Aston 50th Anniversary: Ian Robertson Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Dr Ian Robertson

Dr Ian Robertson

Dr Ian Robertson is a member of the main board of BMW AG and has been described by the Daily Telegraph as 'the most powerful Briton in the global car industry'. He held several senior positions at Rover, before heading up, first Land Rover, then BMW South Africa, and most recently, Rolls Royce Motor Cars Ltd. He was appointed to the main board of BMW AG in 2008, with responsibility for sales and marketing. In 2011, he was awarded an Honorary DSc by Aston for his outstanding service and achievements in the fields of business and engineering. 

What took you from your degree in Maritime Studies at the University of Wales to the automotive industry?

The simple answer is that, if you look at my university course, I was destined to join the oil industry. And many of my friends at the time became mud engineers on the oil rigs in various far-flung parts of the world. My first job offer was with Halliburton in Kuwait. I looked at it and thought, “Do I really want to be away from people for four, five, six weeks at a time, working in the middle of nowhere or do I want to do something which involves being around people more?” And the automotive industry – or cars – had always been a passion of mine, so I applied to the car industry and turned my back on the oil industry. I’ve never regretted it.

What is it about your job that motivates you?

The thing I find most motivating is that it’s truly a global industry and it’s probably the most competitive industry in the world. So for me, that feeling of moving forward on multiple fronts is one of the things that excites me. At the same time, I’ve worked in several car companies with different ownerships and every one of them has had a special appeal. BMW is very good at understanding its brand, but more importantly, as a company we are striving to shape the future, so we’re investing very heavily in innovation and technology. We’re producing the most advanced cars the world has ever seen and I’ve played my part in that. In 2016, BMW will be 100 years old. The average life of a Fortune 500 company is 40 years and the average life of a dotcom company is around ten to 11 years, so for a company to be 100 years old is a special occasion.

What do you think makes Aston University special and distinctive?

I first got involved with Aston when I worked in Birmingham because many of my team were graduates from Mechanical Engineering at Aston. The people we recruited were all really open-minded. I think they had a perspective which was not defined solely by their academic qualifications - they were also able to interact effectively with people and develop their own personality in the roles which we gave them. So we had great experience out of a university which was both local and, at the same time, operating at a very high level. Recently, since I’ve had the chance to address a few of the student gatherings at Aston, I’ve seen the University’s international perspective. In the world that we live in, an international outlook is essential because without it you don’t get the best out of people and you will miss both trends and cultural opportunities.

What has your involvement with Aston given you personally?

I lived in Birmingham for nearly 20 years, so I had exposure to Aston and many of my friends went there. At the same time, it’s really nice to interact with the University again now. I really appreciate [Vice Chancellor, Professor Dame] Julia [King] and what she brings to the world of environmental challenge - I think she’s one of the most grounded people, but also one of the most forward-thinking people that I’ve ever come across.

What is the best advice you can give to today’s graduates?

I’m a great believer in being honest with yourself. Of course, we all have heart and head decisions to make, but if you let your head rule everything, you’re probably not going to get the best out of life. So make sure your heart is also in what you choose to do.