BMW’S true Brit

Ian Robert­son’s ca­reer takes in Austin Mor­ris, Land Rover, Rolls-royce and BMW. Here he re­flects on it all as he re­tires from the main board of BMW

Auto Express - - Contents - Steve Fowler Steve_­fowler@den­ @steve­fowler

We re­flect on board mem­ber Ian Robert­son’s glit­ter­ing ca­reer

HOW dif­fer­ent could some of to­day’s cars have been if, 38 years ago, Ian Robert­son had ac­cepted the of­fer to go and work in mud engi­neer­ing in Kuwait when he left univer­sity? The man who has played such a big part in some of the past few decades’ most iconic cars – from the Land Rover Free­lander to BMW’S all-elec­tric i3 – al­ways had an inkling he’d go into the oil in­dus­try with a de­gree in mar­itime stud­ies from Cardiff Univer­sity.

“I lived on the coast in North Wales and had a very strong in­ter­est in the sea,” Robert­son tells us. “I had it in my mind that the sea would play a big part in where I wanted to go. But at the same time I had a big pas­sion for cars. I was des­tined to go to Kuwait with a job of­fer all sorted, then I thought ‘I don’t want to do this’ so ap­plied for jobs in the car in­dus­try.”

In spite of other of­fers, Robert­son chose Austin Mor­ris and started work on 2 Oc­to­ber 1979 as a grad­u­ate re­cruit in the pur­chas­ing of­fice at Long­bridge. This gave him a good early ground­ing in what was needed to put a car to­gether on the pro­duc­tion line, be­fore get­ting in­volved with the paint shops and larger pro­duc­tion sys­tems. “It was all the stuff that makes the fac­tory work,” says Robert­son.

Af­ter a few years in pur­chas­ing, he stepped into man­u­fac­tur­ing with SU Butec – the com­pany that made car­bu­ret­tors, throt­tle bod­ies and oil pumps for Bri­tish Ley­land – where at a young age he was man­ag­ing a plant re­spon­si­ble for 400 work­ers. “It was edge of the seat stuff, man­ag­ing the com­po­nents that went into the en­gines that then went into the cars,” he re­calls.


It wasn’t long be­fore he was asked back into pur­chas­ing and his first ex­ec­u­tive job, which came with a mem­o­rable com­pany car. “I had a red Rover SD1 – my first ‘big car’,” he tells us with a broad smile across his face. “This was all in 1985 – the year I got mar­ried and bought my first house. It was a big year and a good time – I was re­spon­si­ble for pur­chas­ing for all the pro­duc­tion plants.

“Pur­chas­ing is a very in­ter­est­ing field – you touch the in­sides of the fac­to­ries, you touch the out­sides of the fac­to­ries, you’re in­volved in all the new prod­uct: cars be­fore they hit the streets. You’re not only deal­ing with the day-by-day, but you’re deal­ing with the fu­ture.”

Robert­son was al­ready de­vel­op­ing a broad spread of skills through pur­chas­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing, as well as deal­ing with a num­ber of crises as the car in­dus­try was go­ing through a pe­riod of change. One such is­sue in­volved a prob­lem with Mae­stro bumpers. “We couldn’t get the in­ner and outer parts of the bumper to stick to­gether,” Robert­son re­veals. “The fix in­volved cre­at­ing a jig, made on a Sun­day af­ter­noon, that had hosepipes in it that when you in­flated with air, it pushed the thing to­gether and sealed it.”

If that was prob­lem­atic, fix­ing an is­sue with fuel hoses that in­volved vis­it­ing a sup­plier in Fin­land and bring­ing rub­ber hoses back through Heathrow in his own lug­gage – all so Mon­tego pro­duc­tion could start on time – was a fur­ther sign of the in­ge­nu­ity that was to prove so use­ful in years to come. “There were mo­ments in time where my ca­reer took a step and the com­pany de­liv­ered what it had to that were re­ally ex­cit­ing,” he says. “And you can’t al­ways ex­plain th­ese things when you ask some­one if they’d like to work in pur­chas­ing!”

Af­ter his sec­ond stint in pur­chas­ing it was back into man­u­fac­tur­ing where he was given re­spon­si­bil­ity for all en­gine plants, in­clud­ing the A-series line, foundries, forges and gear­box man­u­fac­tur­ing. And then pur­chas­ing came call­ing yet again in 1991 when he was made group pur­chas­ing di­rec­tor for the whole com­pany, which back then in­cluded Land Rover. That brand was to prove piv­otal in Robert­son’s ca­reer as he was made MD of Land Rover in 1993, shortly be­fore the brand’s ac­qui­si­tion by BMW.

“I re­mem­ber go­ing to Mu­nich and my first board meet­ing to dis­cuss Free­lander,” he says. “That car was an idea we’d had two-and-a-half years ear­lier, but we had no money. I’d been in dis­cus­sions in Fin­land with the Govern­ment, which was go­ing to fund Free­lander. The deal was we’d pro­vide the engi­neer­ing, but they’d make it in Fin­land.

“Then BMW came along and asked how much it would cost, which was a frac­tion of what the ex­pected cost was. I went to the board and they agreed that we needed a new paint plant, a new assem­bly hall, a new body in white struc­ture – the num­bers were quite sig­nif­i­cant. There was more money on the ta­ble that day than in the pre­vi­ous 50 years of Land Rover in­vest­ment.”

Dur­ing a six-year stint as the boss of Land Rover, it be­came clear that the BMW way was closely aligned with the Robert­son way of do­ing things. As he ex­plains: “You could go around any BMW plant any­where in the world and they have a stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure and phi­los­o­phy of ro­bust man­u­fac­tur­ing. And they con­tinue to in­vest in it.

“If I was to go around many fac­to­ries in the UK at the time, you’d see leak­ing roofs and equip­ment that was out of date and so on. There­fore it never re­ally de­liv­ered – they never quite cracked some of the com­plex man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques, while BMW had a deep un­der­stand­ing of that. When we built un­der the new [BMW] phi­los­o­phy, we made mas­sive progress. At BMW we are ex­tremely good at analysing things in the deep­est sense, to make sure we avoid the risk of fail­ure – we’re re­ally good at that.”

That was ap­par­ent af­ter the crash in 2008 when the newly ap­pointed board mem­ber Robert­son sug­gested the

“The Rolls Drop­head was an ex­cit­ing, emo­tion­ally-driven prod­uct. It makes you feel good and it made the peo­ple in the plant feel good” IAN ROBERT­SON Mem­ber of the board, BMW

tough de­ci­sion to stop pro­duc­tion for a while to avoid an un­nec­es­sary stock build-up. BMW came out of that cri­sis in much bet­ter shape than many of its ri­vals.

In 1999 Robert­son moved to BMW South Africa – a well­trod­den path for se­nior peo­ple within the group. “Back then there was a feel­ing in the coun­try that any­thing was pos­si­ble,” he says. “Nel­son Man­dela had been in power for three or four years – he was an icon. Just when I started I was taken to a din­ner of busi­ness lead­ers to cel­e­brate Man­dela’s birth­day – and he was com­ing. I’m think­ing ‘I can’t be­lieve this is hap­pen­ing’ and sure enough I was in­tro­duced to him.

“We had a nice lunch and then as Man­dela was leav­ing, he came up to me and said: ‘Ian – I’m so pleased you’ve joined BMW South Africa be­cause I think we’re go­ing to do good things to­gether.’” Sure enough, a few months later, Man­dela called Robert­son and asked him to in­vest in a school in the East­ern Cape. “You’re not go­ing to say no, are you?” Robert­son ad­mits. “So we built a school – as part of our CSR pro­gramme.” And it was built to BMW stan­dards.

Robert­son threw him­self and his com­pany fully into life in South Africa and struck up an un­likely friend­ship with the then Pres­i­dent. He talks of Man­dela with a de­gree of emo­tion that we haven’t seen from him be­fore: “I had many times when I just had a cup of tea with him and he’s such a wise guy. Con­sid­er­ing his dif­fi­cult time in prison and op­pres­sion and apartheid, he was so op­ti­mistic and look­ing for­ward.”

Man­dela clearly in­flu­enced Robert­son hugely – and, in turn, Robert­son was ob­vi­ously re­spected by the great man and his fam­ily, so much so he was in­vited to his funeral.

Five years af­ter ar­riv­ing in South Africa, Robert­son was called back to the UK to run Rolls-royce. The new fac­tory and Phan­tom were both al­ready es­tab­lished, but af­ter three MDS in six months and un­der­whelm­ing sales, Robert­son set about work­ing on a new Drop­head model. “Phan­tom was slow progress, but the Drop­head was an ex­cit­ing, emo­tion­ally-driven prod­uct. It makes you feel good and it made the peo­ple in the plant feel good. It brought a level of emo­tion and the car re­ally took off – as did the mood in the com­pany, the be­lief and the Phan­tom took off, too.”

Robert­son left Rolls-royce be­fore the Ghost was launched, but his mark is very much on that car. He de­scribes it as “a dif­fi­cult busi­ness case”, but it made a dif­fer­ence to the brand. And although Robert­son moved to Mu­nich to take up his Sales and Mar­ket­ing role on the main board of BMW, he re­mained as Chair­man of Rolls-royce un­til 2012.

He also had sales and mar­ket­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for MINI, another brand that has meant a lot to him. “A MINI was the first car I was ever car­ried in as a child and my first job was right by the MINI assem­bly line with Is­sigo­nis still work­ing up­stairs. As we came out of the late nineties, the team in Mu­nich had a view that MINI could be­come a brand. We un­veiled the new MINI in 1999 and it re­ally stood out as a MINI. There have been MINIS all the way through my life and now we have a car that lives up to the mem­o­ries.”

Although Robert­son’s near-10-year ten­ure on the board in Mu­nich has seen con­tin­ual sales growth along­side an ex­plo­sion in the group’s prod­uct of­fer­ing, it’s prob­a­bly his in­flu­ence over the brand’s elec­tric and au­ton­o­mous fu­ture that will be his great­est legacy. He speaks as pas­sion­ately about the i project as he does about be­ing be­hind the wheel of the lat­est M5, proudly show­ing me a video of him ably pi­lot­ing the new car on a cir­cuit. “The i brand was con­ceived two-and-a-half years be­fore we launched the prod­uct,” he tells us. “And that took up a lot of my time. Ini­tially i3 was the car – the megac­ity car – but we had a view that we needed to make elec­tro­mo­bil­ity ex­cit­ing and emo­tional, so i8 was al­ways in the back­ground. We had the two book­ends – the ra­tio­nal ur­ban car and the emo­tional per­for­mance car.

“It was one of those de­ci­sions that was an en­abler for the fu­ture – for ex­am­ple, we wouldn’t now have plug-in hy­brids across the rest of the range if we didn’t have i8.” He con­tin­ues: “Au­ton­o­mous driv­ing is the next big thing. But it’s not the end game, it’s how you get there that’s go­ing to give us the big op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

So what ad­vice would Robert­son give to­day to a 16-yearold ver­sion of him­self? He pon­ders for a while then says: “Did I en­ter the car in­dus­try with a long-term plan? No. Did I en­ter the in­dus­try be­cause I liked cars and thought it would be fun? Yes. Did I think I would be there three years on? Maybe. Did I think I’d go from one de­part­ment to another? No. But along the way, the mes­sage would be to fol­low your heart and take the op­por­tu­ni­ties as they arise.

“Never say no is too glib and too gen­eral, but be care­ful when you do – think it through. Of­ten there are things that are hid­den – chances that are op­por­tu­ni­ties and new ex­pe­ri­ences that build you. Take your chances and fol­low your heart.”

Robert­son seems to be re­tir­ing some­what re­luc­tantly from BMW – it has to hap­pen when you hit 60, as he will next year. He leaves Mu­nich soon, mov­ing back to the UK where he’ll spend his last six months with the firm work­ing with BMW GB out of a new of­fice in cen­tral Lon­don.

“The an­swer to your ques­tion is that I’m not go­ing to re­tire,” he says firmly. With a Govern­ment that could dearly do with ad­vice from some­one like Robert­son, to whis­pers of roles with other ex­ist­ing and up­com­ing car mak­ers (he used to be a non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Dyson), one thing’s for sure – his in­flu­ence over our cars will con­tinue for some time.


Robert­son talks our man Fowler through some of the mod­els that have shaped his ca­reer, from the Rover SD1 and Range Rover to BMW i3, Rolls-royce and MINI

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