Ian Robertson Interview: The Brit Inside BMW Seems To Be Again At His Profession

How totally different might a few of right this moment’s automobiles have been if, 38 years in the past, Ian Robertson had accepted the supply to go and work in mud engineering in Kuwait when he left college? The person who has performed such a giant half in a number of the previous few a long time’ most iconic automobiles – from the Land Rover Freelander to BMW’s all-electric i3 – at all times had an inkling he’d go into the oil trade with a level in maritime research from Cardiff College.

“I lived on the coast in North Wales and had a really robust curiosity within the sea,” Robertson tells us. “I had it
in my thoughts that the ocean would play a giant half in the place I wished to go. However on the identical time I had a giant ardour
for automobiles. I used to be destined to go to Kuwait with a job supply all sorted, then I assumed ‘I don’t need to do this’ so utilized for jobs within the automotive trade.”

• Greatest British automobiles: Prime 50

Despite different gives, Robertson selected Austin Morris and began work on 2 October 1979 as a graduate recruit within the buying workplace at Longbridge. This gave him a very good early grounding in what was wanted to place a automotive collectively on the manufacturing line, earlier than getting concerned with the paint outlets and bigger manufacturing techniques. “It was all the stuff that makes the manufacturing facility work,” says Robertson.

After just a few years in buying, he stepped into manufacturing with SU Butec – the corporate that made carburettors, throttle our bodies and oil pumps for British Leyland – the place at a younger age he was managing a plant answerable for 400 staff. “It was fringe of the seat stuff, managing the elements that went into the engines that then went into the automobiles,” he recollects.

It wasn’t lengthy earlier than he was requested again into buying and his first govt job, which got here with a memorable firm automotive. “I had a purple Rover SD1 – my first ‘huge automotive’,” he tells us with a broad smile throughout his face. “This was all in 1985 – the yr I obtained married and purchased my first home. It was a giant yr and a very good time – I used to be answerable for buying for all of the manufacturing crops.

“Buying is a really fascinating area – you contact the insides of the factories, you contact the outsides of the factories, you’re concerned in all the brand new product: automobiles earlier than they hit the streets. You’re not solely coping with the day-by-day, however you’re coping with the longer term.”

Robertson was already creating a broad unfold of expertise by buying and manufacturing, in addition to coping with a lot of crises because the automotive trade was going by a interval of change. One such challenge concerned an issue with Maestro bumpers. “We couldn’t get the interior and outer elements of the bumper to stay collectively,” Robertson reveals. “The repair concerned making a jig, made on a Sunday afternoon, that had hosepipes in it that once you inflated with air, it pushed the factor collectively and sealed it.”

If that was problematic, fixing a problem with gas hoses that concerned visiting a provider in Finland and bringing rubber hoses again by Heathrow in his personal baggage – all so Montego manufacturing might begin on time – was an extra signal of the ingenuity that was to show so helpful in years to return. “There have been moments in time the place my profession took a step and the corporate delivered what it needed to that had been actually thrilling,” he says. “And you’ll’t at all times clarify this stuff once you ask somebody in the event that they’d prefer to work in buying!”

The start with BMW

After his second stint in buying it was again into manufacturing the place he was given accountability for all engine crops, together with the A-Sequence line, foundries, forges and gearbox manufacturing. After which buying got here calling but once more in 1991 when he was made group buying director for the entire firm, which again then included Land Rover. That model was to show pivotal in Robertson’s profession as he was made MD of Land Rover in 1993, shortly earlier than the model’s acquisition by BMW.

“I bear in mind going to Munich and my first board assembly to debate Freelander,” he says. “That automotive was an thought we’d had two-and-a-half years earlier, however we had no cash. I’d been in discussions in Finland with the Authorities, which was going to fund Freelander. The deal was we’d present the engineering, however they’d make it in Finland.

“Then BMW got here alongside and requested how a lot it might value, which was a fraction of what the anticipated value was. I went to the board and so they agreed that we would have liked a brand new paint plant, a brand new meeting corridor, a brand new physique in white construction – the numbers had been fairly important. There was more cash on the desk that day than within the earlier 50 years of Land Rover funding.”

Throughout a six-year stint because the boss of Land Rover, it turned clear that the BMW approach was carefully aligned with the Robertson approach of doing issues. As he explains: “You may go round any BMW plant wherever on this planet and so they have a typical working process and philosophy of strong manufacturing. They usually proceed to put money into it.

“If I used to be to go round many factories within the UK on the time, you’d see leaking roofs and tools that was outdated and so forth. Subsequently it by no means actually delivered – they by no means fairly cracked a number of the advanced manufacturing strategies, whereas BMW had a deep understanding of that. After we constructed below the brand new [BMW] philosophy, we made huge progress. At BMW we’re extraordinarily good at analysing issues within the deepest sense, to ensure we keep away from the danger of failure – we’re actually good at that.”

That was obvious after the crash in 2008 when the newly appointed board member Robertson instructed the powerful choice to cease manufacturing for some time to keep away from an pointless inventory build-up. BMW got here out of that
disaster in significantly better form than a lot of its rivals.

Transfer to BMW South Africa

In 1999 Robertson moved to BMW South Africa – a well-trodden path for senior individuals inside the group. “Again then there was a sense within the nation that something was potential,” he says. “Nelson Mandela had been in energy for 3 or 4 years – he was an icon. Simply after I began I used to be taken to a dinner of enterprise leaders to have fun Mandela’s birthday – and he was coming. I’m considering ‘I can’t imagine that is occurring’ and certain sufficient I used to be launched to him.

“We had a pleasant lunch after which as Mandela was leaving, he got here as much as me and mentioned: ‘Ian – I’m so happy you’ve joined BMW South Africa as a result of I believe we’re going to do good issues collectively.’” Positive sufficient, just a few months later, Mandela referred to as Robertson and requested him to put money into a college within the Japanese Cape. “You’re not going to say no, are you?” Robertson admits. “So we constructed a college – as a part of our CSR programme.” And it was constructed to BMW requirements.

Robertson threw himself and his firm totally into life in South Africa and struck up an unlikely friendship with the then President. He talks of Mandela with a level of emotion that we haven’t seen from him earlier than: “I had many occasions after I simply had a cup of tea with him and he’s such a sensible man. Contemplating his tough time in jail and oppression and apartheid, he was so optimistic and searching ahead.”

Mandela clearly influenced Robertson massively – and, in flip, Robertson was clearly revered by the good man and his household, a lot so he was invited to his funeral.

Going up on this planet with Rolls-Royce

5 years after arriving in South Africa, Robertson was referred to as again to the UK to run Rolls-Royce. The brand new manufacturing facility and Phantom had been each already established, however after three MDs in six months and underwhelming gross sales, Robertson set about engaged on a brand new Drophead mannequin. “Phantom was gradual progress, however the Drophead was an thrilling, emotionally-driven product. It makes you’re feeling good and it made the individuals within the plant really feel good. It introduced a degree of emotion and the automotive actually took off – as did the temper within the firm, the assumption and the Phantom took off, too.”

Robertson left Rolls-Royce earlier than the Ghost was launched, however his mark may be very a lot on that automotive. He describes it as “a tough enterprise case”, nevertheless it made a distinction to the model. And though Robertson moved to Munich to take up his Gross sales and Advertising and marketing function on the primary board of BMW, he remained as Chairman of Rolls-Royce till 2012.

He additionally had gross sales and advertising accountability for MINI, one other model that has meant lots to him. “A MINI was the primary automotive I used to be ever carried in as a toddler and my first job was proper by the MINI meeting line with Issigonis nonetheless working upstairs. As we got here out of the late nineties, the staff in Munich had a view that MINI might turn out to be a model. We unveiled the brand new MINI in 1999 and it actually stood out as a MINI. There have been MINIs during my life and now we’ve a automotive that lives as much as the recollections.”

The long run: electrical and autonomous automotive tech

Though Robertson’s near-10-year tenure on the board in Munich has seen continuous gross sales development alongside an explosion within the group’s product providing, it’s most likely his affect over the model’s electrical and autonomous future that will probably be his biggest legacy. He speaks as passionately concerning the i mission as he does about being behind the wheel of the newest M5, proudly exhibiting me a video of him ably piloting the brand new automotive on a circuit. “The i model was conceived two-and-a-half years earlier than we launched the product,” he tells us. “And that took up a number of my time. Initially i3 was the automotive – the megacity automotive – however we had a view that we would have liked to make electromobility thrilling and emotional, so i8 was at all times within the background. We had the 2 bookends – the rational city automotive and the emotional efficiency automotive.

“It was a kind of selections that was an enabler for the longer term – for instance, we wouldn’t now have plug-in hybrids throughout the remainder of the vary if we didn’t have i8.” He continues: “Autonomous driving is the following huge factor. However it’s not the top sport, it’s the way you get there that’s going to provide us the large alternatives.”

So what recommendation would Robertson give right this moment to a 16-year-old model of himself? He ponders for some time then says: “Did I enter the automotive trade with a long-term plan? No. Did I enter the trade as a result of I favored automobiles and thought it might be enjoyable? Sure. Did I believe I might be there three years on? Perhaps. Did I believe I’d go from one division to a different? No. However alongside the best way, the message can be to observe your coronary heart and take the alternatives as they come up.

“By no means say no is simply too glib and too basic, however watch out once you do – assume it by. Typically there are issues which might be hidden – possibilities which might be alternatives and new experiences that construct you. Take your possibilities and observe your coronary heart.”

Robertson appears to be retiring considerably reluctantly from BMW – it has to occur once you hit 60, as he’ll subsequent yr. He leaves Munich quickly, shifting again to the UK the place he’ll spend his final six months with the agency working with BMW GB out of a brand new workplace in central London.

“The reply to your query is that I’m not going to retire,” he says firmly. With a Authorities that might dearly do with recommendation from somebody like Robertson, to whispers of roles with different current and upcoming automotive makers (he was a non-executive director of Dyson), one factor’s for certain – his affect over our automobiles will proceed for a while. 

Which is your favorite automotive that Robertson has had a hand in making? Tell us within the feedback beneath. 

 
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