Robertson is often called the most powerful Brit in the global car industry. He tells us the secret of his success as his retirement approaches
Ian Robertson, the highest-placed Brit at BMW, reckons the secret of having a big job in the car industry is not worrying too much about losing it.
And he should know. He has held a variety of mega-senior positions at Rover, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Mini and BMW during a 38-year career in the car industry. Yet in all that time, he has never left the company he joined as a graduate in 1978, instead shaping his career around new opportunities presented by changing owners. Next year, he will retire from the board of BMW.
He steps down (or perhaps across, given, as we’ll learn, how different his vision of retirement is to most) described by observers as “the most powerful Briton in the global car industry”, by colleagues as “brilliant, driven, always hard, always fair” and by himself as “engaged, passionate, optimistic – someone who relishes making informed decisions”.
By anyone’s standards, it has been quite a journey from growing up in Oswestry, Shropshire, as a car-loving teenager who rebuilt the engine in his first car, a Singer Chamois, to becoming the first member of his family to attend university, where he read maritime studies, to standing at the summit of the global car industry. His passion for the subject may have been tested by a relentless routine of 15-hour-plus working days but it is, he says, undimmed.
“I always say to my guys: ‘When a car goes onto a transporter, off to a customer, who by the way pays our wages, you need to feel an excitement and a passion for that product’,” says Robertson. “It’s a tough, complex place to work, the car industry, but I love the product and I’ve been driven by a desire to see that product get better every single day. When I left university, I had offers to work on oil rigs in Kuwait. Good money, tax free and six weeks on, two weeks off. But I loved cars. So that’s where I headed.”
Joining the British car industry in the late 1970s wouldn’t have been many people’s idea of fun. Production had peaked in 1972 and unrest was on the brink of turning into turmoil. Robertson, however, relished the opportunities presented by both the internal power struggles and the disruption of Japanese competitors setting up in Europe. A love of disruption was to become another career hallmark.
“There were British cars you were proud to own – I had a Triumph TR7 and Rover SD1, even a Spitfire, which I loved because it was so easy to work on – and perhaps some you weren’t so quick to shout about, like the Allegro, Maxi and others,” he says. “But when I joined Rover, Michael Edwardes was there, taking charge as chairman and really shaking it up. Sure, the company had a lot of baggage, and there was a lot of finger pointing over whose fault everything was, but the point was I was sat in an office, Sir Alec Issigonis and the engineering team sat above me and Minis rolled off the line in front of me. I loved it.”
Disruption arrived frequently, often in the form of new competitors or new owners, but Robertson became known for seizing opportunities with a firm grasp and a smile that, you suspect, is often as determined as it is happy. “I’m an optimist. You have to be to work in marketing,” he says, smiling. “Fundamentally, cars are hard to build. But that complexity breeds huge competition and requires huge capital investment. It’s big risk-taking stuff. But the f lip side is we are on the cusp of innovation every day. We benefit from that, and society benefits from that. It’s exciting.”
As well as relishing competition and seizing opportunity, Robertson also marked himself out as someone who likes to break convention – or at least to set a path dictated by logic rather than emotional or historical baggage. It’s why he proved to be the man to lead Land Rover under early BMW ownership, the man who got BMW’s South African plant to achieve supposedly impossible quality levels, the CEO who rebuilt Rolls-Royce’s reputation and product line-up beyond the reborn Phantom and who went on to oversee a team of more than 15,000 people, breaking sales and marketing record after record.
“Some of the decisions I had to make were big ones, but if you trust your instincts and weigh up that the worst that can happen is you’ll lose your job, it doesn’t weigh so heavily on your shoulders,” he says. “I remember there being some concern about the styling of the Rolls Ghost early on. There was a strong faction in the company pushing us to go in a different direction. But I could see the talent of the team and I trusted its judgment. We held our nerve. Funnily enough, I was with one of the people who doubted us recently. He said: ‘We made the right decision, didn’t we?’ I’ve noticed that, after the event, success always has many fathers.”
Even on the cusp of retirement, Robertson talks passionately about the future, and the once-in-100-years changes coming with electrification, connectivity and automated driving.
He says: “So much has been dictated by safety criteria, and principally the basis of having a lump of metal powering a car and how to protect the cabin in an accident. We’re reaching a point where that lump of metal won’t be there any more. We’ve iterated and iterated car design for 120 years but we’re on the cusp of a major step change.
“Then there’s the whole issue of how digitisation changes our relationship with the customer. We’ve mapped out so much of it, but it’s still evolving. Will car ownership give way to ownership by the minute? Maybe in some places. Electrification and autonomy aren’t just functions. Through digitisation, they could be enablers of something so much more.”
So what’s next? Robertson is coy to the point of being elusive, but he will continue working for BMW and talks passionately about doing something to support the British car industry through the potentially troubled period around Brexit. Specifics aren’t forthcoming, but he’s among a group meeting prime minister Theresa May and Greg Clark, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, the day after our interview. Delve deeper and he will expand on his passionate belief in the benefits of forging a proper industrial strategy for the UK. He is not, you might conclude, reaching for his pipe and slippers.
As a result, he has no qualms about his age-enforced change in direction. “I’m not going to miss it because I have other plans,” he says. “I always knew when I’d turn 60, so it’s not a surprise. Yes, there’s a lot coming down the line that excites me; next year, the year after and much more; but I’ll watch it with interest and keep myself busy in other ways.”
Whether he ever considered leaving the car industry – “There were some tough times, when I was approached and tempted by other companies, yes. But all it usually took was one chat with my current boss and the excitement at what was coming down the line would keep me where I was.”
One thing BMW isn’t good at – “Celebrating success. We are very tough on each other. We are never satisfied. We just aren’t very good at saying: ‘That was a job well done.’ No parties, no celebrations. We’d rather ask what went wrong.”
Staying one step ahead – “I always got to know the guys on the line if I could. It used to drive some of my colleagues mad, because I knew about problems before they did. How did I know that? Because the people who encountered them would tell me first.”
Testing the cars you make – “If you sit on the board at BMW, you test the cars. And if you sell and market those cars, you drive them even more. If you’re selling it, you’d better be happy with it. I loved that side of the job.”
Responsibility – “I never lost sleep over it, but when you’ve got 16,500 people working for you, it focuses the mind. It didn’t weigh me down, though. It drove me on.”
The car industry – “This is the place the brightest minds should want to work. It is the most dynamic, exciting, complex, challenging but rewarding industry.”
Stepping down from Dyson’s board – “Now you know why I left two years ago. When it became clear they were planning an electric car, I obviously couldn’t stay on. I still work with the family trust on other projects, but to work for another car company would be emotionally difficult.”
My favourite cars from five decades:
1970s – “The Mini, of course! I was sat next to the production line. Issigonis was sat nearby. That I could be part of turning that car into a brand later in life is something I’m especially proud of.”
1980s – “Early on, I had my Triumph Spitfire and the TR7, both cars I remember fondly despite the faults. The fact is we were proud of them. Yes, I should have had a Lotus Elan, but I wasn’t working at Lotus.”
1990s – “I had a lot of love for the Range Rover. I remember standing with Spen King and Noel Edmonds [pictured] as the last [first- generation] car came off the line. It was an iconic car. Then the Defender had its 50th birthday while I was there. Another icon – and not many cars celebrate a 50th birthday.”
2000s – “The E46 3 Series stands out for personal reasons, because I was running the manufacturing plant in South Africa and exporting cars to the USA. People said we couldn’t hit the required quality standards – and there we were, winning JD Power Gold Awards for our quality. It was such a great period of my life, professionally and personally. We achieved for BMW, we were able to do a lot of work in the community and, of course, meeting Mandela [pictured] was special.
“Running Rolls-Royce was also so special. It was living on its history and had no future. I arrived as the third MD in six months. They were troubled timesbutwe–asateam–gotthe brand back to where it deserved to be and then formulated a long-term plan for a sustainable future, including forcing through our vision for the Ghost and envisioning the SUV, at least conceptually.”
2010s – “The formation of i was something special. It started with the i3, but then we wanted the i8 to emphasise that these cars were about more than just transport. Electric power couldn’t just be a rational thing. We created products with real substance and then set about positioning the brand years before it was launched. Everything was different, from the language we used to the look of the showrooms. Everything was under the microscope. It couldn’t be just another pair of cars, but it had to be the full story, from the carbonfibre to the energy-efficient production processes. So much hard work, but so worth it.”