One hundred years is an impressive milestone. Bentley Motors marked its own centenary in part by the unveiling of an all-electric concept car, the EXP 100 GT, which shines an impressively green light down the road of the next 100 years. Yet this striking vision of sustainable future grand touring belies what has been a turbulent time for the luxury car maker. It has faced significant delays to the launch of its core products and, has for the best part of a year, endured enforced absence from around 50% of its world markets.
Despite these challenges, Bentley has just become the highest ranked automotive manufacturer in the Management Today awards for Britain’s Most Admired Companies (BMAC).
So how has the respected marque turned its troubles to near-spectacular advantage? And how does a business making large, luxurious and powerful cars that appear to be part of the global warming problem plan to make their existence carbon neutral?
Bentley Motors chairman and CEO Adrian Hallmark says that when he re-joined a business for which he had previously been the head of sales, marketing and communications, he "found a good company, in need of change. It was great to see a healthy mix of familiar faces and new blood. We have a lot of trainees, and recruited almost 100 this year. I found a brand in very good condition, with [consumer] awareness equal or superior to Ferrari."
Hallmark also joined while the company was "investing heavily in electrification, and renewing its models. This included an all-new 6.0 W12 in which there are no carryover parts - it’s 100% new." Bentley’s updated core range includes the Continental GT coupé, the GT Convertible, the Bentayga, the Mulsanne, and the Flying Spur saloon based on a new all-aluminium architecture. "It was a really ambitious portfolio refresh plan that had stalled," says Hallmark. We had to delay the launch of three cars, and we were not fully prepared for WLTP."
The World Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP) is the European Union’s more stringent official fuel consumption and emissions test, effective from September 2018 and requiring every current and new model on sale to be tested, a vast task that meant the VW Group, which owns Bentley, prioritised its biggest-selling models. The result, says Hallmark, was that Bentley was "absent from 50% of the global market during 2018 and for much of 2019. It was a perfect storm of massive product change and certification - a catastrophe for a small company."
Red to green
Despite this Hallmark says: "2018 sales were only 500 cars down on our historic record. We sold everything in stock. Now that we’ve cleared our stocks, we have a pull model, not a push model. China is the only market waiting for the full range, but it will get the Flying Spur in early 2020." Hallmark adds that "the GT Coupé, Cabriolet and Flying Spur were eventually launched 18 months later than planned," the company losing 288m euros in 2018 as a result. Bentley made a 57m euro profit in the first half of 2019 however, Hallmark rightly describing this as an "enormous turnaround. Quality and quantity are now in control."
You might think that all this would be enough of a challenge but instead, Hallmark and his team harnessed their adversity to reduce the company’s costs, mainly by reducing the hours taken to make a Bentley. "We planned this for four months. We had a control room, and covered three walls of it with paper." This became a map of the manufacturing process. A series of vertical columns represented work stations, the processes occurring at each and "the parts required, tools needed, walking time, weight lift and work rate." Each element was green if it added value, and red if it didn’t. The aim was "a 24% reduction in build hours, and it’s already lower."
"The change was colossal, and involved the whole Bentley team. It was a no fuss, fast turnaround – I’ve never seen anything like it in my career. It’s been fun – it released energy from people who previously had no platform to do this," says Hallmark, adding that consultancies were also involved. "But it was management and colleagues who drove the change."
Power of sustainability
"We’ve grown our output by 20-30% without increasing employment. That’s significant for any car company. But we’re now facing a bigger challenge with EU7," [the next round of EU tailpipe emission tightening]. "This time we won’t be caught sleeping," says Hallmark.
There’ll be no sleeping beyond this, either, with Hallmark and his colleagues now on a mission to "de-carbonise Bentley." The company’s Crewe factory officially achieved carbon neutral certification last October, and it has recently launched its first plug-in hybrid model, the Bentayga SUV, which will be joined by hybrid versions of all models by 2023. Mid-decade, Hallmark hopes that Bentley will offer its first entirely battery-powered electric model, even though he admits that "there is no battery available yet to propel the type of car we want with the necessary range."
He’s optimistic, however. "There’s been more investment in BEVs [battery electric vehicles] over the past 10 years than over the past 50. There’s a good chance of a breakthrough." That breakthrough may come in the form of solid-state batteries, the VW Group an investor in a start-up developing this technology, which promises more energy-dense batteries. But if this isn’t available for 2025, Bentley will use a more efficient form of lithium-ion battery instead. "We don’t have to decide yet because the car will be engineered for both," says Hallmark.
Part of his confidence stems from Bentley’s membership of the wider VW group, which is the fifth biggest research and development investor on the planet. "I’m not complacent. But it’s a huge investment foundation that we’re very happy to be a part of." Hallmark plans to use the de-carbonisation of Bentley as a means of giving the marque an edge. "The most ethical and sustainable cars will be the most expensive. We don’t fear that challenge – we’ll use it as a competitive advantage."
This article comes from an interview with Adrian Hallmark, CEO, Bentley Motors.