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The Need for Speed

Dr Ulrich Bez steps down this year as CEO of Aston Martin, where in 13 years he has taken it from a low volume manufacturer to the standard-bearer of luxury and quality in the automobile industry. He is both polite and direct, and has an extraordinary past, ranging from founding BMW Technology that developed the BMW Z 1, the first of the Z series, giving the Porsche 911 a new live with the legendary 993, all the while maintaining his hobby of endurance race driving till today. Four years ago, age 66, he finished 21st in the Nürburgring 24 hour race, averaging 160kph. He spoke to The Harbus about how he approached his career, his stewardship of the Aston Martin brand, and his passion for his industry.

Where did your passion for cars come from and how have you sustained it over such a long career?
I think that the car business is the most complete industry reflecting all that happens in society. I also believe that mobility has driven the development of society and therefore is the key driver of where we are today. The automobile as a symbol fascinates me because it is very widespread –affecting materials, medicine, psychology, politics, resources, physics, chemistry. Everything that you can imagine that affects us at some stage.

You have been integrally involved in some of the iconic brands of the car industry – Aston Martin,  BMW, Porsche. When you look back on your own career, how much of it happened by your own design, and how much by luck?
I would go further back than the companies – of course you need luck. When I wanted to join Porsche, I had no idea how I could get there. I had a friend that installed IT for Porsche and he approached the head of engineering to see if I could speak with him to do my final project for my diploma with the company. He said “Sure!”. For Porsche at this time it was a creative precedent. If he had said no, I would be somewhere, but not where I am now. The same thing happened when I had a mentor who helped me and motivated me to graduate with a Doctorate in Engineering and convinced me over my time with Porsche that the doctorate was a good idea. Had he not encouraged me, I would be somewhere else. I wanted to go and design medical devices for surgery, as I had always wanted to be a surgeon, but they rejected me. I was disappointed at the time. So I stayed with Porsche. When I went to BMW, my boss called me one day and asked if I wanted to create a spin-off of BMW subsidiary, a new company out of nothing [what became BMW Technology], he asked me not someone else. He asked me at 5pm and I said I needed some time to think about it. He called me at 8am the next morning and demanded my answer, so I had milliseconds to think about it and I said “Yes” on instinct. Done, deal. I started the next day. This enabled me to make the BMW Z1 and put myself in the frame for Porsche when they needed someone to update the 911. You need luck. I’m authentic, I’m honest, I’m not political (a big weakness), I love what I do. I have the skills but luck plays such a huge role – I had an accident on a racetrack and broke my spine  – but I wasn’t paralyzed. It’s luck that all these things came together. But hard work is absolutely vital too.

Your thirteen years at Aston Martin – what was your key challenge when you took over, and what is the key thing you did right?
The key challenge was to find out whether the company had a future based on a checkered history?  So the key achievement was giving the company a future based on quality, reliability and usability. A future of exclusivity and luxury.  The basis for the future is the modular system which we invented and executed. The modular system was key in terms of cost, time, quality, flexibility of design, everything.

So for your leadership style and how you deal with people, you have so much to manage – the brand, top end scientists, engineers, marketers – how do you go about it?
The short answer is read my book because all my principles are listed in there! No, I can pick a couple of things that are appropriate here. I think I am quick to understand topics and problems. I listen to everybody, but I can’t deal with people repeating themselves. Say it once, and let’s get on with it. I want people to present factual information, and I like things sharp, to the point, essential, so I can make a decision quickly. I allow people to make mistakes, but not to repeat them. It’s unacceptable to cover up mistakes. I like people to be responsible for what they do. I demand of myself that if someone comes to me with a problem that person should leave my office one step closer to solving that problem. I want to be an example in what I do and how I do things. I believe in flat hierarchies, and that everybody should do everything: if I have to clean the shop floor, then I clean the shop floor, and if I have to represent the company at the president’s reception then I do that too. I want people to have freedom within their targets – I ask them to do something and how they do it is up to them, so they can use their creativity and innovation to get the right outcomes. I’m not patient– in our business we have no time. We have to take small steps quickly to stay competitive.

I have to ask – when the DB5 comes out in Skyfall, the cinema I was in erupted in cheers and applause. That to me is what you’re working with, that’s your baseline, the brand identification. How do you protect and enhance that?
That is the brand. That’s it. Before we had the Vanquish and the DBS – actual cars – in the films. It would have been great to feature the new Vanquish in Skyfall, but it just wasn’t in the story. So we had to sit back and say “what is the wider picture?” To celebrate the Brand’s centenary, the DB5 was the best. Even though they blew it up on screen which concerned a lot of people, though it’s clearly a model that explodes… The reaction you mention encapsulates that power of the Brand. There is no formula to this kind of brand power, it’s not x plus y plus z gives you a great brand, a cool brand. It doesn’t work like that. It’s something that has to do with personality, authenticity, innovation, design, beauty, fun, history. In 2000 we were a beloved brand because we were always suffering. Now, people believe Aston Martin is what they always wanted, always hoped Aston Martin would be. Of course you need the cars, the heroes, but there is so much more behind it. Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan drive our cars, but no VIP is sponsored to drive our car, or get our cars for free. Gerhard Berger (ex-Ferrari and one of the longest serving F1 drivers of all time) bought a DB9 for his wife, and he paid the full price. He called me and said, “Ulrich, this is the first time in my life I have paid full price for a car.” And I said “Great!” It’s so important that you let the quality speak for itself. ■

October 21, 2013
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