► Torsten Müller-Ötvös retires as CEO after 13 years
► Huge growth on his watch, and new focus on bespoke
► BMW GB boss to take over
The man who has led Rolls-Royce during a period of massive success is about to retire. Torsten Müller-Ötvös’ exit from the BMW luxury division’s Goodwood HQ ends a glittering career spanning more than 30 years within the group, during which time he also reinvented the Mini brand.
Speaking to CAR, Müller-Ötvös said: ‘I’m getting 63 in November, and I’m already pretty old for BMW. It took me easily two years to start to understand what this business is all about. It’s not a car business, it’s a luxury business. It’s all about knowing the client and understanding the client.
‘I inherited a brand that was back to where the brand belongs, the pinnacle. When I joined, the task was now to rejuvenate, to get the brand down from the pedestal it was on at that time, to make it far more approachable, to open up into completely new target groups, to increase the female share massively, and turn the brand from a chauffeur’s car brand to the very cool lifestyle proposition it is now.
‘When you see how the demographics of our clients have changed, from when I joined 56 average age down to 43 now, 99 per cent male, now we are 15 per cent female – obviously more to come – but even more important the level of celebrities that are now part of the brand is nearly 30 per cent. This is quite something. It indicates that we hit the right tone in positioning the brand.’
The controversial Cullinan SUV was championed by Müller-Ötvös, who also oversaw the introduction of the more youth-focused Black Badge sub-brand and pushed the Bespoke and Coachbuild teams for hand-crafted and customised Rolls-Royces, and proudly led the development of the electric Spectre.
‘Black Badge helped a lot, Cullinan brought a unique lot of clients into the brand. It was heavily debated when we launched the Cullinan – “Are you guys crazy?” It’s now the most popular Rolls-Royce ever built.’
He added: ‘We have now formulated the strategy for the next 10 years, product strategy, some brand strategy, business strategy, so we know where we need to go. For that reason I think we can hand it over to a new pair of hands.’
That will be Chris Brownridge (pictured below), who was UK sales director for BMW before rising to the top job two years ago, and has also worked for Mini.
Like Brownridge, Müller-Ötvös was also a long-serving BMW group executive when he got the Rolls job. His masterstroke was to stop thinking of Rolls-Royce as just a car maker and refocus it as a luxury brand.
‘I talked to a lot of private banks worldwide to better understand the demographics, the behaviours of ultra high net worth individuals, and they clearly indicated that to be wealthy would change massively over the course of the next years. To become wealthy in your life you don’t need any longer to invest in real estate or machinery, when you are bright enough you can even do it on your phone. We needed to create product that was befitting for younger people. There was also the clear learning that you need to get away from the “chauffeur” strategy – these people no longer want to sit in the back, they want to drive themselves.
‘That’s why we brought Wraith, Dawn, Cullinan – very much a family car, a relaxed, casual way to drive a Rolls-Royce. For many families Cullinan is the number one car now. Unthinkable years ago that a Rolls-Royce would become the number one car in the bigger garage.’
And it’s worked. ‘I don’t talk volume, but we came from 1000 cars [a year] when I joined and we are now at 6000. And what makes me even more proud is the price position. When I joined it was around 250,000 euros average price, it’s over half a million. That indicates also the power of the brand.
‘I’m also very proud that we brought Coachbuilt back to the brand. Something that was seen as technically not feasible when I joined – “Ah forget it, Torsten, it will never work.”
‘We also made it “allowed” to be seen in a Rolls-Royce. We tuned the brand in a way that is better approachable. It’s not unachievable or in a different league, but in such a way that we kept the high exclusivity of the brand, whilst making the brand more relaxed, more casual.
‘It sounds easy, but to convert an automotive brand into a highly regarded house of luxury and lxuury brand, this is quite something and I am extremely proud of it. It’s not only about how you do product, but far more about the ecosystem around the product. All these experiences we are offering our clients, the way we interact with them, the way we look after them is so different from when I came. It is a family.
‘This means attention to all details. How do we create events? What kind of service levels are we offereing? How do we look after them? Obviously we need to be pitch perfect when we deliver the product. We need to deliver excellent product. But it is buying an experience, and being part of a community.
‘I’m glad that I have a high-performance team on my side, people who are very different in their character, very different also in their capabilities and their personalities. I’m pretty outspoken, but I also expect from my people that they are tough with me. I’m not the wise man who knows everything. I depend on the knowledge that I have around the table.
‘For me it’s an honour to be at the helm of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. When I joined I felt a real burden on my shoulders. You’re suddenly responsible for one of the most well-known brands in the world. Then I read a couple of books about Sir Henry and Charles Rolls and that made me even more… nervous is the wrong word. But respectful. Because the ethos of Sir Henry resonates in my brain daily. This kind of “strive for perfection”. Perfection is not achieveable. It is a moving target. This is what we are doing.’
And what’s next for the Anglophile German? ‘I’ll probably go into non-executive director roles. But also taking a bit of me time, and re-starting interests I was always keen to do. I’m a passionate fly fisher but I haven’t done a lot over the course of the last years. I need a bit of mental engagement, some challenges on my hands. I love it.’