By Edward Poultney
Rolls-Royce CEO Ian Robertson on how the iconic brand bounced back to the forefront of luxury motoring.
"I was in St Petersburg a few weeks ago, sitting in Lenin's Silver Ghost and just thinking to myself ‘how did this come about?!" If one could choose the participants in the ideal dinner party, Ian Robertson, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars' Chairman and CEO would figure pretty high on the list. The forty-something Englishman has a fund of anecdotes and stories of the people he has met along his travels and the things he has done during his 28 years in the automotive industry.
Appointed to the helm of Rolls-Royce in February 2005, Robertson has overseen the ongoing ‘relaunch' of the brand. "When I arrived here we were effectively in the launch of the new company. It had been going for just over a year by then," he explains. "So the [Phantom] Drophead is the second car since I've been here. We are now en route to delivering the small car which will come before the end of the decade, which is not that far away now! We're also about to double the size of the company in terms of putting second shifts on and building second lines, so we've gone from the new chapter of the new company into being a fully-fledged business with a very expansive future."
We’ve gone from the new chapter into a being a business with a very expansive future.
The future for the company certainly looks brighter than it did toward the end of the last century. The group was passed from parent company to parent company before, in 1998, Rolls-Royce and Bentley parted company, with BMW assuming control of the former. The company developed a new Greenfield headquarter site and factory and relaunched itself as a new incarnation based on the brand's illustrious history, confounding critics who claimed that the brand would fall by the wayside. "In the last two decades of last century there was a risk that that's what was happening as underinvestment came in and Rolls-Royce and Bentley both became badge-engineered," Robertson admits. "But the beauty of the last few years is that the companies split and we've both taken a different strategy - we were extremely clear in our mind that we had to position our car right at the top of the market and have the position to back it up."
Robertson is understandably very excited by the launch of Phantom's Drophead Coupe, aimed at a wider market than some of the company's previous models: "It is a far less formal car than the Phantom, so in that way it often attracts a new buyer. There's definitely a younger crowd and there's also a female element that we haven't seen in Phantom. There is also a geographical side in that maybe we will see this car where we haven't seen the Phantom before."
Far less formal it may be but the model comes with all the workmanship and added extras that make a Rolls-Royce what it is, all of which is reflected in the cost - the base price for the car begins at just under half a million dollars. Robertson, however, does not see this as an obstacle to global sales. "It enables an awful lot of bespoke contents, so from the customers point of view they can personalise their car," he explains. "And I think we're on the rise of that sector around the world as well. The super luxury car segment is being driven by product, it's not being driven by a lack of customers. There are more customers out there than ever there are cars, we're entering the market at a very good time." Something reflected in the way that sales have grown approximately six-fold over the last six years.
"You not only have a very unique design, which for me, I would say this I know, is one of the most beautiful designs in the car world that has ever been seen," Robertson continues, "but behind that is a great substance as well. The car delivers on everyone's possible expectations."
And those expectations run pretty high. The brand name has become synonymous with both a certain lifestyle and as a benchmark of excellence. "I get press cuttings every day, and half of them have nothing to do with Rolls-Royce the car company, they are being used as an adjective to describe ‘best'," Robertson says. "Whether it be the Rolls-Royce of hotels, or it be the Rolls-Royce of mineral waters or the Rolls-Royce of fountain pens, so I think it is seen as a pinnacle product. Therefore in substance and pricing it is right at the top and therefore it has a scarcity value as well."
Ever since Frederick Henry Royce built his first car in 1903 the mark's reputation has meant that it has stood as a mark of success, one of the ultimate status symbols. Robertson feels that this lineage, and the guarantee that it offers, is what powers the company's appeal today: "I think that brands have long histories by and large, and there are very few that haven't that are successful and they tend to be in service industries. Truly great brands have great history and Rolls-Royce has one of the longest - and one of the greatest that the world has ever seen. It's really made up of many stories over tens of decades, and that is the myth that turns into the brand. When you look at what a brand stands for it is a promise. Our promise is that this car will not only fit all the visible, tangible elements that you're looking for but will have the substance behind it to fulfil that."
Despite being manufactured in countries other than the UK at periods over the last century, Robertson sees a powerful part of the brand's appeal is being "quintessentially British." It is an aspect of the perception that he is keen to hold on to. To this end, though componentry is sourced from all over the world, the product is manufactured and "crafted" in the factory at Goodwood, in the heart of the English countryside. Nor are there any plans to open further plants elsewhere, even as other manufacturers look abroad to undercut manufacturing costs. "If you take China for example. It's unique because it didn't have a Rolls-Royce history, whereas many other parts of the world that some may consider to be ‘emerging' do, India for example has one going back over 100 years," Robertson explains. "Now I think that part of the attraction for our Chinese customers is buying into this brand which is quintessentially British and quintessentially a pinnacle brand. I don't think that there is a desire on their behalf to see the car manufactured outside of where we are now."
Being at the top is an important part of where Robertson sees the company now, and where he wants it to remain: "We have to set the benchmark, it's no good wanting to be like others because that, of course, wouldn't be pinnacle."
Truly great brands have a great history and Rolls-Royce has one of the longest — and one of the greatest.
In order to cement its position as a leader in the automotive industry, the CEO is a firm advocate of making use of cutting edge technology. The aluminium frame that underpins the Phantom is an industry leader, which Robertson proudly tells me makes the carbon footprint significantly lower than any of the competitions. "If you look at the development costs of a new Rolls-Royce, they are very similar to the development costs of a high volume car," he says, which is telling as the Goodwood plant rolls out an average of five cars a day compared to the 60 an hour that mass-production manufacturers wheel out. "Therefore, to our minds we have to have the appropriate level of technology in order to underpin the product that eventually comes out at the end. So we're spending a significant amount of our efforts researching new materials and drawing resources from within the wider BMW group in order to deliver upon that."
The number of cars produced daily is also an indication of the craftsmanship that goes into each model, something that is reflected in the amount of care that the company puts into training its workforce. With everything inside the cars being manufactured at Goodwood, from seats, to centre consoles to doors, the group runs apprenticeships lasting up to four years. "Put that into perspective - if you go into a traditional car plant anywhere in the world your cycle times are between one and three minutes. That means that you do a job and then three minutes or one minute later you do it again," Robertson explains. "So the level of skill, whilst relatively high, is not that difficult to learn over a fairly short term. Our cycle times here at the moment are just over two hours. Now, the level of skill, understanding and capability needed to deliver on that is hugely different than what you would have in a traditional car plant. So we need to think in the longer term how we train our people up, how we skill them to enable them to build these cars."
The attention that goes into each vehicle results in a product that everyone who has been involved feels proud of: "You can touch every one of them and feel a sense of pride knowing that you've been a part of it. Particularly as every car is different, and they do have a character of their own depending on what each customer has specified."
This personal aspect that Robertson enjoys with the product of his current role is something that he has picked up from his time working in the industry around the world and the people he has met. One in particular stands out from his time in South Africa. "My time there was really special," he says, looking back. "Not only because of the success of the business [he was voted Industry Man of the Year 2004 by the country's automobile industry] but it was a special time for the country. I was there for six and a half of the first ten years of democracy and had the chance to meet people like Nelson Mandela who are larger than life characters but utterly personable. They touch and make you feel that you've made a difference. And being in a country which was developing its own character having endured probably the harshest regime the political world has ever seen was a very special time."
Robertson has no regrets from his time in the industry - he says that he would not have missed any of it - and all his roles have left him with a strong sense of ambition for the company's future. "As I keep saying to my team, it's not very often that you get a chance to be part of something with a history like this and make a difference to the way the company is, to the way it's going and the way it'll see success in the future. I think that we're on the right track and some of the cars coming out, like the Drophead, are witness to this. When you ultimately see the smaller Rolls Royce, I'm sure you'll see the same enthusiasm come out of that. It's tough but it's also highly rewarding."