Luxury, prestige, heritage…These are just some of the features EU students chose when asked which qualities they associated with the Bentley brand. In addition to embodying all of these attributes, the iconic automobile company is also poised to become a leader in environmental design. In January, the firm secured UK production of its first electric car, with a £2.5 million investment in sustainability pledged for the next ten years. This significant commitment marks the first step on a journey towards building cleaner transport for the future, transforming the full product range, and further streamlining Bentley’s already-green manufacturing facilities. In his exclusive talk, CEO Adrian Hallmark took a deep dive into what it means to grow.
Authenticity: The DNA of a Luxury Brand
A global leader in the luxury car market, Bentley is currently entering its 102nd year of production. In contrast to the standard practice of many other manufacturers, the firm has not moved its production abroad during the last couple of decades, having remained headquartered in the city of Crewe, in Cheshire, UK for the last 75 years. The sales and marketing department has now joined this central hub, with an additional 350 employees working on-site. It’s an unusual set-up for a €3 billion-turnover business, but maintaining a centralized location allows the company to keep its history intact. Preserving history, Adrian says, is an essential component of authenticity, which he believes to be critical to the DNA of a luxury brand: “We have developed skills over decades. In certain areas of the company we’ve got from grandparents down to children working in the same business…So this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s very difficult to get some of the skills that we have.”
Only some of the firm’s suppliers remain off-site, as Bentley’s unique selling points – the craftsmanship of the interiors, the highly complex W12 engine – cannot be subcontracted, and so they remain under the strategic control of the company base in the UK. The advantages of this meticulously tight administration extend beyond being able to oversee production at close range. The management style forms an intrinsic part of the firm’s structure, and has proven to be crucial in weathering unprecedented storms.
The Impact of the Pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world at the start of 2020, many businesses scrambled to find ways to handle the disruption to operations. With a close eye on how the health crisis was unfolding across Europe, Adrian’s team made the decision to close down the Bentley factory prior to the initial government mandate. “We did that to protect people,” the CEO notes, explaining how the company’s rigorous safety measures allowed Bentley to return to production at a rate unmatched by other industries: “We’ve not lost a day, an hour, a minute because of lack of availability of people, semiconductors, or parts. The crisis team we put in place have managed this brilliantly. We’re very lucky, but we also worked very hard to achieve that result.”
Acting fast to put COVID management procedures in place allowed the company to function safely in spite of the virus. It also permitted production to continue throughout the difficult years in a more sustainable manner than if the luxury firm had elected to wait, and the results have been remarkable: Bentley saw record sales throughout 2020 and 2021.
While the pandemic certainly saw a surge in retail therapy, the millionaires who opted for the classic brand’s cars were in search of something more than a quick pick-me-up. The team spoke directly with the customers, and asked them why they had decided to buy a Bentley in the midst of all the turmoil. Was there a greater desire to indulge themselves after the restrictions and sacrifices of lockdowns? They responded, essentially, that life is too short. With nobody knowing for sure how long the pandemic would endure, the buyers decided to commit to the purchase because they could, stating: “This is my passion. I may as well live when I can.”
Adrian elaborates on the attitude that they encountered: “It’s people revaluing things. They’re not going on expensive holidays, they’re not going out to restaurants on a regular basis, and suddenly personal mobility feels safe. It’s against all the futurist trends that we’ve heard over the past five to ten years on mobility.” He notes that the safety factor is not limited to the luxury sector; it holds true throughout the automobile market from the highest to lowest value products.
While the world may see a return towards the trend for shared mobility solutions in the future, the disruption caused by COVID has altered Bentley’s thinking regarding supply chains for the time being. The company’s plans with regard to green growth strategies remain steadfast, however.
Carbon Neutrality and Renewable Energy
“It’s not without risk”, says Adrian, but “our customers are ready for a high-performance, high-value electric product from Bentley.” The company’s move from one of the world’s most famous 12-cylinder engines to an electric system will not be a rapid binary switch, however. “To move away from this dominant position, with big engines that have really created the brand myth over the past 20 years is a big challenge. There’s no question about that, so we’ve broken it down into stages,” explains Adrian.
In addition to reaping the benefits of hybrid vehicles (braking regeneration, lighter materials, reduced emissions and use of fossil fuels), the stepped approach also gives Bentley’s traditional customers time to adapt to the new product, helping the firm maintain the majority of its current market whilst simultaneously branching out towards new segments. Adrian and his team are confident in the company’s planned trajectory: “For us as a luxury brand, it [electrification] is totally compatible.”
Bentley will be part of the shift away from the use of lithium ion batteries in EVs to safer, more efficient solid-state batteries over the next 10 years, says the CEO. And with regard to liquid fuels, he also challenges the common assumption that hydrogen is a panacea for the world’s climate woes: “You have to put a lot of energy into something; steam or seawater for example, to produce hydrogen. And if that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, it is the most inefficient system, because you burn fossil fuels, to create another fuel, which you then burn. It’s not viable unless the whole energy grid is totally renewable.”
While there is work ahead to ensure that the final product has a more positive environmental impact, factory assembly at Bentley is already carbon-neutral. Production makes use of solar panels, together with certified renewable gas and energy, rendering the company the first UK car manufacturer to be awarded the triple Carbon Trust Standard for carbon, water and waste reduction. By transitioning to a purely electric product model, the firm is aiming to decarbonize its entire production procedure end-to-end by 2030 – an operational status that would open up room for exponential growth.
The Joy of Doing the Impossible
In business, progress is personal as well as practical, and self-motivation is essential: “I like to think that whatever I’ve done is finished, and the best is still ahead. You can’t stop, and keep looking back and say, ‘Aren’t I great because I did that.’ You have to keep looking forward, ‘So what can I do next?’” says Adrian.
The company head also spoke to students on the importance of adaptability when carving their own entrepreneurial path: “I’d say to anybody that’s looking to develop a career, you’ve got to be flexible, you’ve got to have a clear view of how you want to grow and develop.”
Collaboration is also key to success, with Adrian noting that his proudest moments have stemmed almost exclusively from team-based projects. His strategies require input from a multitude of industry experts, as “achieving things that no one believed could happen” that remains his driving force after so many years in the business. Taking Bentley from 1,000 sales per year to 10,000 in a five-year period is one such outstanding accomplishment. The head of the firm’s team devised a product strategy, reinvented the brand, and subsequently sold three times more than the rest of the company’s competitors combined. The whole process took “relentless belief” together with highly deliberate planning. Above all, the CEO is proud of ”taking complex situations, growth opportunities, making them understandable, making them actionable, getting people excited, and delivering it.”
When it comes to delivering your best in a business, Adrian notes that not everyone covets the corner office. “Not everyone wants to be a CEO or a high-performing managing director,” he explains, adding that there is space for people with a variety of ambitions in the workplace, including those who prefer a more balanced work schedule that leaves time for family. For those who do have their sights set on the top spot, however, he offers the following advice: “Make sure you’re the person you’d like to be working for, and that you’re the person you would like to be led by.”