Made in Britain: Second best is not good enough for a BMW chief

Ian Robertson, a former Rolls-Royce boss and a possible future head of BMW, talks to Mark Leftly about Britain's car industry

Ian Robertson looked on as arguably Britain's greatest-ever athlete, Daley Thompson, held the Olympic flame aloft in the BMW wind tunnel in Munich. Heavy winds reached 50mph and a torrent of rain battered the former decathlete and the torch, which is now being taken all over the country until it reaches its final destination this month: the Olympic stadium in east London.

BMW, a London 2012 Olympic sponsor, wanted to ensure that the flame would remain lit no matter how bad the conditions became over a volatile British summer. "I didn't think all that testing would really be needed," said Mr Robertson, the tall BMW sales and marketing director who sports a bit of an Olympian physique himself.

He surveys Canary Wharf from the first floor of an east London hotel meeting room on a supposedly summer's day: it is dank and overcast following heavy rain, while there is still a light drizzle that is threatening to turn into something rather nastier.

According to the motoring magazine Auto Express, Mr Robertson is the second most powerful Brit in global car manufacturing, behind only Nissan's executive vice-president, Andy Palmer. However, it soon becomes clear that Mr Robertson, the only Brit to have a board seat at a German car manufacturer, is not one to settle for silver.

Given how lowly the UK has been judged on the world industrial stage, it would be quite an achievement for the country to have someone take over the leadership of one of the planet's biggest car companies – and in the manufacturing powerhouse Germany to boot. The fact Mr Robertson is even being touted as a possible long-term successor to the 56-year-old BMW chief executive, Norbert Reithofer, confirms that the "Made in Britain" brand is back.

"It's not in my gift to decide that," shrugged Mr Robertson over his prospects for the top job. "When I joined the BMW board it was a great step up."

The PR man looks pleased with the diplomatic answer, but the Shropshire-born, Cardiff University-educated 53-year-old soon bullet-points an impressive CV which more than suggests that he feels he would be in with a chance.

Mr Robertson points out that his responsibility for sales – and a 16,000 workforce in that division – means that he has a "broader knowledge" of sites around the world, vital as BMW develops its presence in emerging markets. He also has operational experience from running BMW's work in South Africa, and has looked after Rolls-Royce for the Bavaria-based giant since 2005.

"I have run car companies," said Mr Robertson, who, while not openly pitching to be chief executive, clearly doesn't want to downplay his chances either. "I'm effectively the first non-German speaker on our board, and if you look at the Dax-30 there are very few non-German speakers. But I think that will change."

It will have to: Mr Robertson said his German ain't too hot and unlikely to ever be fluent, though it has improved since he joined the board four years ago. A keen skier, he also likes home being by a big lake that is just a 35-minute drive to the Alps.

There is a lot of sense to having a Brit in such a senior position given that in West Sussex-based Rolls-Royce, BMW has, in the eyes of many car enthusiasts, the most distinctive luxury car brand in the world.

When Mr Robertson was made chairman and chief executive at the subsidiary seven years ago he had just 350 employees there, but this has now grown to 1,150. In 2011, Rolls-Royce sold more cars than in any of the previous 107 years in its history. This suggests there is something of a resurgence in the British car industry, with even Rover, which collapsed into financial ruin when BMW sold it in 2000, experiencing huge sales growth.

"This year we will probably see the manufacture of more cars in the UK than for many years," said Mr Robertson. "It's fair to say that there were a couple of lost decades, where the economy was heavily focused towards the type of companies we can see here [in Canary Wharf]: the financial services industry. What the car sales tell you is that things started improving with the last government to this government, a continued rebalancing of the economy."

Warming to his theme, Mr Robertson then warns: "A common policy across governments. That's good. But it's got to be the next term and the next one after that, as it will take a generation to regenerate the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing in Germany is two to two-and-a-half times that of the UK."

Mr Robertson is particularly keen on the Business Department's See Inside Manufacturing initiative, which takes schoolchildren behind the scenes across Britain's big industries. Rather than just being guided to careers that involve sitting in an office, under this programme they might get to dismantle and rebuild radios at Thales UK's Crawley site or find out how Coca-Cola is made.

"This is a good thing as it breaks some of the paradigm that paints an industrial picture that isn't the case anymore," said Mr Robertson. "If you go to a village around Munich and say that you're a BMW apprentice, then you're in a high place in society. Not everybody should go to college."

Unsurprisingly, Mr Robertson does not think it's a problem that such a great British name is now owned by Germans, vowing that Rolls-Royce and Mini will both retain their production "roots" in the UK.

"I just don't think it's even relevant. We live in an international world," argued Mr Robertson, taking a meaty bite into his lunchtime sandwich.

"What you do with the company is relevant. When Henry Royce decided to build his Rolls-Royce over a century ago he didn't set out to make the world's most luxurious car, he did it to make the world's mostly technologically advanced car. We will continue to innovate at Rolls-Royce."

He argues that no two of the cars are the same, and that despite the surge in wealth in China, the US remains the marque's most important market.

Three years ago, at the height of the financial crisis, Mr Robertson announced BMW's $1bn (£640m) investment in the country, and a US politician came up to him and asked if he'd heard correctly.

"We sell 300,000 cars in the US, but there's a potential premium market of 2.5 million cars there and just one million in China," explained Mr Robertson of that and further BMW manufacturing investments over the pond.

"It takes a long time for wealth to spread," he added.

Perhaps that sales potential is one of the reasons that BMW sponsors the US Olympic team, as well as providing a low-carbon vehicle fleet for the London 2012 Games itself.

Polishing off his lunch, Mr Robertson recalls one more story involving a serial Olympic winner. At a car show last year, the great American swimmer Janet Evans made a speech, where she explained that as a 15-year-old she asked her father if he would buy her a car should she qualify for the 1988 Seoul games that were to take place two years later. "He said 'no'," recounts Mr Robertson. "She asked 'What if I get a bronze medal?' He said 'no' again, same answer for a silver. For a gold medal he finally said 'I suppose we'll get you a car'.

She won three, went on stage and gave her dad a hug and whispered in his ear: 'I want a black BMW with real leather inside'."

Yes, it's safe to say that Mr Robertson hasn't got too much time for being second.

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