BOOKS: Carmakers' Crash Course - BMW made classic casebook errors during its six years in charge of Rover. Jon Moulton and Eric Walters review a dramatic account of this tragic saga. End of the Road - BMW and Rover by Chris Brady and Andrew Lorenz; FT Pre

BOOKS: Carmakers' Crash Course - BMW made classic casebook errors during its six years in charge of Rover. Jon Moulton and Eric Walters review a dramatic account of this tragic saga. End of the Road - BMW and Rover by Chris Brady and Andrew Lorenz; FT Pre

by JON MOULTON, managing partner and Eric Walters is partner ofAlchemy Partners
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The BMW/Rover story as covered in End of the Road is like a tale of war with much of the battle-smoke cleared away. It is a textbook case for business studies and a modern business drama for Britain and Europe.

Having been deeply involved in the playing out of this saga through Alchemy's bid for Rover, we approached this book with strong opinions. But we judge it as accurate and worthy of considerable attention. Its authors managed to talk to most of the key players and thereby try to work out what was happening throughout BMW's six-year ownership of Rover.

The apparent reason why Rover went on the block in the early '90s was British Aerospace's problems. This company had to get rid of non-core businesses, including the tough prospect of selling ever-difficult Rover, along with the attractive Land Rover business and the Rover car operation.

In BMW it found a saviour with cash.

Car company management is a story of feudal lords. The emotional attachment of BMW's then executive chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder to Rover was amazing.

The deal was consummated with negligible due diligence - a theme repeated six years later in Phoenix's purchase. (What is it with cars? Even in business, men seem to lose all sense of rationality.)

Thereafter, trying to express a global car strategy through their purchase of Rover, yet hamstringing their new car company's strategy so as not to damage the wonderful BMW sales, profit and cash machine, the Germans committed most of the sins in the acquisition book.

For four years BMW managed Rover from a distance, trusting local management.

This was crazy in what was always a turnaround situation on a heroic scale. Then in the final two years they moved in - about 200 German managers were shipped over - with micro management in all departments from BMW's Munich HQ. This was also crazy.

Add to this BMW's internal politics, the strong pound, the UK Government's lack of clout when it came to helping BMW/Rover in any meaningful financial way, and you have ingredients worthy of a Greek tragedy. There are executive blood-lettings, power plays and, above all, fascinating but brief insights into BMW. The company portrayed here (and experienced by Alchemy) bears little resemblance to the case study paragon of design, engineering and marketing virtue.

To the credit of present BMW management, they finally grasped the nettle last spring and dumped Rover, the 'English patient', urged on by their Quandt family-controlled supervisory board.

The BMW share price went up 25% when the Alchemy deal was announced in mid-March and has soared higher since. BMW will show record results in 2000 - it has a great core business.

It would have been an even better book if the authors had got closer to BMW's family-dominated secretive culture. The story is really about BMW, not Rover, which was a large side-show to the German auto powerhouse. The acquisiton of Rover was a major mistake but never really threatened BMW's existence financially. We found BMW extremely complex.

The sad aspect is that the victims of this story are and will be the thousands of loyal employees, mainly in Longbridge. Their future is inevitably more uncertain now than when BMW owned Rover.

The DTI and its cabinet ministers figure throughout this story. The fascinating conclusion one comes to is how irrelevant they were and are. Actions motivated by a mixture of fear, ignorance, public relations, surprise and with a constant view of the 'spin' do not help industry - and have never helped Rover.

If, like us, you like a darn good read about business events, with real managers struggling with real issues, this is the book to curl up with (at times your guts will curl too). It will prepare you for the forthcoming unfolding of events at Rover, a marathon story that has run and run, and may be nearing the stadium. We look forward to the updated second edition.


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