How I became CEO of BMW: my careers advice for graduates
After my A levels I wanted to enter the working environment as quickly as possible. I had a keen interest in cars and wanted to be in a position where I could buy one quickly. However, I also wanted to continue my studies. ICI, a large industrial chemical company, solved my dilemma by sponsoring my degree in chemistry while I worked for them.
While at ICI I became quite interested in the commercial side of business and I moved to working directly with customers in technical sales, which was a major change of direction for me. Around this time, BMW were looking to diversify by hiring people from outside of the automotive industry. I made what at the time seemed like a rash decision and sent off a speculative application. I was pleased that I was invited to an interview and was then offered a job in aftersales.
Influences and international challenges
There was a point during my first few years at BMW when, due to a tough trading environment, my role was at risk. I was given an opportunity by Bob Griffiths to undertake a new role in purchasing. I hadn’t had any significant interactions with him up to this point, but he had clearly seen that I had some experience in buying and selling. I helped to establish a new function that would deal with marketing and distribution, which was a significant challenge for me. Bob was also influential in that I learned from him that managerial toughness did not have to come at the expense of emotional intelligence. I saw that you did not have to sacrifice your principles in order to be successful and that there was a difference between toughness and resilience. In my current position, I’d say my management style is very much my own and is informed by my own principles of honesty and trust, but I stole some good bits from Bob along the way.
In 2006 I became global director of sales and marketing for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. The challenges of this role lay in reestablishing a luxury brand in the modern day and dealing with a hard-to-identify international client base. I needed to rely on people who had networking skills and were moving in the right circles. Another challenge was working around international trading laws in my role as a regional vice president of sales at BMW AG in Munich. I was responsible for regions such as South America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, which did not have their own sales and marketing operations. A notable example of a challenging issue was when Argentina brought in a law declaring that for all imports of luxury goods, an export of an equivalent value had to be made. Within a month I found myself in the business of exporting peanuts, soya and red wine.
My role as CEO and my advice for graduates
In my current position as CEO I don’t have a set role, but am responsible for driving the entire business, ensuring everyone is motivated and that we are hitting our targets. I spend quite a bit of my time informally mentoring less experienced members of staff, graduates and interns. Youth is absolutely crucial to the business; after all, they’re who will be buying our cars in the future. I always advise graduates that they should never be afraid to ask. Organisations rely on collaboration and so there’s no reason to be intimidated. Plus, people quite like to be asked for their opinion. Quite often I’ve found that when people come to me with a problem, they already have the answer they need in their heads; it’s just been tumbled around and they need someone to speak to in order to straighten out the facts. In these cases I just listen and gently guide them to the solution they’re looking for.
Something I have learned is that new graduates have a ceaseless determination and a hunger to keep on learning. I sometimes have to remind them that they don’t need to worry about doing the right thing all the time, and that mistakes are accepted and understood. The organisation needs to satisfy and encourage this desire for challenge; the flip side being that occasionally graduates will leave if they don’t feel that they’re being fulfilled. I make sure to sit down with leaving graduates and let them know that they are probably making the right choice for them at the time, but ask that if they ever get bored, they should give us a call. Last year, in fact, a graduate left and returned within six months because our corporate culture better suited how they worked. It’s crucial that graduates find roles that suit how they work and can offer them the opportunities and development they want.