In February 2010, a month before he was to succeed Tom Purves as CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, Torsten Müller-Ötvös travelled with Purves to Hunt House in Towcester to pore over the Rolls-Royce Enthusiast Club’s extensive archives.
In particular, Müller-Ötvös wanted to know more about one car; the iconic Silver Ghost, which Rolls-Royce produced from 1907 to 1926. He has no hesitation in naming it as the car the Goodwood-based company still looks to for inspiration: “That car is a benchmark in terms of what the brand stands for: quality, durability, sustainability and attention to every detail.”
Few brands in any industry have so much history to draw on, let alone so iconic a name. As an enduring symbol of luxury and exclusivity, Rolls-Royce is almost without peer, and it’s clear that Müller-Ötvös does not take this lightly.
“I feel a great deal of responsibility, as you can imagine,” he says. “Rolls-Royce is the world’s most luxurious automotive brand – no one sells more cars in the prestigious €250,000+ segment of the market.”
The 2010 sales figures certainly back that up; Rolls-Royce sold 2,711 cars, an astonishing 171% increase on sales of 1,002 cars in 2009 and more than double the previous record of 1,212 from 2008. Müller-Ötvös says he doesn’t expect to see such a dramatic increase in 2011, but he does expect the company to expand. Growing the company while staying true to the values typified by cars like the Silver Ghost is, he concedes, a challenge.
“We are doubling, or tripling, the size of the company in a very short period of time, so we need to change and implement a lot of new processes in the plant,” Müller-Ötvös explains. “How do we produce cars? How do we secure quality given the ramp-up in quality? How do we ensure our worldwide sales organisation is capable of coping with that growth? There has been a lot to do, and we’re not finished yet.”
The car-maker has come along way since 1998, when a bidding war between BMW and Volkswagen resulted in the latter buying the company (which included the factory in Crewe and the Bentley name) for £430m, with BMW acquiring the rights to the Rolls-Royce logo and name for £40m. BMW effectively had to start from scratch, building a brand new state-of-the-art factory in Goodwood, West Sussex, and recruiting a workforce. In 2003, the first ‘new’ Rolls-Royce, the Phantom, was launched.
The new CEO is, perhaps unsurprisingly, of BMW provenance but he is that rare thing these days: a one-company man. Müller-Ötvös joined the BMW group as a trainee in 1988 and his progress through the ranks of the Munich firm has been stellar. In 2000, aged 37, he was named head of brand strategy for the hugely successful relaunch of the Mini, becoming the youngest ever member of BMW’s senior leadership group in the same year. Müller-Ötvös has stayed with the BMW group for more than 20 years, he says, because “there has never been any reason to leave”, but also because he is a self-confessed car-nut: “I’ve loved cars ever since I was a young boy”.
He says his experience with Mini helped familiarise him with British brands, and since joining Rolls-Royce he and his wife enjoy living in the area. It is, he says, important that he lives near the company’s Goodwood base. “It wouldn’t be perceived very well if the CEO lived in London or Munich; you need to be there and be seen in the street, or shopping in Waitrose.”
This fresh start in West Sussex has benefited Rolls-Royce with a notable advantage when it comes to complying with increasing pressure on the car industry to focus more on minimising environmental impact. The main buildings at the Goodwood headquarters make up the biggest green (or ‘living’) roof in Europe, covering more than eight acres, and its climate control systems use water from ponds around the plant. Müller-Ötvös also points out the fact that 70% of all Rolls-Royces ever built are still on the road.
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