Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Rolls-Royce chief recalls 43-year career

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Goodwood

Tom Purves
Some 43 years after joining Rolls-Royce as an apprentice, Tom Purves is retiring from his post as the marque's chief executive

Noise levels are high these days at the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars factory at Goodwood.

Rolls-Royce cars in the factory
Wherever there is a free space, there are cars ready for delivery

Wherever there is any spare space, a newly-built car is parked. It all looks rather chaotic as the company gears up for deliveries of its latest model, Ghost.

The car is vital to the carmaker's success. Rolls-Royce hopes Ghost will help the carmaker's sales double to about 2,000 cars in a good year, and few industry observers doubt that it will.

So as Rolls-Royce's chief executive Tom Purves gets ready to retire, some 43 years after he first applied to join the marque as an apprentice, he has every reason to be pleased.

Long-term industry

Walking through the recently-built factory, Mr Purves is obviously chuffed that in the seven years since the German car company BMW relaunched the marque, Rolls-Royce has re-established itself as the world's leading luxury car brand.

A lot of people were chasing a relatively small number of customers, and I think everybody had aspirations that were a bit higher than they could achieve at the time
Tom Purves, chief executive, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

"People around the world are happy to see the brand in strength again," Mr Purves says as he surveys the workers carving the wood, stitching the leather or polishing the bodies of the ultra-luxurious cars.

"That's quite a phenomenal success."

Mr Purves' personal success is also considerable, having been offered the chance to round off his career in the top job at Rolls-Royce - but he nevertheless insists that it is far too early to tell whether or not he has achieved what he set out to do when he got the job two years ago.

"The business will be for the long term," he says. "We'll have to be judged not just on now or last year, but on the potential in 10 years' time."

Early focus

Mr Purves' ability to take a long view has built up over decades.

Rolls-Royce Phantom
The Phantom helped re-build the Rolls-Royce marque

Even before he embarked on his career as a motor industry executive in 1967, cars were the focus of young Tom's desires.

"I was born into a motor trade family," Mr Purves recalls. "My father was a director of one of the very first public company chains of dealerships and one of the first things I ever read was Autosport magazine - I suppose I'm a petrol-head, for want of a better description."

So rather than go on to university, Mr Purves joined Rolls-Royce's car division straight from Daniel Stewart's College, a merchant company school in Edinburgh.

"They were called apprenticeships, but they were almost like management training," he says.

"You went in and you did three years or so, six months working in the plant with practical experience with machine shops, then in every department of the business."

Rolls-Royce failure

When Mr Purves joined Rolls-Royce Motors at Crewe in Cheshire, the car division was still part of Rolls-Royce, the aircraft engine maker.

It's only a matter of time before I acquire something exciting to have in the garage
Tom Purves, chief executive, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Rolls-Royce also owned Bentley at the time. "Rolls-Royce had acquired the Bentley business in 1931 and operated the Bentley brand, if you will," Mr Purves explains.

The car and aircraft engine operations went their separate ways after Rolls-Royce was nationalised in the early 1970s, having been brought to its knees by the crippling development costs of its RB2-11 engine, built for use in the Lockheed Tristar.

"It was a real make-or-break investment, and they ran into some difficulty with the turbine blades," Mr Purves says.

"I think they had three different development programmes - a carbon fibre programme, a hollow titanium and a solid titanium programme - and I think it was just too expensive."

Global salesman

The car division's independence kick-started a major international push that saw Mr Purves drive Rolls-Royce sales, initially in Europe and the Middle East, before returning to the UK where he was promoted to sales director.

Rolls-Royce Ghost
Rolls-Royce hopes the Ghost will result in sales doubling

His efforts caught the eye of German carmaker BMW, which was getting into the UK at the time, so after 19 years with Rolls-Royce, Mr Purves jumped ship.

Two eventful decades would follow, during which the Scottish executive represented BMW on the board of Rover after it was sold to the German firm.

"Quite rapidly I realised the extent of the challenge we had on our hands," Mr Purves recalls. "I guess we had overestimated the attractiveness of the brand and its global reach."

BMW decided to cut its losses, so in 2000 Rover was sold for a nominal £10.

Mr Purves, meanwhile, went on to head up BMW's operations in the UK, where sales tripled under his command. He was then appointed chief executive of BMW's North American division and given a brief to grow sales there too.

Luxury rivalry

It was while Mr Purves was in the States that BMW acquired the Rolls-Royce marque, in a development that has become legendary in the UK motor industry.

In 1998, BMW lost a bidding war to Volkswagen, which ended with VW buying the Crewe factory where Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars were made. But unknown to VW, the deal did not include the Rolls-Royce name and logo, which belonged to Rolls-Royce, the aerospace company.

I am one of the few people I know who always knew what I wanted to do, I did it and I enjoyed it
Tom Purves, chief executive, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

In the end, the result was that Volkswagen became the owners of Bentley and BMW built a new factory to produce its own Rolls-Royce cars, and Daimler - clearly feeling left out - launched its own luxury marque, Maybach.

"It was a terrific moment in time, a time when there was big investment in luxury brands," recalls Mr Purves.

"A lot of people were chasing a relatively small number of customers, and I think everybody had aspirations that were a bit higher than they could achieve at the time."

Both Bentley and Rolls-Royce has enjoyed considerable growth since, though it is not clear that either of the parent companies have yet recovered their initial investments in the brands.

Maybach is the odd one out, having failed to mirror the success of its rivals in the UK, so there is much speculation that Daimler will discontinue the brand and replace it with an ultra-luxurious Mercedes S-class.

Old cars

Such dramas are far from unusual in the automotive industry, Mr Purves reflects.

Rolls-Royce workers
Workers in the Rolls-Royce factory at Goodwood enjoy the brand's revival

"The car business was once described to me as a pyrotechnic business, meaning that it explodes - it goes from one extreme to another," he says.

"If you look at businesses [in this industry] over the years, they do hit peaks and troughs very quickly."

Mr Purves' future should be less volatile as he gets ready to retire to a newly restored house on the south coast of England, where he will enjoy his books and his music.

And, of course, his motoring interests.

"I do love old cars and I love all aspects of them, so it's only a matter of time before I acquire something exciting to have in the garage," he grins.

So do not expect him to vanish from the motoring circuit altogether. After all, this is his life.

"I always wanted to be in the car industry," Mr Purves says.

"I am one of the few people I know who always knew what I wanted to do, I did it and I enjoyed it."

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