The Hilary Clarke Interview: Silver lady's chaperone

Tony Gott, the new master of the Rolls, is edging the classic car maker out of trouble
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The Independent Online
The world's most expensive car passed its MoT last Friday. The first ever Rolls-Royce, a 1907 Silver Ghost, was taken out of its resting place at the company's headquarters in Crewe and driven to a local garage where it was given its annual check. Insured for more than pounds 10m the car, as always, passed with flying colours.

The sight of the huge and elegant silver-coloured machine cruising through the streets of the Cheshire town on its annual pilgrimage will soon be a thing of the past. Last year, BMW, the German car manufacturer, threw what must have been one of the biggest spoilers in corporate takeover history. Its rival Volkswagen won the auction for Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars by paying pounds 430m, only to discover that BMW had secured the Rolls-Royce brand, the silver lady and the radiator grill from the year 2003 for the bargain price of pounds 40m.

That bombshell, and BMW's announcement that it would be shifting Rolls- Royce production from Crewe, led to the resignation of the company's then chief executive Graham Morris. He stepped down because he did not want to renege on a previous promise to the Crewe workforce that production of Rolls-Royce would remain there whoever bought the company.

The mood on the Crewe factory shop floor, where the workers are more like artisans, making most of the cars by hand, is decidedly more positive than during the days of un-certainty last summer.

"For the first time it feels like the company has a future," said one worker who has been with Rolls-Royce for all his working career.

A lot of the new-found optimism can be attributed to the leadership of Tony Gott, Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars' new chief executive. Choosing Gott as a successor to the popular Morris was a shrewd move by the company's new German owners and by Morris, who stayed on for several months after handing in his resignation to ensure the smooth running of the company. It was Morris who groomed Gott for the job. Gott was already a familiar face at Crewe and was also popular with the workforce. After all, he had been with the company 15 years, starting his career as a car-body engineer and having belonged to the trade union. He took up the post as acting chief executive in December and was officially appointed by Volkswagen to head the team in Crewe last May.

"I never really had an ambition to run the company. In the 15 years of work here, I've never asked for the next job, it's always been offered," he said.

Now firmly ensconced in the chief executive's office with the predictable magazine covers showing the company's cars and models of vintage Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, Gott says last year's turmoil is now buried.

"The sale is all behind us," said Gott, a small, quietly spoken man with cropped grey hair. "We are completely reconciled to it all now."

That said, the uncertainty which surrounded the takeover has taken its toll on Rolls-Royce sales, in the UK at least.

Retail sales for Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars released earlier this month showed a 21.3 per cent drop in this country for the first six months of the year, compared with the same period last year - a particularly bad figure given that the company had only recently launched two new models - the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and the Bentley Arnage.

"There was a lot of disturbance at the time because people did not really understand what the sale of the company meant. Questions were inevitably asked about what was going to happen with the service. And that affected the market here in particular," said Gott.

Rolls-Royce customers should not worry, he added. "It's remarkably simple. Things will carry on exactly as they were until 2002, then BMW will take over. We are not going to neglect Rolls-Royce, that wouldn't be right. I want us to be a hard act to follow and that's what BMW wants too because they obviously want the company to do well. It's just an adult response to a business situation."

He said the company is also planning to release a new Rolls-Royce model before the brand is taken over by BMW.

The uncertainty over Rolls-Royce and Bentley's future only affected the market here, where, not surprisingly, a considerable amount of newspaper space was dedicated to the sale of Britain's most prestigious brand to the Germans.

Elsewhere, Rolls-Royce and Bentley sales were up, giving the company an increase of 13.2 per cent, fuelled mainly by an 84.7 per cent jump in sales in North America. Sales were also 34 per cent higher in Europe.

But it is with Bentley that the company now sees its future. More than pounds 50m has already poured in from Volkswagen to Crewe for development of new products and a further pounds 450m has been promised over the next 10 years. "It's an incredible opportunity to unleash Bentley really as a marque," said Gott.

"We have a great deal of knowledge about the market and how to make these sorts of luxury cars. Now with Volkswagen behind us we have fantastic access to technology and a greater purchasing power to enable us to interact strongly with suppliers compared to when we just wanted a few hundred parts, and no one listened to us."

The company plans to increase the number of Bentleys it makes over the next five years from 1,600 a year to 9,000 and to launch a new range which may include a smaller sporty model and a medium-sized car.

"We can now develop a wider range of Bentley that can appeal to a much broader section of the population," said Gott.

To help him, a number of high-flying executives have been appointed to the board.

"I doubt if we would have been able to attract the same calibre of staff without Volkswagen behind us," said Gott, who remains positive about the new ownership.

"They have so much experience that we can learn from and yet they are not trying to dominate us. They recognise some superb things we do well and don't want to disturb those," he said.

Indeed the only visible sign of the Crewe factory's new owners is a disproportionate number of Audis in the car park, evidence of the company's perk package for managers.

Gott, whose father was a factory worker from Stoke-on- Trent, drives a Porsche. Even the boss of Rolls-Royce can't afford one of his own cars.

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