Ian Robertson, the highest-placed Brit at BMW, reckons the secret of having a big job in the car industry is not worrying too much about losing it.
And he should know. He has held a variety of mega-senior positions at Rover, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Mini and BMW during a 38-year career in the car industry. Yet in all that time, he has never left the company he joined as a graduate in 1978, instead shaping his career around new opportunities presented by changing owners. Next year, he will retire from the board of BMW.
He steps down (or perhaps across, given, as we’ll learn, how different his vision of retirement is to most) described by observers as “the most powerful Briton in the global car industry”, by colleagues as “brilliant, driven, always hard, always fair” and by himself as “engaged, passionate, optimistic – someone who relishes making informed decisions”.
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.