Currently reading: Mini's happy return: Stefanie Wurst on electrifying a legend
In just two years, Mini boss Wurst has revived its brand image and given the BMW Group’s oldest factory an electric future

Few guardianships of brands have been as successful as that of Mini under BMW. 

We say guardianship because it is so much more than ownership, given Mini’s unique place in British culture, the wealth of personal stories involving its cars and, as a result, the emotional investment that people place in the brand and its development.

The person tasked with directing this guardianship recently is Stefanie Wurst, who took over as head of the Mini brand in early 2022, having previously led the BMW Group in the Netherlands.

She joined at a time when the marque was heading towards something of an identity crisis. In the words of BMW board member Jochen Goller, Mini had become “a little bit too generic”. 

The standard hatchback’s proportions looked bloated and the brand was portraying itself with a more serious tone. Its iconic Oxford plant was also in need of investment if it was to be able to go fully electric.

Wurst, our Outstanding Leader for 2024, has tackled all of these in short order and achieved a remarkable amount at the brand in a very brief space of time.

The new Cooper, Aceman and Countryman models – largely developed before her arrival but launched under her leadership – sit much more comfortably together in size and shape than any previous Mini range and the Cooper is far more compact-looking than its predecessor.

Wurst has secured the future of the Oxford site: a £600 million investment from BMW means it will go fully electric. She says she’s had 40-year Oxford veterans tell her the employee meetings she’s regularly hosted there are the best they have ever seen. Simply, she gets the brand, its people, the cars and what it needs to succeed.

But then cars are in Wurst’s blood. Growing up in Munich, her dad was a BMW engineer, including for the Formula 1 team, her uncle was a racing driver and her grandfather was a car dealer. 

Some of her earliest memories are of being at the Nürburgring as a five-year-old and later spotting her dad on TV at F1 races. “So I had lots of inspiration from cars,” she says.  “They were a very important topic.”

The automotive industry is actually Wurst’s second successful career, though, after one in advertising. 

She rose through the ranks of Scholz & Friends to become a partner at its Berlin office (“I found a new interpretation of German humour, innovation and creativity in Berlin at the time”), where her biggest client was Mercedes-Benz.

She says: “I thought I’d achieved all I wanted to in advertising and I was open to other options. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to go into, say, the cheese business or banking or insurance. 

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“The automotive industry is simply what interested me the most. I think everything that happens in society and politics in Germany is somehow reflected in our industry. Besides that, I find the products attractive, complex and really interesting, so the industry also reflects where technology standards are at any point in time.”

Wurst chose an opportunity at BMW over one at another car maker, starting out as head of marketing for the BMW Group in Germany, then CEO of its Netherlands operations and ultimately the top job at Mini.

She had always admired Mini and believes it has found success because it is “a democratic brand. 

You don’t have to prove anything or show status, as Mini is an effort not to show class. It’s about expressing an attitude to life rather than your social status. Mini buyers don’t buy a car to go from A to B: they like the product and have a relation to it.”

One of the first things she did on becoming head of Mini was to make John Cooper’s grandson, Charlie Cooper, a “brand ambassador and an integral part of the team”.

Wurst says: “I’m experiencing the brand’s history as a family history as well. It gives a smaller brand meaning as it’s a family business as well, so I see it as a continuation. I create my own reference points even though I wasn’t there, by listening to Charlie and how he talks about his grandad.”

Everyone has an opinion about the Mini brand and it is more often about what a car wearing the Mini badge shouldn’t be. The new Mini family being launched under Wurst includes its largest model yet, the 4433mm-long Countryman.

She says: “I was with our designer Oliver Heilmer and I think it is even harder to be a designer. You’re getting rave reviews or people think it’s crap, not within the brand DNA whatsoever. You’re getting the unfiltered comments. Everyone has an opinion but that’s true internally too. At BMW Group internally, we’re quite happy with what we see.”

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She’s comfortable with the size of the new Countryman – a car she uses herself as a daily driver – and “everyone seems to have a place where they think it fits well in their environment” in all the countries in which she has shown it so far.

Wurst is obviously fond of Oxford and enjoys visiting the factory. “I find it a very emotional place because people clearly feel very emotional about working there,” she says. “It’s a tradition for the brand as well and I want to honour that and make people feel how important it is to me.”

On the decision to secure the investment in its future, Wurst says “it was not difficult” to convince BMW bosses to do so. “I don’t know any board member that doesn’t find it important and many of them have worked in the UK.”

In her daily work, Wurst likes being with “people who not only ask the right questions but then really work to find the right answers. You need people who are highly intelligent but also down to earth.” 

To that end, she believes “inconvenient people make a good team” and while “I can be bossy, this is not my preferred leadership style: that is sitting around a table, discussing and a solution naturally comes up”.

Much of Wurst’s time has been spent launching products to dealers and the likes of Autocar and this conversation with her took place at the Beijing motor show, the day after she unveiled the new Aceman hatchback to the world at an event with around 800 largely Chinese media, dealers and investors – setting the brand up for what is the fourth-generation Mini range created under BMW. 

Setting up the brand will be Wurst’s final act for Mini. A few days after our chat, it was announced that she will be leaving the brand at the end of July, to be succeeded by BMW’s current corporate strategy boss, Stefan Richmann. 

Wurst will stay within the BMW Group, moving onto even bigger and better things, and our desire to give her this award is unwavering off the back of her remarkable achievements during her time at Mini.

Wurst’s own guardianship of Mini may have been short-lived, but her impact on the brand’s 65-year history will be felt for many years to come.

Mark Tisshaw

Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.

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tophamn 26 June 2024

Suggestion for BMW: start making the 1-Series in the Oxford plant alongside Mini. You're welcome!