Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark wins 2020 Autocar Awards Editor’s Award

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a self-made recession.” So says Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark on the car maker he took over on 1 February 2018. Two years and five months later, we have named him the winner of this year’s Editor’s Award for the person most responsible for the success of their company.

Leaving a high-flying job at Jaguar Land Rover, Hallmark knew he was walking into that rarest of things: a luxury car manufacturer that wasn’t generating profits by the bucket load and was in fact loss making.

“The company had been through four years of investment in a new generation of cars with a new Continental family,” he says. “It was a radical overhaul. Every nut, bolt and washer was changed, with no carry-over. The W12 engine is the symbol of that. It’s a ground-up new W12 engine. Not even a piston carries over. There was radical change everywhere, including the factory.”

But while the cars – the Continental GT coupé, its GTC soft-top sibling and the Flying Spur saloon – were largely ready to go in terms of drivability, performance, and the competence of the design and engineering, “the first of the new triplets didn’t arrive”. Hallmark explains: “The reason we didn’t give birth to the first was readiness in the detail. The reality was we could not build the cars at the volume planned as there were so many issues with them.”

Some 991 problems were identified with the Continental GT, which added an extra 50% again to the build time of each car in finessing those errant details. “We could build cars but we couldn’t hit anything like capacity,” Hallmark says. “That’s just the first car but two more were following in nine months, each of those going through that maturation period, and it becomes a complete log jam.”

So the Continental GT was delayed while those problems were fixed and the GTC and Flying Spur pushed back “significantly”, too, “which is deadly for a small company having spent money. But we put quality over quantity,” says Hallmark. With the car’s predecessors out of production, this meant that Bentley went without 50% of its cars for 50% of its global markets at points throughout the year. But that wasn’t all.

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“Apart from that, I was positively surprised by the massive leap in technology taken and the other changes around the company. The brand is in much better shape. The factory has had successive investment phases and there are some really fantastic facilities here.”

With the Continental GT and the GTC successfully launched, and the Flying Spur imminent, Hallmark addressed his 4200 employees in March this year to discuss the next phase for the company after its turnaround.

“We’d gone from the biggest loss in company history to best Q1 and were set up for a benchmark 2020,” he said. “All products new, quality best it’s ever been; an order bank of 8000 and we’ve only ever sold 11,000; productivity improved; costs under control for size of business planned. I said to the staff these next three years were a golden period for traditional business as we move to an electrified business… only an asteroid hit can stop us. How prophetic was that? And then an asteroid hit with Covid…”

Bentley was not immune to the impact of the pandemic, having to stop the production line for seven weeks at a cost of €22m a week, and only returning since at 50% capacity. Although it has seen sales in China quickly recover, the picture elsewhere is far from clear, and Hallmark doesn’t expect the good times to really return until 2022, still heavily caveated with how the pandemic will progress. The impact has been such that Bentley is looking for a quarter of the 4200-strong workforce to leave as it restructures for its next phase, called Beyond100.

This strategy is designed to prepare the firm not only for the shift to electrification (an all-electric Bentley should be here by 2026, and every model offered with a hybrid by 2023) but also the future of luxury itself, with a switch to more ethically sourced and environmentally friendly materials for the cars.

Hallmark calls Bentley “battle hardened” for the Beyond100 days ahead, during which a company that was in a self-made recession aims to become recession-proof. Based on Hallmark’s success so far, few would bet against him achieving that.