By anyone’s standards, it has been quite a journey from growing up in Oswestry, Shropshire, as a car-loving teenager who rebuilt the engine in his first car, a Singer Chamois, to becoming the first member of his family to attend university, where he read maritime studies, to standing at the summit of the global car industry. His passion for the subject may have been tested by a relentless routine of 15-hour-plus working days but it is, he says, undimmed.
“I always say to my guys: ‘When a car goes onto a transporter, off to a customer, who by the way pays our wages, you need to feel an excitement and a passion for that product’,” says Robertson. “It’s a tough, complex place to work, the car industry, but I love the product and I’ve been driven by a desire to see that product get better every single day. When I left university, I had offers to work on oil rigs in Kuwait. Good money, tax free and six weeks on, two weeks off. But I loved cars. So that’s where I headed.”
Joining the British car industry in the late 1970s wouldn’t have been many people’s idea of fun. Production had peaked in 1972 and unrest was on the brink of turning into turmoil. Robertson, however, relished the opportunities presented by both the internal power struggles and the disruption of Japanese competitors setting up in Europe. A love of disruption was to become another career hallmark.
“There were British cars you were proud to own – I had a Triumph TR7 and Rover SD1, even a Spitfire, which I loved because it was so easy to work on – and perhaps some you weren’t so quick to shout about, like the Allegro, Maxi and others,” he says. “But when I joined Rover, Michael Edwardes was there, taking charge as chairman and really shaking it up. Sure, the company had a lot of baggage, and there was a lot of finger pointing over whose fault everything was, but the point was I was sat in an office, Sir Alec Issigonis and the engineering team sat above me and Minis rolled off the line in front of me. I loved it.”
Disruption arrived frequently, often in the form of new competitors or new owners, but Robertson became known for seizing opportunities with a firm grasp and a smile that, you suspect, is often as determined as it is happy. “I’m an optimist. You have to be to work in marketing,” he says, smiling. “Fundamentally, cars are hard to build. But that complexity breeds huge competition and requires huge capital investment. It’s big risk-taking stuff. But the f lip side is we are on the cusp of innovation every day. We benefit from that, and society benefits from that. It’s exciting.”
As well as relishing competition and seizing opportunity, Robertson also marked himself out as someone who likes to break convention – or at least to set a path dictated by logic rather than emotional or historical baggage. It’s why he proved to be the man to lead Land Rover under early BMW ownership, the man who got BMW’s South African plant to achieve supposedly impossible quality levels, the CEO who rebuilt Rolls-Royce’s reputation and product line-up beyond the reborn Phantom and who went on to oversee a team of more than 15,000 people, breaking sales and marketing record after record.