Rolls-Royce boss is burnishing a legend at electrifying pace

It’s a truly electrifying time for RollsRoyce Motor Cars and its veteran chief executive Torsten Müller-Ötvös. The dapper Anglophile German entrusted with a treasure trove of Britain’s automotive crown jewels has just announced record global sales and profits for the luxury carmaker. Its very name is a byword for excellence far beyond cars. 

The landmark financial performance, which now feeds in to German parent company BMW, comes at a critical time. Müller-Ötvös is launching RollsRoyce’s first ever production electric car – the sporty Spectre fast-back. Deliveries are due to begin later this year. 

It is arguably the most significant vehicle in the company’s history since the legendary Silver Ghost, whose endurance feats in the early days spurred the 119-year-old company to the pinnacle of automotive achievement. Spectre marks the first step in an equally important transformation which will see Rolls-Royce, whose cars still carry at their prow the famous flying Spirit of Ecstasy, adapt to the Spirit of Electricity. By the end of 2030 all new Rolls-Royce models will be purely electric. 

Dream job: Torsten Müller-Ötvös has been Rolls-Royce CEO for 13 years

Dream job: Torsten Müller-Ötvös has been Rolls-Royce CEO for 13 years

Müller-Ötvös has been CEO for 13 years, having had his contract extended beyond the age of 60 when board members of parent group BMW are normally required to step down. 

The 62-year-old hails Rolls-Royce’s performance last year as ‘a great British success story’ and believes 2023 will also prove a strong year. But he stresses: ‘Sales are not our sole measure of success: we are not and never will be a volume manufacturer.’ 

He has thrived in a ‘dream job’ and still pinches himself, he admits. After university and compulsory military service, he joined BMW Group in 1989, rising to ever more senior positions in marketing, strategic planning and product management, including for Mini, before being appointed to lead Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in 2010. 

BMW took control of Rolls-Royce in 1998 following an epic battle with Volkswagen. In the fallout, Volkswagen snapped up Bentley and the Crewe factory it had shared with Rolls-Royce. BMW set up its new purchase with a boutique facility at Goodwood, near Chichester, West Sussex – this month celebrating its 20th anniversary. 

Both he and BMW are privileged ‘stewards’ of the brand founded in 1904 in Manchester’s Midland Hotel by the Honourable Charles Rolls and engineering genius Sir Henry Royce with, he believes, an almost sacred duty of care. 

Müller-Ötvös hopes his own enduring legacy will be the rejuvenation of the Rolls-Royce brand to attract younger, wealthier clients: ‘We’ve modernised it over the past 13 years.’ So much so that the average age of Rolls-Royce buyers has dropped over his tenure from 57 to 43 – ‘now even younger than Mini’. 

Future-proofing the marque by being the first super-luxury brand to launch an electric car was another milestone along with the ‘once unthinkable’ step of producing a Rolls-Royce SUV, the Cullinan, he says. 

The SUV accounts for 50 per cent of sales, well ahead of the Ghost with 30 per cent. Pre-orders for the new electric Spectre, priced from around £350,000, nudging £500,000 with bespoke extras, have also exceeded ambitious expectations ahead of first deliveries from this autumn, he said. =

Moving with the times is, so far, obviously working. Overall, Rolls-Royce celebrated best-ever sales in 2022 of 6,021 cars, an increase of 8 per cent or 435 cars on the previous record of 5,586 set in 2021. It is the first time sales have exceeded 6,000 in a single 12-month period. 

Super-rich customers commissioning one-off bespoke and highly personalised luxury cars have helped propel sales and profitability. Bespoke commissions included the second of a unique series of three ‘Boat Tail’ cabriolets – rumoured to have cost an eye-watering £20million each. 

‘Black Badge’ model variants – described by Rolls-Royce as its ‘more rebellious alter ego’ – have also experienced ‘extraordinary growth’. The Middle East, accounting for 10 per cent of sales, is particularly strong for ‘high bespoke’ one-off commissions, so Rolls-Royce has opened its first invitation-only ‘private office’ outside of Goodwood for discreet VIP customer consultations. 

More are to follow worldwide. Rolls-Royce’s biggest market, the Americas, accounted for 30 per cent of sales last year, China 25 per cent and Europe 20 per cent. 

Rolls-Royce doesn’t publish detailed accounts separately from German parent company BMW. But industry experts reckon the firm is neck and neck with Italy’s Ferrari as the most profitable car company in the world, with an estimated 50 per cent return on investment. The company has an ‘unwavering focus’ on profit, is all Müller-Ötvös will say. ‘Rest assured, BMW in Munich is very happy with our performance. We will definitely be delivering a record result to them this year.’ 

He says that means Rolls-Royce needs no handouts from its parent. All investment into Rolls-Royce is from self-generated money and there is ‘no appetite’ for a stock exchange listing. Passionate, serious and with a gimlet eye for detail, Müller-Ötvös also displays a waspish sense of humour honed through his exposure to mad-dog Brits. 

‘I love it here. I will never leave the UK completely. I will always come back with many fond memories,’ he says, reflecting on his career at BMW helping re-establish Mini and dealing with Land Rover when BMW owned Rover Group. He stresses that success would not have been possible without the ‘extraordinary’ 2,500-strong Goodwood workforce who hand-build the high-tech luxury vehicles, recently boosted by 250 new jobs. 

Midas touch: Rolls-Royce's new electric Spectre marks the first step in an important transformation

Midas touch: Rolls-Royce’s new electric Spectre marks the first step in an important transformation

When it comes to contrasting Anglo-German approaches to challenges, he says the British are superb at thinking on their feet and adapting, but are not the best planners. Germans, by contrast, plan for every eventuality and often to excess, but can be totally thrown if someone chucks an unexpected spanner into the works. 

‘I witness this very often. What I love about all our British colleagues here, particularly our craftspeople, is that they are perfect when it comes to sudden issues rising up. They can solve things very quickly in an unconventional way,’ he says. 

He adds: ‘I think that kind of pairing – of typical German engineering to perfection and British crafts-people’s capability here in the UK – is a perfect combination that makes Rolls-Royce so strong.’ 

I have witnessed Rolls-Royce’s remarkable transformation with Müller-Ötvös up close, even flying with him in a compact executive jet to the remote Swedish community of Arjeplog on the edge of the frozen Arctic Circle to have an exclusive first ride on ice and snow in the passenger seat of a Spectre prototype during cold weather testing. Soon I shall be joining him again to drive the Spectre for myself.

Time will prove that the electric evolution, he says, was ‘absolutely the right decision and that electric is the perfect propulsion for a Rolls-Royce’. 

He admits: ‘I do pinch myself. It’s an honour to work for the Rolls-Royce Motor Company. I also want to make our founding fathers proud – Sir Henry Royce and Charles Rolls. I would like to think they approve.’

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