To Rover on a mission from Munich

Profile: Walter Hasselkus: A marriage from hell? Not so, says BMW's man at a very British institution. David Bowen reports
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The Independent Online
Walter Hasselkus's mum, who is 80, sticks press cuttings about him on the notice board of the nursing home where she lives in Germany. They must have taken up a fair amount of space when he was running BMW's motorcycle division. Now he is in charge of Rover, the home will probably have to invest in a new board - as well as English lessons for the inhabitants.

Dr Hasselkus has just become the first German to run what was once the pride of the British motor industry. In the early Fifties the British Motor Corporation was the biggest car maker outside the US, and it was still the UK's standard bearer when it merged with Leyland Motors in 1968.

That British Leyland, which became Rover in 1986, is now run by a German shows how utterly it failed to live up to those hopes. To patriots and car buffs, it is sad and shaming. To the remaining workforce of Rover it is something of a relief. After 10 chief executives in 20 years, Dr Hasselkus is finally offering Rover an element that is more important than nationality - stability. He intends to retire in the job, which, as he is 54, means he should be in the post until 2002.

Whether he lasts the course depends on many things. BMW is undoubtedly taking a long-term view of Rover, but Dr Hasselkus's appointment is a sign that its stewardship is not going as smoothly as it had hoped. When the previous chief executive, John Towers, resigned in June, the German company said it was looking for a Briton to take over. Its failure to find one fuelled a rash of doom-and-gloom stories. Car magazine wrote briskly of "A Marriage made in Hell".

Dr Hasselkus, tall, friendly, with hair combed rather too enthusiastically towards his forehead, is of course well-briefed to answer such accusations. "It's not a marriage made in heaven or in hell," he says. "You get jealousies in BMW too."

Yes, Rover suffered from underinvestment (BMW is doubling the spending rate), yes, British workers are not as well trained as Germans (who are?) and yes, there have been problems melding the two companies. But none of this, he insists, negates the benefits of putting the two companies together. Three years ago BMW and its great rival Mercedes-Benz were both wondering how to reduce their dependence on expensive cars. Mercedes' response was to plan a tiny city car; BMW's was to preserve its "centre of gravity", but to bolt on a completely separate marque: Rover.

"When the senior executives met two-and-a-half years ago, this acquisition was regarded by the industry as a master coup," he says. "We now have quite a powerhouse in world market terms." British self-deprecation has made sure that most people assume Rover is a flea sitting on BMW's back, and that it does not matter if it falls off. Not true, Dr Hasselkus says: "Every BMW employee cares about Rover."

BMW's strength is its obsession with the sporty, upmarket "brand values" it created in the aftermath of near-bankruptcy in 1960. Now the group has to do the same trick for Rover. Graham Day laid out the what its brand values should be 10 years ago - slightly upmarket, very British - but the message has only been partially swallowed by the public. Maybe Dr Hasselkus, as a foreigner, will be able to identify "Britishness" better than we can? He is not sure. "You can't really define Britishness very clearly. The British people are little bit eccentric, a little bit strange."

Before we mount our high horse, it should be said that he regards these qualities as positive. He has spent long enough in Britain to understand the people - or rather to understand that they are not so easy to understand.

Walter Hasselkus was born in 1942 in Remscheid, near Cologne, where his father was a businessman. It was, oddly, a good time to be born as a German, because it meant he grew up during the country's industrial miracle.

Like so many of his generation he studied law before moving into industry. In Britain that would be strange; in Germany it was normal, because industry was the place to be. From 1970 to 1975 he worked for Osram, then moved over to BMW's planning division. He took notes at board meetings, got to know the senior executives, and rose rapidly.

In October 1980, when he was still only 38, he moved to England as president of BMW (GB). "When I came I was completely ignorant," he says. "I had never been to Britain before and my English was lousy." He was terrified when confronted with journalists at a press conference - "both of not understanding the questions and of not knowing the answers." He was relieved to find that the British journalist has a merciful streak, and did not show him up.

In the next three years he learned much more about the British - most importantly that they have a strange way of expressing themselves.

"They are very polite, where the Germans are more straightforward," he says. "A Briton may be offended by something a German says, though it isn't meant that way. And if a British manager says there is a slight problem, the German will think it is that - when it could be really serious."

He understands British linguistic habits, and gets a kick out of them. He tells a story of how he moved a sunshade at a restaurant in Surrey, putting it in a flower-bed."The restaurant owner obviously wasn't very happy but he just said, 'Any further adjustments?'," he recalls. "A German would have said, 'Why did you do that?' "

His three years in Britain were successful, with BMW sales doubling to 26,000. He did a good job, establishing BMW's image with sophisticated advertising, and Munich loved him. He is modest about the period, claiming that the poor job done by BMW's previous importer, combined with the sky high level of sterling, meant that success came easily.

In 1984 he moved to South Africa to take over BMW's loss-making operation. He spent five years in the country and it is clear that he left a good part of his heart there. "I become really emotional when talking about South Africa," he says. He was thrown into a society and company in turmoil, where he had to deal with a host of political, economic and social problems. "After three months all hell broke loose when the gold price shot up and the car market fell by 40 per cent," he says. "But we turned the company round and made it profitable, and we were the only car company that never lost a day in strikes." South Africa taught him, he says, "to respect people".

Returning to Germany in 1989 he set up BMW's network in the east before taking over the motorcycle division four years later. He did not even have a bike licence, but decided to use his ignorance to advantage and ask the most naive questions.

His move to Rover was of course a surprise - Munich had been looking for a Briton. But at least he is now quite fluent in English and at ease with journalists. He has just moved with wife and son into a house in Oxford - his two daughters are staying at college in Germany.

Unlike his boss, Bernd Pischetsrieder, Dr Hasselkus is not a car nut. He likes them, he says, and he has a 1959 Austin-Healey. But his main preoccupation is tennis and the little matter of Rover Group.

He is busy asking naive questions about Rover now. So far "Why on earth did we buy this?" has not been one of them. Let us hope, for everyone's sake, it never is.

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