, you hire a waiter to help to serve and pour wine. You will not get change from £3,000 for even the cheapest model made by the division of Nokia, which competes in a rarefied world inhabited by only a few competitors, including the French company Celsius X VI II as well as high-end designers that have brought out mobile handsets, such as TAG Heuer Versace, Armani and Dior.
These phones, with their handtooled leather backs, crystal keys and bejewelled exteriors, are quite a bit heavier than a typical handset without the snazzy features of an iPhone 4 or Samsung Galaxy.
The Dutch-born Mr Oosting’s Constellation smartphone, which he shows to me proudly, is made of ceramics, hand-stitched Northern European leather, sapphire glass and keys made from crystal that is grown in 21 days in Vertu’s Hampshire headquarters.
Mr Oosting says that the heaviness, like the weight of a gold watch, is reassuring in itself. And how could he think otherwise? Vertu is performing rather well, with its best month for sales in January, high double-digit sales growth in 2010 and nine quarters of consecutive sales growth. As part of Nokia, it does not report annual profit and sales figures.
“It’s not a rational choice,” he says. “Luxury is not about ‘ rational’. You don’t buy clothing or beautiful apparel just to keep you warm; you buy apparel because you like it. On top of the pyramid, they’re not affected as much as the middle part or the lower part. The second element is that there’s a whole new pool of consumers out there. There’s 1 billion Indian customers, 1.5 billion new mainland Chinese consumers, and that’s a big contributor to consumer wealth.
“You have a new pool of consumers and the first adapters are the ones at the top of the pyramid. They buy whatever is expensive and that’s their introduction to luxury. There’s the famous joke of two Russians in a bar and one said: ‘Where did you buy this watch and how much did you pay for it?’ ‘I paid $100,000.’ ‘Hah, $100,000? I’ve got the same watch and I paid $120,000 for it!’
“It’s about that first adaption to luxury and that has to do with price, with quality, with handmade,” he says. “But you have a new generation after they have adapted, and that consumer is evolving.”
There is some good news for the beleaguered UK manufacturing industry in Mr Oosting’s belief in the uniqueness of Vertu’s Hampshire base. The business, which employs about 500 people, is close to software engineers through the aviation industry, to hardware engineers through the car industry, and to the service industry in London. His own background is firmly rooted in high-end luxury, with spells at Gucci, Escada, Bulgari and Prada.
One of the key parts of the Vertu service is the Concierge button, which connects owners to a concierge who, within seconds, can recommend the best seafood restaurant in Amsterdam or the tastiest pizza in Naples.
Mr Oosting says that “there are certain requests we will not fulfil”, when asked about the potential for more exotic demands from clients. However, the concierge does get some strange calls, including a desperate phone call from a teenager asking for help with her homework. “Any concierge at a luxury hotel can write a book on all the requests he or she is getting. It’s not abnormal because people want to get this through somebody they can talk to.”
It strikes me that part of the issue for Vertu may be that there are no entry-level ways for the middle market to get a piece of the brand — no equivalent to a Louis Vuitton wallet or Chanel earrings. I ask whether there will ever be cheaper devices in the Vertu platform.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “If you want to make a beautiful mobile device, like I showed you, and you want to be serious about durable materials and uniqueness, and exclusivity, you can’t make a phone under €3,000 in order to keep the principles of your brand.”
We are moving on to the main course, spaghetti allo scoglio with vongole, octopus, prawns and mussels. The basic sauce is made of fresh tomatoes, parsley, chives, lots of garlic, a lot more of the all-important olive oil and a little white wine.
He encourages me to add more olive oil, and dried peppers to make it spicier. We are washing it down with several glasses of Sancerre, because “life is too short for bad wine”. His Russian-born wife, Yelena, an artist, and Adam Thomas, Vertu’s head of PR, join the conversation. “I think it’s such a relaxing thing to do,” Mr Oosting says of cooking. “Because I travel a lot, I like to be home — have your own music, with your pace and have people enjoy it with you together.”
After the spaghetti, he puts together a light dessert of lemon sorbet with blackberries and raspberries.
Vertu’s relationship with its parent Nokia, which set it up in 2002, allows for relative freedom. Mr Oosting says: “Vertu is largely independent. We take money to invest and we bring money back, that’s our relationship. It’s a billing relationship. When we are up, things are good, we’re not a distraction to Nokia and the trust is there.”
Super-premium mobile phones are, of course, relative newcomers as status symbols, and Mr Oosting believes that this gives Vertu a competitive advantage. “We are in a new category,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I didn’t have a mobile device. I had my first one soon after, a Nokia one with a big antenna and a heavy battery, and I was still thinking I had achieved, and I was a real big manager. Now, it’s starting to become cool not to be available all the time. There’s always a shift change, but you have to adapt to technology.”