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Bentley’s fast-acting reaction to Covid-19 set a gold standard for crisis response that has served the company beyond all expectation. We find out how it was done
James Attwood, digital editor
News
8 mins read
8 June 2021

Innovation comes in many forms, and it’s not always about pioneering technology or groundbreaking hardware. Sometimes, such as in the midst of a global pandemic, the real innovation is found in identifying new ways of working, in decision making and in revamped processes, rather than production.

During the course of the past 18 months or so, plenty of companies have been forced to reinvent their long-established working methods. But few in the car industry have done so more successfully than Bentley, which didn’t just weather a seven-week shutdown and months of sales disruption but went on to end last year recording record levels of production and sales.

Key to that success was the innovation shown in the decisions and actions of Bentley’s Crisis Management Taskforce (CMT) and executive board. Its efforts to combat Covid-19 extended beyond filling its Crewe factory with the masks, Perspex, social distancing and one-way systems that are now so familiar to all of us, but were rooted in developing a new way of working that allowed it to respond quickly to an ever-changing, frequently uncertain situation.

It did that by making decisions at a speed that before last year would have seemed unthinkable in the car industry, especially for a 102-year-old company such as Bentley. “We had one board meeting in March when I proposed shutting the employee gym and stopping travel between our sites,” recalls Dr Astrid Fontaine, board member for people, digitalisation and IT who chairs the CMT. “The board said: ‘Why should we do that?’ That was one Thursday. The following Thursday, we agreed to shut down the plant and send everybody home. That was the speed with which things moved.”

By the time Bentley suspended production on 19 March 2020, the CMT was holding multiple meetings a day. When the first was held that January, it was to gauge the impact of the novel SARS-Cov-2 virus on China. “We were looking at what it meant for our supply coming from China, our people travelling there to test cars and our Chinese customers. For whatever reason, we didn’t even think it would hit us,” says Fontaine.

After more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions, it’s easy to forget how quickly, unexpectedly and completely Covid-19 changed the world in 2020. “The challenge with Covid was the breadth of ways it affected a business,” says Stephen Blanchard, Bentley’s risk and governance manager. “We had a crisis management plan but it very much focused on smaller incidents: a fire at a supplier’s depot, for example. We had to rebuild it to capture all the operational and sales impact.”

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The CMT was restructured into six ‘buckets’, each focused on a different aspect of the business, such as sales, IT, production and communications. And the make-up changed throughout the pandemic, too. “ The diversity of people we got around that table was amazing,” says Fontaine. “People from different areas and functions, and more importantly from different levels. We had apprentices in there, with Adrian [Hallmark, CEO] analysing and listening. We really showed that inclusiveness to listen to each other. We were all driven by a single purpose: to protect the people and protect the company.”

As Covid-19 grew in Europe, first in Italy and then the UK, the CMT met with increasing frequency. “It was the biggest challenge Bentley had had in a long time,” says Blanchard. “The tempo was flat out for a while.”

The intensity was highest in the week leading up to 19 March. “The IT department did three days of pilots to test our remote working abilities,” says Fontaine. “By Thursday, we could see what was coming and converted the cafeteria and sports hall into IT service centres. It was all hands on deck to get colleagues’ machines updated with the latest software. It was incredible.”

Fontaine adds: “It was decision making on steroids. We had a CMT meeting every morning and a board update every night."

The decision to close the factory occurred the week before the first UK lockdown was announced, which reflects Bentley’s proactive approach to controlling its own destiny.

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“The drive from the board was truly to think about the safety of our people,” says Fontaine. “When we saw it get out of control, the first thought was ‘let’s send everybody home’ – and we didn’t know for how long. We thought maybe two or three weeks. But we decided to get our people into safety, and then figure out what to do.”

Figuring out what to do involved input from Public Health England (PHE), Imperial College and the wider Volkswagen Group. The Bentley CMT’s initial safety plan, which contains more than 250 individual measures, was developed in-house and would go on to serve as something of a blueprint for other brands across the wider VW Group. Bentley was the first UK car maker to publish its PHE Covid-19 risk assessment, and was able to resume production – at first at 50% capacity – after seven weeks.

The focus wasn’t just on safety but also on making a welcoming environment for the on-site staff. For example, plastic screens on the tables in the break area allowed colleagues to eat closer together. Fontaine says a lot of creativity went into the measures: “People really trusted us to do the right thing. There was not a word of complaint.”

Part of that trust stemmed from another innovative approach: communication. Bentley’s comms team performed a major shift, devoting the bulk of its time not to promoting its luxury machines to the press and public but communicating with the workforce. That was both to maintain links with staff not on site (more than half of the employees are still working remotely) and to explain to those coming back what to expect.

What staff found on site was something of a moving target, with Bentley continually revising its measures as knowledge about the virus and government advice changed. Again, that put an emphasis on speed and innovation: Bentley started working on multiple solutions concurrently, so if Plan A failed, plans B, C, D and so on were already in progress.

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“We learned about processed thinking,” says Fontaine. “We looked at each topic as a process. So how do we know people have symptoms, how do we know how they are feeling? How do we track that they are okay? How do we know who is in self-isolation? How do we know who is available to come to work? It always came down to: ‘What is the process?’”

Key to powering Bentley’s decisions was information. Bentley was one of the first UK employers to implement a testing programme for its on-site employees – and their families, in some cases. To date, it has conducted more than 18,000 tests. That hasn’t just helped ensure staff were virus-free on-site: the test results, along with other data, helped provide valuable information.

Bentley developed a whole suite of apps in-house – with much of the work done by apprentices – to variously log test results, allow for self-reporting of symptoms, let staff anonymously highlight any concerns and so on. Developing those apps has given Bentley “a lot of trust in our own abilities”, says Fontaine, adding that it is no longer outsourcing such development work.

“We’re the only company in our group that has this complete dashboard of apps,” says Fontaine. “We can navigate the company on a direct basis with real-time facts and data.

“Even now, we track everything on site: how many colleagues on site and any risks on site. We’re tracking colleague availability, who is sick, who is isolating, how many Covid cases, and now what percentage of colleagues have been vaccinated.”

Such information has given Bentley the ability to plan ahead better: for example, it could see the likelihood of a second wave from the data, allowing the firm to prepare its production accordingly. And the firm could identify production areas likely to be short of staff, giving it time to respond. That also led to flexibility: staff who had previously served in production roles were retrained, and apprentices were given cross-training in various areas.

As a result, Blanchard says Bentley has developed more self-confidence: “As a business, we’ve learned to trust ourselves more. We can apply that beyond Covid in how we react to things.”

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Beyond app development and cross-training, Fontaine says other innovations Bentley has shown in finding its way through the pandemic will remain: “We’ve learned stand-up meetings: shorter meetings, quicker decisions. And while we had a culture of listening to and engaging with colleagues before Covid, that has become even more emphasised. We’re much more open and willing for different opinions to be heard.”

When Bentley’s factory reopened last June after the first lockdown, Fontaine spent the day at the main gate, welcoming the production staff back. She admits that she’d “never have thought” at that point that Bentley would then go on to set records for sales and production: “It’s just incredible.”

That came at a time of unprecedented change for Bentley: since the start of the pandemic, the firm has unveiled its Beyond 100 plan and committed to becoming EV-only by 2030, and has also undergone a major restructure leading to 800 staff leaving, virtually entirely through voluntary redundancies.

Fontaine says she is proud of the way Bentley managed both itself and its people through the pandemic. “In hindsight, you sometimes wonder how it worked,” she adds. “It was an unbelievable situation, and I’m just so proud of our colleagues.”

Caring for the community

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Bentley’s Covid-19 response wasn’t just focused on its business: the firm also worked to help its employees and the wider Crewe and Cheshire communities. During the first lockdown, the firm’s IT department reconditioned old laptops, which were provided, along with wi-fi hotspots, to employees who needed them to help homeschool their children. It also produced and donated PPE to local hospitals and care facilities, and delivered food to those shielding via its ‘Meals on 22in wheels’ service. “It’s not just about us, it’s about the whole community,” says board member Astrid Fontaine.

Bentley also partnered the Cheshire Community Foundation and launched a Covid Recovery Fund to provide local not-for-profit organisations with grants of up to £25,000 for projects tackling food poverty, mental health, education and debt relief.

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