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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 1, 2017 1 year ago

'Like a Bird'

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Onetime private jet company CEO Todd Rome has moved on to cars — now being made in Southwest Florida.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

Brigitte Bardot drove one. People in the Caribbean have been driving them for years.

And now, so can you.

That's the idea behind Moke America's sales strategy for the updated British open-air car, which will arrive in driveways this fall.

Todd Rome, founder and former president of Blue Star Jets, a broker of private jets for hire, is now CEO of Moke America, based in New York. He recently acquired U.S. rights to the Moke, now being assembled in Sarasota by Cruise Car Inc.

The licensed low-speed vehicle can be driven anywhere the posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour or lower.

Rome first encountered a Moke during travels in Europe where he says he “fell in love with the car.” But he always felt it needed to be improved. Rome says those improvements, including a redesign and reengineering of the car, took two-and-a-half years and an investment of several million dollars. “We improved the quality of the car, bumper to bumper,” he says.

Moke America also made it electric. There's a gas version, too, but the electric car, which retails from $15,975, is different, Rome says. “You feel like a bird. There's no sound. It's just you and the road. It's open, and it's an unbelievable feeling. I can't explain it. You have to drive it.”

Each Moke is custom made, with customers choosing color, roof and stereo options. “Consumers like to personalize their cars,” Rome says. “It's like getting dressed.”

At Cruise Car's facility in Sarasota, Mokes are taken from frame to finished product. Cruise Car President Adam Sulimirski says the company takes the shell of the vehicle and adds parts from a network of suppliers, including some from Sarasota and Bradenton.

Cruise Car is known for making specialty low-speed vehicles. “Moke is right in our core competency,” Sulimirski says. When Rome first showed him a prototype Moke this July, Sulimirski says he saw it and said, “We can do that.”

Then the tractor-trailers came. Four showed up at Cruise Car, filled with Moke parts. Sulimirski says he had to rent extra warehouse space next door to accommodate it all. Then a crew of people started organizing and building the cars.

“We're getting the system down, so that this fall, we'll really start humming,” he says. “It's exciting.”

Over the summer, Rome says sales went well in Northeast hot spots such as the Hamptons and Martha's Vineyard. Rome, who has a camouflage Moke himself in the Hamptons, says the company plans to market the car to people in “all warm-weathered climates,” starting with Florida. Then it will tackle states out West.

At the same time, Moke America faces a challenge on the legal front: It's currently involved in a court case with another Moke entity, Miami-based Moke USA, over rights to sell Mokes in the U.S., Rome says.

Current marketing efforts for Moke America range from involvement in charity events to a car-salesman staple — the test drive. Rome sometimes even drives a trailer himself, carrying a Moke straight to people's houses so they can experience the car firsthand. He did that a lot this summer in the Hamptons, he says, just to “let people play with it.”

There are similarities between the high-flying world of private jets and the freewheeling Moke mentality, it seems. “It's a high-net-worth demographic,” says Rome, who recently was part of a Moke media event in Sarasota. “It's an audience I know.”

But the biggest lesson from his time at Blue Star, named for the fictional airline in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” isn't about customer demographics. It's this: “Things take time,” he says. “Nothing happens overnight. I come from an industry of people being impatient, and I have to learn patience going into this industry. Reengineering takes a lot longer than getting you a jet to go to Europe.”

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