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Bentley Motors is omnipresent in the town of Crewe. Generations have worked on these magnificent motors, and today, the marque has never been more impressive, the epitome of traditional skills in materials like wood and leather, blended with leading edge engineering. An inspirational mix of old traditions and technology, presenting some of the most highly-desired motors in the world.

Marlies, tell us about your early career and how you got into HR.  

We’re talking 35 years ago, there wasn’t too much excitement surrounding HR back then, but my target was to work with people somehow, and so I studied to be an English and Politics teacher, in Germany, and in Bath. I then became a secondary school teacher in Germany for five years and I found young people really engaging. I was pushing for a more creative approach to teaching, more experiential, and I could see how students reacted to innovation in learning, but my school was quite conservative. At the time, my then boyfriend worked for Volkswagen and was telling me about its people management processes. It made me think, so I took the plunge, left teaching, went to University to study Change Management, and then worked in Quality Assurance for Volkswagen. My role evolved towards learning and development, and I was then approached by the Head of HR to be responsible for helping German colleagues move to China. This was a big move for them, especially at that time, and people with families as well, so I worked hard to make them feel comfortable. This was about everything from culture to legislation, and I even introduced a German school in China for families.

After four years in this role, I moved to Spain to head up training on quality assurance, giving me more HR experience, working to bring Spanish policies and working conditions up to a modern standard. Again, it was dragging me out of my comfort zone and that’s a philosophy I maintain today, there is nothing more stifling than predictability. After this, I moved back to Volkswagen Germany, where I was responsible for training worldwide, at a time of massive and rapid change in the group. We were merging Audi, Skoda and Seat into the group, so international assignments aplenty, my feet hardly hit the ground. So I have never left the Volkswagen group, but my roles have taken me everywhere, and I’ve experienced such a broad range of cultures. I became head of HR across different areas like purchasing and engineering, and now I was fully focused on Human Resources.

You were in a highly unionised environment too.  

Yes, the unions, in my role as head of HR, had always been my partners, and we have always known which role we would have to play and when. I was proactive, and I was very open-minded towards the unions and they appreciated that, they asked for support as they were equally keen to develop the people. We introduced programmes together, enabling colleagues to offer up ideas for which they were properly recognised and rewarded, and I have always achieved positive results by working hard at that strong working relationship with unions.

At this time, HR was changing significantly, it had to modernise, be more strategic. Exactly, HR was moving from being a department to becoming a business partner and modernising processes, implementing policies and trying to reduce bureaucracy. And many of the people in HR really struggled with this change, so it was no surprise that HR had this rather removed image. But business alignment was essential, and it taught me that change may not often be a popular thing, but for better or worse it is inevitable and essential, and if you fight against it, you’re the one that is going to suffer. My background in quality assurance made me much more adaptable, and that experience makes me think about how I view change all these years later.

I was a new spirit and I challenged the status quo, the fixed mind-set, but the rapid expansion of the group meant that recruitment and skills was a key priority, there was no time to procrastinate or reminisce about bygone times, HR had to step up and get on with it. Again, it was hard work and nonstop, this is a massive organisation and we were at full stretch. But I think the fact that I had a good understanding of how the business operated really broke down barriers, and that paid off when it came to getting things introduced and up and running, being in tune with the culture and mind-set was very useful. Those times were a real eye-opener and essential learning for me, when you realise that why something is failing is so often not the issue itself, but due to a lack of communication, cohesion, consistency and even reluctance. The silo mentality is often deeply entrenched and it’s a difficult culture to change, but we did it, with very successful programmes. I then became much more visible within the group board and the positive results helped me gain my next role, as HR Board Member for Bentley Motors.

Silly question, what was it about Bentley that interested you, and what were the plans and objectives of your secondment?  

(Laughs) A luxury, global brand is a good start! And in contrast to what I had grown accustomed to in group. I could sense the wonderful heritage at Bentley, and that it was going to present me with a very different set of experiences, an irresistible merging of classic traditions and crafts, with the ultimate in automotive technology. The first thing on the agenda was familiar territory for me, implementing Volkswagen group standards and procedures to Bentley. But first, I took time to understand the Bentley way, looking at synergies, the differences and the grey areas in between, and looking at the strengths and weaknesses from the top of the organisation down.

Highly respected, the pinnacle of motoring and commercially, very successful, what is Bentley looking to HR to achieve?  

One of the things that attracted me to the role is the way it was proposed – there was no question, this was going to be the biggest challenge of my career so far. Of course, Bentley is hugely dynamic, fast moving and 100 percent committed to stretching the limits, in terms of quality and market reach, and the board reflects the business, dynamic and massively ambitious. But they are also thoroughly aware of the importance of employee well-being, that talent and skills need to be attracted, nurtured and developed, especially considering the highly competitive arena in which Bentley competes for talent. So their minds are open to the fact that the people are put centre stage, in terms of importance in the organisation, and I was definitely up for this challenge. Nobody can afford to lose good people. It’s often said that talent and skills in the STEM sectors is at a premium, and that is definitely our experience, and paradoxically, when the economy is buoyant, the challenge is even greater, because all employers are looking to strike while the iron is hot. In December last year, we announced 300 new jobs and we had many more vacancies. Meanwhile, geographically we are near sector competitors, in terms of employment including; Jaguar Land Rover, Vauxhall, and Aston Martin, and they are all doing the same. So even with a supremely attractive brand such as this, there is no room for complacency and all the stops have to be pulled out in terms of attraction and retention. We place a big emphasis on our trainees; apprentices, graduates and industrial placements.

This year is our biggest apprentice intake in over 25 years, and they are part of the future thinking of our business. We have recently changed our scheme, taking a dual-education approach, working with a local college to deliver a course which is 30 percent theory and 70 percent practical. And they are taught by our own master trainers, skilled engineers who have worked for us for decades and can pass on their skills. We have also introduced an Upskilling programme throughout our business, giving our colleagues the opportunity to train ‘near-the-job’, strengthening our focus on training and development. It’s not just about bringing in fresh thinking, but developing our own talent. Bentley is, of course, very high profile, but it hasn’t necessarily got the same profile as an employer, and that is a key objective for me and my HR team.

Do you not think Bentley might seem unobtainable for some, do you think it needs to be made more obtainable as a potential employer? Also, much has been said about the fact that just five percent of engineering students are female.  

I do think Bentley might seem out of reach and especially for women. We need to concentrate on the gender issue at an early age at school, when they start to develop their talents independently. I’ve previously organised a Women’s Day in the past, inviting girls from local school to the factories, so they can find out more about the world of design, engineering and manufacturing, from the women that play key roles in the organisation. Manufacturing certainly isn’t a dark and oily place to work anymore. We’re looking to introduce this to Bentley as well, opening up a new world for them. This is also a focus we have as we develop a University Technical College in Crewe, the first of its kind. We are committed to showing that design, engineering and manufacturing are fascinating areas to work in, irrespective of gender or age.

Bentley is of course at the heart of Crewe, as a local employer it must be part of the town's DNA.  

Bentley is a huge part of Crewe, and Crewe is a huge part of Bentley. We have been here for more than 75 years, building aero engines to start and have grown into the worlds’ most sought-after luxury car brand. All from a humble start in Crewe. The vast majority of our workforce comes from the local area and we help the local community as much as we can. More than this, we have a big impact on the North West where a number of suppliers play a key role in our success. The North West is an engineering and manufacturing hub so we’re pleased to be a part of it.

As we've discussed, the skills pipeline is a big issue for STEM, what would you say employers must do in these sectors, to improve the outcome for talents and skills?  

The biggest change over recent years is that industry and academia are working closely together, whereas in the past there was maybe a bigger gap. We have a link with a local college where we implement our dual education apprenticeship programme, offering them a theoretical and practical course, honing their skills even more for the future. We are also playing a key role in the Engineering and Design University Technical College in Crewe, which will offer specialist courses to 14-18 year olds. The college will offer an exciting and inspiring education for young people seeking a pathway to employment and further education. There has been a skills gap issue, but that is changing, and we continue to work hard to make sure the skills in our business are maintained and enhanced.

Bentley is a combination of leading edge engineering, along with traditional skills in materials such as wood and leather. Tell us about your training and development across the operation.  

The Upskilling programme across the company, will broaden, develop and enhance the skills of our colleagues. We’re working on the next generation of Bentleys and it is important our colleagues share the same commitment to performance, quality and engineering excellence that our cars possess. The introduction of training islands, taking advantage of the expertise of master trainers and adopting a dual education approach are just some of the tools we will use to ensure a strong skills base continues throughout the business. We need to ensure our colleagues can be as good as they can be, with every opportunity to develop their skills. We have recently been named as a Top Employer by the Top Employers Institute for the fourth consecutive year, something we are very proud of. We were awarded for our commitment and dedication to the personal development of our 3,800 colleagues working in the Crewe headquarters. This was based around our focus on the career and succession planning of its workforce. With our focus on trainees and using master trainers as mentors, we are ensuring our skills, some of which are very traditional, can be passed down through generations and kept within our business.

You've spoken about how HR must ring the changes at Bentley, in terms of placing employees at the centre of the business, but there is a great deal of change that all organisations need to adapt to, to be seen as a contemporary employer brand.  

Yes, it is a big challenge, and for HR, it starts at the top. As I’ve said, the leaders are so focused on the business that it is up to us to support them as we drive the changes. This is a dynamic and fast environment, and so HR has to be the vanguard of the people, hold the ground and make the running when it comes to introducing change; such as flexible working. It’s my job to ensure the leaders are comfortable and confident to back the changes coming in. Right now that is challenging, but it is moving in the right direction. A big HR project is the leadership programme, to enable the leaders to drive this change, communicate with teams effectively and be consistent and transparent. There’s a big challenge for us to cover the cultural changes too, and we have defined values that have to be in the blood, to deliver continuous improvement with expertise, passion and pride.

Are you confident HR can cut it?  

There are some massive issues. Three things you need in HR are conviction, patience and to be a role model. Big scale change, culture and mind-set changing, and getting different aspects of the business to understand and work with the other, is all about breaking down silos, getting rid of rigid forms that contain the flow of communication and collaboration, and that’s a big task that is happening. Once the improvements start to show, it will gain more traction. To make a change, one door closes and another opens, but why should the one that opens be worse? This concept of thinking is getting better and more exciting. Bentley is making changes now with an SUV. The company talked about it a while ago and people were sceptical, but people have realised that launching a luxury SUV will be successful. Bentley has become much more visible and the group takes Bentley much more seriously. Sometimes, I want to let people know about the good things and emphasise the success and sometimes at Bentley, people don’t take the time to celebrate the success – it’s so fast, it’s one success and then the next project. We are running so many projects right now, I’ve said to the business, we have to celebrate success”.

Tell us about Bentley's international markets, objectives and new models.  

Bentley is in a fantastic position, with a very bright future. Last year was a record year for us, selling more cars than ever before, and reinforcing our place as the world’s most sought-after luxury car brand. And this year will be one of strong demand and investment for Bentley, maintaining our market-leading position, ahead of significant expansion for our business, led by the arrival of the Bentley Bentayga. This will be our biggest year of investment, in our products, our people and in our network, part of our investment of £840 million over three years. Over the past 18 months, we have created over 1,500 jobs, at Bentley and in the UK supply chain and we are very hopeful this will grow with our continued success. We export around 90 percent of our cars to 56 different markets, with the US, China, Europe, including the UK and the Middle East is a key region for us. This is just one reason why everyone working at Bentley should feel proud. A lot of work goes into our business and the cars we build in Crewe, and to know this is celebrated right around the world shows what an international success story Bentley really is.


Give us your blue-sky gaze of what you hope HR will bring to Bentley in three to five years time?  

I want Bentley to become the top employer within Europe. This isn’t about numbers, but an employer that develops people, has successful retention strategies, is well known by its values, and has a respectful culture that appreciates people, with a culture that allows colleagues a work/life balance and offers flexibility for working times. We want to be a modern employer, with modern strategies, and be a benchmark – not only for the products we make – but because of our culture. It’s difficult to implement consistency throughout such a large group as Volkswagen, but it’s possible, and together we have the chance to make a difference at Bentley. The company is quite small, and that offers the opportunity to be a benchmark, to be people orientated and that‘s my target.

Looking back you must recall your original vocation in the teaching profession, and the fact that you're now HR board member of Bentley Motors with some amazement.  

When I became a teacher, I never knew I would end up at Bentley. I have worked with great leaders throughout my time, with different cultures and people, and I’ve learnt a lot from all of them. I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone into new cultures, new countries, new positions and new organisations, and I’ve learnt something every step of the way. That’s the key to meeting the challenges.


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