VIEW FROM THE TOP: In the driving seat - Bernard Carey - BMW's representative of the board, and man in the UK, talks to Maja Pawinska about life after Rover

From the window of his office overlooking Trafalgar Square, BMW's board representative in the UK has the satisfying view of dozens of his company's products. There are also plenty of Rover cars braving the traffic, a not-so-pleasing reminder of a very difficult period for BMW, Rover, and Bernard Carey himself.

From the window of his office overlooking Trafalgar Square, BMW's board representative in the UK has the satisfying view of dozens of his company's products. There are also plenty of Rover cars braving the traffic, a not-so-pleasing reminder of a very difficult period for BMW, Rover, and Bernard Carey himself.

Six months on, Carey, one of the key figures responsible for telling the world that BMW was selling off the British car manufacturer, which was haemorrhaging money, is hoping there is now some perspective on the way in which BMW's sell-off of Rover was handled.

But even with the benefit of hindsight, and despite a number of obstacles that the PR team had to deal with, he admits that there were flaws in the way the news was communicated.

Rather than a standard corporate announcement, the news was greeted with outrage by the UK press, and politicians. Suddenly, BMW was public enemy number one, and the potential closure of the Longbridge plant in the West Midlands was being compared to the end of the British mining industry.

Carey is frank about the first six months of this year. He says they were the most difficult of his career, in which he has held planning and advertising management roles at British Gas, UK publicity manager at Bosch, and director of corporate communications at Lucas Industries.

He joined the Rover Group Board as director of corporate affairs six months after its takeover by BMW, and after a restructure he was appointed bevollmachtiger, or representative of the board of BMW and director of its London liaison office.

So how did one of the world's most respected companies, with such an experienced team of directors and communicators, get it so wrong? After all, on the face of it, selling off a loss-making subsidiary is good business sense.

There is no one reason why the sell-off of Rover was such a communications disaster. Carey holds his hands up and admits that some of the blame is down to flaws in the communications strategy, but he says a big problem, which caused a domino effect, was that the news was leaked.

'One of the big criticisms was the way the whole thing was communicated, but we felt we did as good a job as we could possibly do in the circumstances. The speed at which events were happening meant that when the news was leaked, it caught everyone out. We hadn't had time to fully implement a PR strategy. We recovered quickly but a leak of that level is always going to be dangerous,' he says.

So the second big problem for the communications department was lack of time to prepare for the announcement.

'Before the decision, we were 100 per cent committed to Rover in the UK. The reversal was a great surprise, and the speed at which we said we were going to sell and we already had a buyer made it look like we were pulling out of the UK altogether. The surprise itself created reactions.'

The decision by BMW's management to sell off Rover even came out-of-the-blue for the communications department, it seems. Even if the leak hadn't happened, there is a question mark over whether the team would have had time to prepare a plan that would soften the blow. But Carey says without the leak, there would have been time to consult stakeholders - the relevant unions, government, suppliers and dealers - with some idea of the plans.

As it was, the reaction of the UK media was compounded by political problems, as ministers were furious that they had been kept in the dark.

Carey says this was down to the financial sensitivity of the plans to sell off Rover to the Alchemy venture capitalist group, which involved the stock markets in Germany and the US as well as the UK.

'The rules governing disclosure in Germany have become much clearer and the penalties are much harsher, so it was physically almost impossible to give advance notice of such a major development.'

But other elements which contributed to the negative media reaction were not outside the power of the communications team. Carey confesses that the biggest mistake would still have been made even if the sell-off had not been leaked, or there had been more time to prepare.

'We underestimated the impact of Longbridge on the British psyche - we knew about the impact of closure on the West Midlands economy, but not the emotion. The difference the leak made to the reaction in the UK to the press, government and public was probably very little.'

After the extent of the crisis - a word Carey says he is trying to avoid using - became clear, the way that BMW moved forward in communications terms became doubly important. It is here Carey believes that the situation began to be salvaged.

'It was an important factor in returning public opinion towards a view that was comprehending of our actions, and we began to get some understanding, if not sympathy.'

During the fall-out period BMW's PR team worked hard to regain lost ground with the media and stakeholders. Carey was in charge of the political and institutional liaison, briefing local constituency MPs across the West Midlands, as well as MEPs and the CBI. 'They all needed to know, and understanding is the first step towards support. They didn't like it but they understood it was about business.'

A major element of the reaction to the sell-off of Longbridge was BMW being German. The tabloids have long had a tendency to gleefully whip up anti-German feeling at the drop of a hat (or a penalty shot) but in this case the broadsheets also joined in.

'Headlines mentioned BMW but by the end of the story reporters were referring to 'the Germans',' says Carey. 'No one referred to 'the Americans' when Ford closed Dagenham.

Outside the UK, there was general acceptance of the decision and little surprise, especially in the German press. But Carey realises it's too easy to look at what's happening in another country and expect the same here - the UK was where thousands of jobs were on the line, after all.

'BMW did everything possible to integrate the culture of the two companies, to understand British management and the history of the company, but no-one could have anticipated the scale of the response. For ten days it was the major issue - no commercial incident in my memory has had that impact since the miners' strikes.'

Carey says that he was not surprised by the level of the reaction, but he was surprised by how long it was headline news. 'It could have been crushed perhaps by having a communications plan, but we were trumped by the leak. We could have been more in control and managed the reaction better.'

The reaction to the sell-off wasn't helped by the breakdown of talks with Alchemy soon after the deal was announced. When it became clear that the Phoenix group, led by former Rover director John Towers, was still interested in trying to save Rover, BMW was again criticised for apparently snubbing Phoenix in the first place and being reluctant to do business with the group.

But Carey is adamant that Phoenix was never dismissed out of hand: 'While we were talking to Alchemy we were prevented from opening negotiations with another party. There were reports in the press about BMW saying that we needed to know that Phoenix had the finance. But we needed to know that about any bidder.

'We were very much aware all the time that speed was essential because once we opened up the possibility of sale and the ultimate possibility of closure, we had to respond to end the uncertainty. We had to do this because Rover was not selling any cars - people need to know that there is a long term future for the company that has sold them the car,' he says.

Despite the furore at the time, the BMW brand has shown no signs of damage.

Carey says: 'BMW's future as a company was never under threat, so we were never in the position of Rover. BMW customers tend to be professionals who we would hope would have accepted BMW's arguments: that we put everything we could into Rover over six years and we failed to get the results we wanted, and that the decision to sell was in the interests of the rest of the company.

'The power of the BMW brand is enormous. But we did lose some sales and we had some cancellations, especially in the West Midlands,' he admits.

Six months on, BMW is back to business as usual. Carey and his team have been promoting the new mini, talking about the new advanced engine factory in Birmingham, and persuading the press that BMW is still a player in the UK.

The bigger picture of the automotive industry is also demanding his attention: 'I've never known a time when there were so many issues affecting the car industry, from pricing to the environment.'

Carey believes that, with hindsight, 'this will only be remembered as the year that BMW sold its loss-making British subsidiary.' But this belies the difficult lessons he and the company have had to learn on the way.



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