Maserati's North American CEO sells and lives the lifestyle

If anyone fits the target profile of a Maserati customer, it's Marti Eulberg.

She's a top executive who splits her time between two homes: an apartment on Manhattan's West Side and a California ocean-view home here, perched over a golf course.

She spends about 70% of her working life on the road. She loves adventure and the finer things in life. Single. Upper income. No regrets.

But this Maserati "customer" — she drives two — also is CEO of the Italian luxury car's North American operation. Maserati, along with equally famed stablemate Ferrari, is a unit of Italy's Fiat.

Although she just took over in June, Eulberg already is making a mark, impressing dealers with her enthusiasm and creative marketing ideas, such as offering the sound of a purring Maserati motor as a cellphone ring tone.

Eulberg already knows that sound well. She has a Maserati on each coast, each suited to its habitat. The lipstick-red GranTurismo sports car embodies the fun of her life in south Orange County, Calif. Her more button-down Quattroporte sedan, Maserati's only other U.S. model, is aimed at impressing fellow New Yorkers.

She doesn't just market expensive cars; she sells the lifestyle. "When I get in my car, I smile. When I walk away from my car, I smile."

Happiness with a Maserati is contagious, she insists. "If I'm driving in Manhattan, I get a minimum of four or five thumbs-up a week."

Founded in 1914, Maserati was known early for its racing prowess and speed records. In the U.S., it also became known for its stylish looks.

But by the U.S. recession of the early 1990s, the relatively downscale Biturbo coupe had not burnished the brand, sales flagged, and the brand left the U.S. It was bought by Fiat in 1993, and operations were joined with Ferrari in 1997.

In 2002, with the brand reinvigorated, Maserati returned to America and aimed squarely for well-heeled auto enthusiasts who want the exclusivity brought by a base price of $117,500 for the GT and $133,700 for the Quattroporte.

Maserati stays fresh by offering variants on the two. Being shown this week at the Geneva International Motor Show is a the GranTurismo S Automatic, a version with an automatic transmission mated to a 433-horsepower, 4.7-liter V-8.

Maserati buyers are typically worth more than $1 million, with annual incomes of $500,000-plus. When Maserati returned to the U.S., just 1% of buyers were women. Now they are 16%.

Far from ordinary transportation, the Maseratis are designed to make a style statement, a reason one became part of the Hollywood scene on HBO's Entourage series. One episode was even titled "My Maserati Does 185," a line from the old song Life's Been Good by Joe Walsh of Eagles fame.

As U.S. auto sales nosedived 22.6% last year, Maserati sold 2,510 here, just one fewer than in 2007. This year looks rougher: Sales though February, of 155, are down 53.7% from a year ago, vs. 39.4% for the industry overall.

Eulberg says she hopes that the brand's upscale clientele hangs in there. She has enough years in the business at midlevel, and luxury brands to have weathered tough times before.

Eulberg, 45, grew up in Texas and Missouri, attending college at North Texas State and Maryville University in St. Louis. An internship at Oldsmobile hooked her on the auto industry.

"It was exciting," she says, a great way to strike up conversations. "Who doesn't want to talk about cars?"

Eulberg did four years at Ford Motor before moving upscale: Volvo, Jaguar and BMW. Through the years, she's come to be admired by dealers for knowing what's going on in the showrooms.

"She's creative in her approach but understands what's happening in the trenches," says Bill Story, who owns two Maserati dealerships in Orange County and one in San Diego.

"She's not your typical auto executive, although she's one of the best ones I know," says dealer Tracy Jones of Century Auto Group in Huntsville, Ala. As BMW representative, "She would come into my office and be so excited and so enthusiastic."

Even when Eulberg had bad news, Jones says, she would somehow leave folks feeling upbeat. They became pals, though don't see each other as often now, since Jones doesn't sell Maserati. She says they had fun hanging out.

"At most of our meetings, we are very serious business people," Jones says. "But if we have a lunch break, we'll be at Saks Fifth Avenue in the shoe department."

Eulberg spends much time shuttling among the brand's 58 U.S. dealers. No surprise, the Miami South Beach store is the biggest seller. And there are a few trips a year to the home office outside Bologna, Italy. She doesn't speak Italian, but gets by cramming with language-training discs and with a knowledge of Spanish.

She loves to try everything and admits to a short attention span. Skydiving? Done that. African safari? Pictures of rhinos and lions on the wall to prove it. Surfing? Took it up in 2001 and has learned to hang 10.

Eulberg describes herself as an adventure lover who appreciates a high-end pair of shoes. "I'm a tomboy that has a passion for Manolo (Blahnik)."

Those shoes paired with a tailored suit are just fine by her — and fit perfectly with the car. Says Eulberg, "I never say to valets, 'Will you park my car out front?' It's always parked out front."