Is a sports car still a sports car if you can’t hear the engine “purr?” What if you can fit a car seat in the back?
For Joe Lawrence, chief operating officer of Porsche Cars North America, the answer is always yes — if it’s a Porsche.
Over the past 20 years, Porsche has grown its share of the luxury car market by expanding its product line to meet customer needs while staying true to the brand. Porsche cars are powerful and fun to drive, he said, no matter if they are race cars, touring coupes or soccer-player-hauling SUVs.
“When we brought out the Cayanne, there was a huge controversy in the traditional Porsche community,” Lawrence told University of Georgia students and faculty gathered at the Terry Innovation Speaker Series lecture at the UGA Chapel on Jan. 30.
“It was like, ‘How can Porsche build an SUV?’ … Our response was to say we don’t have to pigeonhole ourselves into this two-seat, two-door sports cars mold. The Porsche brand is bigger than that. As long as we’re building the sportiest vehicle in every segment, we’re still Porsche. The Cayenne and Macan are SUVs, but they are sports cars first.”
Lawrence began his career selling cars in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. That experience working directly with car buyers served him well as he climbed the ranks in sales and marketing at BMW. In 2009, he became president and CEO of Porsche Cars Canada and came on board at Porsche Cars North America in 2013.
While earning his undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University, he knew he wanted to work in the car industry. Thirty years later, he still loves cars and loves to drive.
“The amazing thing about electric cars is they perform like crazy,” he said, beaming, about the car he drove from Atlanta to Athens for the talk. “It just so happens that besides being great for the planet, electric cars are super-fast and super fun to drive.”
Lawrence and his team’s love of cars helped anchor the brand as it leans into the ethos of innovation. That balance helped Porsche expand its market while maintaining the authentic core of the brand, Lawrence said.
Part of maintaining that brand is operating the Porsche Cars North America out of the Porsche Experience Center Atlanta. Part corporate campus, part test track, and part entertainment venue, the campus has served as a home base for the Porsche brand in the U.S. since it opened 25 years ago. The campus itself was an unproven idea when it launched in 2013.
But the new campus and models are risks that worked for Porsche’s brand, Lawrence said. The company sold a record 70,000 cars in the U.S. in 2022.
Porsche hopes to build upon that success as it moves into the electric vehicle market in the coming years, he said. They launched the all-electric Taycan in 2019 and will introduce other models in the next few years. They project 50% of Porsche sales will be electric by 2025 and 80% will be electric by 2030.
“We are a real leader among the traditional automakers, in terms of our move toward electrification,” Lawrence said. “We obviously know that Tesla has been tremendously successful with their electric vehicles … But among the traditional automakers — that have been around for a number of years — we’ve been pushing the envelope.”
That includes supporting private and public efforts to beef up electric vehicle charging stations and building the perception that EVs are desirable for people who want high-end sports cars.
But for Lawrence, some of the biggest changes at Porsche aren’t about new models or the shift to electric engines. The way people buy cars and relate to dealerships is different, and Porsche wants to meet its customers’ demands there too.
“It’s not just about the car, but about how we sell that car today, in a completely different world,” he said. “We have to offer what we call an omnichannel approach, digital and physical. We need to meet the customer where they are and let them experience Porsche the way they want to experience it.”