‘Don’t do what I did and work in the car industry’
This is what my father advised me as a 16-year-old, as I searched for career inspiration. He had spent his life building a successful automotive business, and while he loved the industry, he perhaps felt this was too tough a path for his daughter.
Little did he know that years of being surrounded by his old Jaguars and earning pocket money polishing them had already ingrained in me a passion for all things automotive. So while not a rebel by nature, I ignored his words and set my sights on securing a graduate role with one of the car companies after university.
Having battled through an assessment centre with BMW, I was amazed and delighted to bag one of two spots on a brand new graduate scheme at BMW headquarters back in 2000. I felt at home instantly and quickly realised that I had found a world that fascinated and inspired me, where I wanted to build my career.
‘You must be really ambitious’
This is something that has been said to me many times over the years. Honestly, no – at least certainly not for the sake of "advancement" per se, although even as a graduate I often wondered what it would feel like to sit at the top table of a company like BMW. At that stage, I couldn’t see myself as a leader of the business – not through any lack of self-confidence, but simply because I couldn’t see the path.
However, I have always been driven and passionate about the things I believe in, and through a lot of hard work and plenty of luck, I made my way through the organisation via a wide variety of roles: PR, sales, product and brand marketing roles on both Mini and BMW. Standout positions have been corporate communications manager for London 2012, head of marketing for Mini and now marketing director for BMW. I have also had two stints in the Munich sales and marketing departments.
Every promotion has been a stretch, but I wasn’t intimidated by the challenges and remained confident that my tenacity and dedication would get me through. It has been a steady progression into roles with greater responsibility, larger teams and bigger budgets. Today, I am leading a team of more than 70, driving the BMW brand forward in the UK.
I have had few female role models – something that I endeavour to be now for the many young women within BMW and the wider industry – but have had tremendous support and encouragement from individuals within the company and outside it, helping me to believe achieving my goals was possible.
What is it like to be a senior female in a male-dominated industry?
It is true that I am often the only woman in the room. Although this is evolving, the automotive industry continues to be dominated by men, but for me it has never really felt like that. On occasion, I feel I have to speak louder or work harder to be seen as an equal, but believe now that I am.
The support within the company has always been there and today it is really embracing diversity and inclusion in all its forms. Ten years ago, who would have foreseen BMW energetically participating in Pride London, with 100 staff dancing their way through the capital? The company and the teams I work with every day inspire me endlessly.
And why marketing?
I love the power of brands and the emotions that they can drive within customers and fans. The attachment that people form with their cars is a deep one. I always feel that, after the clothes that you wear, the car that you drive is probably the most powerful outward expression of your personality – and so of course it is hugely important to our customers.
It is a privilege and no small responsibility to manage such potent brands as Mini and BMW, and it is something that has given me a great sense of satisfaction. Today, I feel the same passion for BMW as I did nearly 20 years ago, walking through the doors of BMW HQ for the first time. And I take pride in my small part in the success of the company over those years.
My top piece of career advice? Enjoy the journey
I would happily go back and relive many of the extraordinary experiences I have had in this industry and have always felt great fortune in being able to turn an aspect of life that I feel truly passionate about into a successful career. While I chose to ignore the advice of my father, it seems to have worked out OK so far and I don’t think he is too disappointed either.
Michelle Roberts is marketing director at BMW UK and a member of Campaign’s Power 100