Ian Robertson: BMW's only Brit

With a seat on the main board of BMW AG, Ian Robertson is arguably the most senior Brit in the motor industry. MT catches up with the country's top car guy.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2015

Born in Oswestry in Shropshire, Ian Robertson was all set for a career in the oil business before he joined what was then Austin Morris in 1979 as a graduate trainee. He stayed with BMW after its ill-feted attempt to save Rover in the late 90s and is now sales and marketing director for the world’s largest manufacturer of premium cars. He lives in Munich and has just returned from showcasing the all new electric BMW i3 and i8 models at the Geneva Motor Show.

BMW has put a huge amount of money and effort into its first ever electric cars, the i3 and i8, making nearly all the major components in-house and even establishing an entirely separate ‘skunk works’ department to develop the vehicles. Why?

People’s values are changing. They know pollution levels are not sustainable, and it’s not a fad or a fashion to think that. So now they want all the things they’ve always wanted from a premium car brand - great design, great technology, great materials, brand positioning - plus we believe they also want sustainability.

We don’t make the majority of components for most of our other cars, but in this case we decided the technology was just reaching a level where we could take a big step forward to benefit ourselves, and the industry too.

So inside the cars we use a natural fibre, hemp, as the basis for all the interior parts, including the dashboard and door panels. The headlining is made of recycled plastic bottles, and the leather for the seats is tanned using olive leaves.

But you have to work especially hard on the weight [of an electric car] to compensate for the fact that it’s got a very heavy battery pack. That’s what led us to use carbon fibre [the body shell and many other major components of the i3 and the i8 are made from ultra-lightweight carbon fibre].

The BMW i3

Carbon fibre is in its infancy in mass production terms - only something like 30,000 tonnes of it are used globally every year at present. To use it on a large scale is breaking new ground, so we decided we had to invest in our own carbon fibre company, at Moses Lake in the USA, powered entirely by sustainable hydro-electric power. We also decided to make the electric motors ourselves too.

There are some players who’ve been in the [electric car] market for 2 or 3 years already, but we’re coming in with a completely different package.

What has been holding back sales of those existing electric vehicles from those other manufacturers?

Battery technology has not moved at anything like the same rate as the rest of the car industry - some of the first ever cars over 100 years ago were battery powered, but they were rapidly superseded by those with combustion engines.

Only recently have batteries started to benefit from serious technical innovation. Lithium Ion is the best current technology [as used in the BMW i cars], and there is a step change in the technology coming.

Lithium air batteries also have huge potential - four or fives times the capacity of Lithium Ion batteries and a quarter of the charging time - but are very challenging technically. They are not there yet although there is a lot of intellectual horsepower going into the problem.

But we are not putting all our eggs into one basket with electric. One of the mistakes companies make is to say ‘the next big thing is this, and so that is what we’ll do" At BMW we will continue to develop petrol, diesel, hybrid, plug-in and hydrogen power, as well as electric and other technologies. When you push boundaries you find new ideas.

Is the way you sell cars changing as much as the way you make them? Are salespeople in the mould of Arthur Daley and Swiss Toni a thing of the past?

The internet changed the way people buy cars - probably 80% of our customers have researched their purchase in advance, and are much nearer the point of making a purchase when they come to the showroom. In some ways they know more than the salespeople.

But we are selling an emotional product, not just transportation. People still want to touch, feel and drive it. The question is how to deliver that more effectively.

We liked the Apple Genius idea. These are people who explain and spend time with the customers; they improve the efficiency of the sales process but they don’t do the selling.

That’s what we are doing with our own 'Genius' programme, we’re offering people who can communicate in a different way a good career path, not paid on commission and not motivated to sell. They are there to give you more information and to help you experience the car in both digital and physical environments.

We’ve got 150 of them in the UK dealer network - some from the electronics industry, some from hotels - and customer satisfaction has moved in a great direction. We’re rolling out worldwide.

Making cars in the UK seems to be on something of a roll at present, and yet for many years we only ever heard about the death of British manufacturing. Why did the industry suffer such a steep decline for so long?

Britain has always been good at the creative industries and at making and designing things, but the old system of apprenticeships really lost its way here in the 70s and 80s.

One of my first jobs after I joined what was then Austin Morris in 1979 was running a factory in Drews Lane in Birmingham.  It had originally been the Wolselely car plant and in many ways it still was. The Wolseley name was still everywhere.

In my office was a shelf full of black and white photos of the workforce, one taken every year, going right back to the 1930s. At the back of each photo stood the senior guys in bowler hats, in front of them were the workers with flat caps and sat on the floor right at the very front were the apprentices - lots of them.

It was an industry which still had great pride and in which apprentices were still highly valued. Britain had that, and lost it, whereas Germany still has it. It is coming back here now, but that’s one of the reasons why manufacturing accounts for over 20% of GDP in Germany and only 10-11% in the UK. 

The Mini is built in Britain and has been a great success for BMW. How important is the ‘Britishness’ of the product? 

Clearly Mini has UK roots. Does that mean all manufacturing will always be here? No - we already have a plant in Austria and we are taking the first steps to making them in the Netherlands too.

But the roots of the brand and the core manufacturing will stay here. Partly because we believe Britain is a great place to make cars, and partly because we have the simple philosophy that manufacturing should follow sales, especially when there are currencies involved. The UK is our fourth largest market in the world so we want to have manufacturing there.

You were the chief executive of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars for nine years after BMW acquired the name in 1998. What was that like?

We acquired Rolls-Royce in a somewhat strange way, as you might recall. We had the brand rights but no factory, no workforce, no worldwide dealer body and no car.

The obvious place to start up again would have been around Crewe, where the firm had been based for decades.  But instead we went to Goodwood, near the south coast, built a brand new factory there, and recruited an entirely new workforce from different industries.

Some came from the military, and we got great woodworking skills from the yacht builders. But the hardest to find were people to work in the paintshop. Rolls-Royces have probably the best paint finish in the business and that comes from all the hand finishing.

In the end we took a lot of people from the catering trade. Why? Because they are used to working in sterile environments, and used to working to a strict process. And they know if you fail to follow the process - or recipe - exactly, you won’t get the right result.  And because they were moving from an industry that isn’t very career oriented to one where there is a real career path to follow, they were very motivated.

There are 1,250 people at the factory now and not one of them worked at the ‘old’ Rolls-Royce. It’s too easy to say that we’ve lost manufacturing skills, if you think laterally you can find good people in unexpected places. 

As the only Brit on the BMW main board, what are your thoughts on the differences between the German and British ways of running a business?

The [two tier] German model works because it is well understood and accepted there.  As well as the executive board, there is a supervisory board.

At BMW there are 20 people on the supervisory board - 10 from the unions and workers representatives, 10 from the shareholders. The most important factor is that there is a legal requirement on all of them to ensure the success of the company for both groups. It’s called co-determination and it means you are all in it together.

Could you transplant that to the UK overnight? It requires time to develop a different way of thinking.

But many of the people in British engineering now share a similar view of how to succeed in the long-term. They are more worldly wise, they know that we are living in a global environment. That change is part of the reason for the renaissance in British manufacturing.

But isn’t the downside of the dual-board system that decision-making is slow and convoluted?

I don’t think so. We are nimble and our decision-making is very rigorous. There are 8 of us on the executive board, we have board meetings every week and they last a whole day.  

The board environment is challenging, but constructive. That’s good. If you’re not challenging then you’re not getting the best out of your people or strategy.

What about the way we own and use cars? How is that changing?

If you look at many young people today, it’s not their first priority in life to own a car any more. That is a challenge to us.

But you also have to ask, ‘is individual mobility still something people will want in future?’ We believe it is - if you’re a youngster living in London now, it may not be so easy to own a car, but it is still nice to experience and use one. So we’re introducing new models of ownership such as our Drive Now ‘usage by the minute’ programme.

BMW will be 100 years old in 2016 - not many companies get to be that age, the average life of a FTSE 100 company is 42.5 years.

And although the business model of the motor industry has been relatively unchanged for most of that time, it may be that in the next 5 or 10 years it will change out of all recognition.

There will be new materials, new processes, and new non-automotive competitors. Lots of challenges. But at BMW we have always been very good at shaping our own future.

Knowing what you know now, what career advice would you give to your 20 year old self?

The character you build is formed by the experiences you have, so keep looking forward, experience as much as you can and try to enjoy the ride.

This industry is one of the most competitive in the world, it’s truly global and it presents new challenges every single day on multiple fronts. I wouldn’t change my mind.

Ian Robertson in a minute


 Born Oswestry, Shropshire. Degree in maritime studies at the University of Wales


 Rover Group graduate trainee


 MD, Land Rover


 MD BMW South Africa


 Chairman and chief exec, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd


 Main board member, sales and marketing, BMW AG

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