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From GAP to the electric car: Tesla’s George Blankenship

How do you go from selling clothes to electric cars? George Blankenship, Tesla’s vice president of design and store development knows.

A 20-year veteran of global clothing store GAP and the man responsible for Apple’s successful retail stores, Blankenship jokes that these previous jobs were practice for his time at Tesla.

But jokes aside, what plans does Blankenship have to turn Tesla from a boutique $109,000 electric sports-car manufacturer into a name synonymous with electric vehicles? We caught some time with Blankenship last week and chatted about his new position at Tesla.

You’re coming up on five months with Tesla – congratulations! How have the first five months been?

George Blankenship: It’s a wild ride. It’s everything I thought it would be, and then about ten times more. We have so much going on and there’s so many exciting things happening almost every day that it’s actually hard to describe.

You sorta jump into this thinking of it as a startup. Then you start finding out a little more and getting involved a little more.  It is just… every day there’s something new and it’s really exciting.

So far, what has been the most exciting moment for you at Tesla?

GB: I think I’ve been able to bring a couple of other individuals into the company, and then secondly the opening in Tokyo last Friday which was an incredible event.

It was interesting because Akio Toyoda likes fast cars and sports cars. He and Elon just get along famously. To see the two of them sit in one of our Roadsters and drive out of our showroom together in Tokyo and drive down the street is a little spine-tingling.

Are there more stores opening this year?

GB: This has been a really active six months.  We opened in Zurich and Copenhagen and Paris and then off to the other end of the world in Tokyo.

Coming up in December we’ll be opening in Milan, so that’s coming up very soon. And then we will open in Washington DC.

In the spring we’re going to open our new prototype design store, which is shifting to very high foot traffic locations. We’ll open a couple of those in the spring and roll some more out in the fall.

Is that part of a move to create more Apple-like stores for Tesla in shopping malls? How’s that going to work?

GB: What we’re trying to do with that store is truly shift the customer experience when it comes to how they think about a car purchase and how they think about owning a car. Today’s model is very structured around the world with a few minor exceptions.

What they do is, somebody decides what car you should have. And when you come there as a customer their number one job is to sell you a car that they have on their lot that they have already pre-chosen for you.

We don’t want to do that. We want the car-buying experience to become very special, individual. This is your car. Not one that someone has chosen for you. We want you to become engaged in buying the car.

We’ve designed a store that is meant to be very inviting to come into. We have what is a fairly expensive car, and we want kids to open the doors. We want kids to enjoy the car. We want parents and people to sit in the car.

We’ll have an entire section of the store devoted to understanding electric vehicles and understanding what it’s like to own a Tesla. So we invite them in and then we want to be informative.

We want to engage them and engage them in the buying experience.

The new stores are designed to do that. They are designed to make you want to be there. To make you feel welcome and explain to you electric vehicles and the fun part of owning a Tesla.

So your job is to effectively do what you did at GAP and Apple with Tesla?

GB: I guess I come from a background of vertically integrated companies. I mean, you think of GAP. When I joined we still sold a lot of Levi’s material and then we ended up going completely vertical so you could control the product: you could design it; you could make it: you can market it the way you want to. You can listen to the customers directly and take their comments and do what the customer wants because it’s all you

Apple’s the same way. We designed the hardware and the software. We put them together in front of the customers in a great environment, listened to the customers, took care of the customers at the genius bar. Understood about the product and how the customer interfaced with it and then went back to the beginning of the design.

This is exactly what we’re doing here. Completely vertically integrated. We control the entire process. We can make it as fun as engaging as we want and we can learn from the customers directly – and then we can affect the product and go through that virtuous cycle again.

Is the ultimate goal for Tesla to have a store in every town?

GB: You don’t need a store in every town. Here’s the beauty of the new model we’re going to.

It’s not a great big dealership on the outside of town that costs a lot of money for the land, a lot of money for the building – a lot of money invested in the interior and the huge inventory of cars. That is not the model.

The model is go into a place where people frequent on a day in and day out basis where you can be a part of their lives every time they go to a shopping center or high street. Be a part of their lives that they see on a regular basis.

Then what you do is make it a fun and inviting environment so they want to stop in. So what ends up happening is you can be where they are already. You can be a part of their daily life.

So what happens is that they stop in and say hello. They run into another owner. And they chat. And then you can show them owners in the Tesla area that we’re talking about having videos of current owners who can share the story of what it’s like.

Why not go the franchized dealer model, like most other automakers?

GB: Once you take a portion of the experience out of your own hands you’re relying on someone else to deliver your vision and our vision is to be the best place in the world to own a car.

In order for us to deliver on that vision we feel that its important that we monitor and deliver all parts of the experience.

As soon as you go away from that model you start to loose control and if you loose control of the part that touches the customer that arguably is the most important part. So we do not want to leave that to anyone else other than ourselves because we consider that to be one of the most important parts.

Having our technology being 4 to 5 years ahead is important too, but when it comes to time to touch the customer I really don’t want that in anyone else’s hands than ours.

While Apple is considered a premium brand by many people, Tesla is much more expensive. How is Tesla going to penetrate the market with an $109,000 electric sports car?

GB: When I joined Apple ten years ago there was one thing that most people knew about Apple: They didn’t want one. It wasn’t for them. It was for a few crazy people and some creative people and they knew they didn’t want one.

That was the point we were starting from. When I joined Apple what I looked at great technology and a pipeline of great products ahead of us. We were starting from he position of people not wanting us. They knew they didn’t want us.

What did we do? We went out and got in front of them in a place they were comfortable and a place they were looking for something new and exciting. A place they were looking to buy.

We did it in a way that made them feel comfortable and confident. When we delivered a new product we had a team of knowledgable, courteous sales people who could explain that product.

I mean, think back to the iPod. When it first came out – here’s this white brick with a cord coming out of it that happens to be wired to a pair of headphones. Its 3 to 4 times more expensive than the other music players on the market. It has a white dial on the front. No-one knows what to do with it.

So people start coming into Apple stores and we start explaining it to them and people say “Wow, that’s really cool”. What we did was we came up with a way of explaining it. 10,000 songs in your pocket.

So you’ve got this ability to explain it and what happens? People start buying it. But it’s still 3 or 4 times more expensive than everything else in the market. But some people bought it. Then what hap[pens is the next one comes out. The iPod mini. More people can buy it and more do. Then you bring out colors. People want more. Then you bring out the Nano and it’ll fit it their shirt pocket. Then what happens is the iTunes music store comes out. Then iPhone. Then iPad.

There’s a progression.

How does that relate to what we’re doing?

Right now we’re selling a $100,000 sports car. Okay. People are enjoying and embracing it just like they did the iPod. What we’re doing in a couple of years is our iPod Mini – theTesla S. It’s more in line with a wider demographic.

People will know us from the Roadster. They’ll know us from being fun to drive, being electric, being fun to be around and then they’ll go “wow. I understand a little bit more than I did before. I want one of these”

What I try to get across to everyone is that it’s not important at all that you have those products. It’s not. What’s important is why you brought those products? You brought those products because you wanted to.  You wanted that product. You wanted to have an iPad. You wanted to have an iPhone. You wanted to have an iPod.

That’s where we’re going with Tesla.

We are going to have people who want to buy our car. That’s our goal.  Our goal is to have people want to buy our cars because they want to – not because they have to buy a car. That’s where the dynamic shift happens.

In the 1990s Apple allowed certain clones to run its operating system. Is that what Tesla is doing working with Toyota and Daimler – Allowing these automakers to run “Tesla” clones?

GB: I see it differently. Let me use a different analogy. What we’re doing withToyota or Daimler is not cloning. I see it more like this: I was at Apple when we designed iTunes for Windows. We wanted to be able to have the iTunes music store which was the best place in the world to buy music to be available to a larger crowd.

At one point we were “We will never ever write software for the other side”. But if you go back and look at the marketing – whenever the marketing came out for iTunes for Windows the tagline was “Hell Froze Over”.

We said “we need to let others use our technology to see how great it is”. The rest is history.

How many people use the iTunes music store today? How many billions of songs are sold.

I don’t consider any computers running iTunes for Windows as being a clone. I see them as using the most advanced technology on the planet.

That’s what we’re doing at Tesla. We’re taking the best drivetrain and putting it into some RAV4s and some Daimler products.

GAP and Apple are well-known major retailers. Why the switch to Tesla?

GB: I was very fortunate at GAP. I worked there for 20 years. I left on my 20th year anniversary and I decided 5 years before I left that I was leaving on my 20th anniversary. I had this whole 5 year plan. I resigned from GAP in September of 1999  and told them I was leaving in June of 2000. I gave them 9 months of notice so they could get my replacement.

I ended up on the phone in March 2000. I’m sitting in my office and the admin comes in and says “I have Micky Drexler and Steve Jobs on the line for you”. I thought “I know what’s going on here – the guys from the Philadelphia office were calling for a practical joke

As I reach for the phone to pick it up and say something smart the admin comes running down the hall, goes into my office and screams“No no no no! George! It really IS Drexler and Jobs!”

So I pick up the phone and it is Drexler and Jobs. Jobs wants to talk about retail stores. Drexler drops off and Steve (Jobs) says “Listen, can we have lunch?

When Steve Jobs asks you to lunch you say “Sure, why not?

So I met him down at his office and we chatted for a while and he invited me to join the company.

I then spent the next 3 weeks explaining why I wasn’t going to do that, but finally ended up going “Okay. I’ve been practicing for a while to do this job. I’ll do this for a year and go help them get started.” Six years later, I left.

I retired from Apple in 2006 and then did some consulting. In the spring of 2010 I kept getting these emails from this lady named Mary Beth Brown. She kept sending me these emails over and over and over again. Elon Musk would like to meet with you

Elon Musk would like to talk to you.

When you’re in real estate you get emails like that ten times a day. People want to talk to you about every little shopping center they have everywhere in the world.

I kept deleting the emails.

One day, I read the email. It read: “Elon Musk would like to speak to you about the things you did at Apple. Please give me a call”.

So I called Mary Beth Brown and I get on the phone. She thanks me for calling and says “Elon would like to talk to you. Hold on...” And Elon gets on the phone.

There I am, sitting on the phone in Florida talking to Elon Musk on the phone talking about his company.

Then we talked for about an hour and he says “Can we get together?” I said “Sure, let’s get together”.

We’re trying to figure out when. Musk says “I’m sorry to be pushy, but can we do it this afternoon”. I said “Sure, but I’m in Florida.”

So he says “Oh…. okay...” we’re looking at our calendars and he says “Oh, you’re in Florida. Can I see you tomorrow? Listen, I have to meet at Cape Canaveral tomorrow with Obama at noon and we’re doing a presentation. The airport is going to be closed until 5. I could get to you for 6 o’clock tomorrow.”

I thought. Wow. You’re meeting with President Obama and then you’re coming to see me.

We met at Fort Lauderdale airport. The next day he said “You have to come to LA and meet some people”.

I did. Incredible people. Talented, committed,  passionate, driven about the job they were doing.

Then they gave me the keys to the car. I was in the car 60 seconds and I knew I had to join the company.

As I thought about it. As I look at Tesla today and I think back 10 years ago. I look at Tesla today with the same opportunity and future as I saw through the glasses I was wearing 10 years ago when I started at Apple.

What are the differences between Apple, Gap and Tesla, and what are the similarities?

GB: At GAP I learned that less is more. It was quality, value and style. With Steve and Apple you learn that there’s nothing that can’t be done.

Written by Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, this article originally appeared on AllCarsElectric.com, one of VentureBeat’s editorial partners.

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