Amy Marentic leads Ford’s luxury brand, a sector critical to the business strategy of a company playing catch-up in the world’s largest automobile market.

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LOS ANGELES — Amy Marentic had never visited China and knew little about the country so far away from her hometown of Grand Haven, Michigan. 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.”

Amy Marentic

Position: President of Lincoln China

Education: Graduated from University of Michigan with a degree in aerospace engineering, then earned a master’s degree in industrial and manufacturing engineering

Family: Marentic’s husband runs marketing for Ford in China. Her son is an engineer with Lincoln in Dearborn.

Source: Detroit Free Press

Notes in her Ford Motor Co. 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 company playing catch-up in the world’s largest automobile 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.”

When she walks her bulldog Tucker through the affluent Xintiandi neighborhood in Shanghai wearing Lululemon yoga clothes and Nike running shoes, women pass by wearing Givency and Louis Vuitton. And the bulldog, an especially popular breed in China, gets photographed as many as five times an outing.

“It’s the anti-Silicon Valley,” she said, noting that her parking garage is filled with luxury vehicles including Rolls Royces, Porsches, Ferraris, Bentleys and McLarens.

About 64 percent of the luxury buyers are in a “family life stage,” versus 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. Car buyers frequently climb into back seats before getting behind the wheel.

“In China, 48 percent of the time a luxury owner only has one vehicle, so you see the customer choose a utility,” Marentic said. Lincoln just announced the MKX SUV name change to the 2019 Lincoln Nautilus, in part because Chinese consumers struggled with letter names.

Lincoln only recently entered the China market, and sales are growing steadily: From 140 in 2010 to 32,558 in 2016. As of October, year-to-date sales reached 45,729.

“We have a clean slate where we can try things to see what works,” Marentic said. “We have a great heritage. When people in China think of Lincoln, they think of JFK, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and weddings. The Chinese consumer will tell you heritage is important, but the product has to deliver. It’s ultracompetitive.

“I have 80 dealers selling more Continentals in China than total in the United States. That’s the strength of China’s market.”

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 issues.

“We have a dealer investor who is employed by the government. He wanted to be the first Continental driver in Beijing. He tried for years to put his name in the lottery and he never won the lottery,” Marentic said. “You can physically drive but you can’t get a plate for the car to be registered in certain cities.”

As a result, the one vehicle that families purchase 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. “At every dealership, we’re observing. If it’s important to the consumer, we’re going to do it.”

When asked who gets credit for moving Marentic to China, he smiled.

Before leaving in the summer of 2016, her friends and family expressed concern. She had little world experience and didn’t speak Mandarin. But this is a woman whose father enrolled her at age 5 in karate class to learn discipline.

At 16, she led aerobics and gymnastics classes for 180 students at the Y. When a teacher kicked her out of advanced algebra “because girls weren’t supposed to be in advanced math,” she fought to get readmitted.

Years later, friends and family were skeptical when she applied to the University of Michigan, initially interested in becoming an astronaut. She left Ann Arbor an aerospace engineer. A fascination with the auto industry inspired Marentic to pick up a master’s degree in industrial and manufacturing engineering.

Her greatest fear about going to Asia? Finding a yoga class to maintain strength and balance in a high-stress job. She did. And while she isn’t fluent in Mandarin yet, she has learned to say “breathe in” and “breathe out.” Staying fit is essential, she noted. At 5-foot-4, the former gymnast has been directed to the men’s department to shop in a nation with especially petite women.

Colleagues at Ford in Dearborn describe her as someone who can shift from explaining propulsion systems to fashion commentary to auto trends with ease.

The “woman thing” is not a big deal in China, Marentic said. “In South Korea, it’s a huge deal. It’s all the media wanted to talk about.”

Most news reports mention her dream of becoming an astronaut. “In my senior year at UM in our senior design class, we had visiting astronauts mentor us. My mentor crushed my dreams by telling me that being an astronaut was something you do once in your life and was not a career. So he advised me to find a career I love. That is what led me to cars.

“Crushed dreams sometimes lead to amazing things.”