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CAR confidential: It’s attention to detail that counts

Pity the guys in the industry who do the donkey work. Test drivers, board members and – especially – designers have become the celebrities of the auto world. But they wouldn’t be where they are today without the real brains behind the operation.

I’m talking about the people who build the cars you and I drive, market and sell. One of the British industry’s big success stories is BMW’s Plant Oxford. Under the Germans’ stewardship, it switched from building the Rover 75 to the new Mini, guaranteeing Cowley’s long-term success. It’s now the third oldest surviving car factory in the world.

Oliver Zipse is managing director of Plant Oxford and clearly proud of the site’s record. “BMW has invested £480 million in the production triangle between Plant Oxford, Hams Hall and the body pressing shop in Swindon,” he tells me. “That’s why we successfully built our millionth Mini earlier this year.”

Zipse should know what makes a factory tick – he previously ran BMW’s South African facility and is a keen visitor to other plants around the world. He’s recently returned from the Polish factory that makes the Mini’s latest rival, the Fiat 500. “We regularly tour each others’ factories,” he confides, “but they always clear away anything sensitive when we’re around.”

It’s attention to detail that marks out a top-level factory. Zipse talks about processes throughout (he admires Toyota’s above all), getting the line workers to submit ideas to improve their own work, and making 7-8% efficiency gains annually.

But what’s the secret to success in an industry crippled by mammoth over-supply? Zipse calls it Customer-Oriented Sales and Production Processes. I call it building 220,000 cars a year people actually want. That’s why Plant Oxford’s long-term success is assured.

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