Q&A with Dr Robert Hentschel, Director of Lotus Engineering

By Dave Leggett | 7 July 2010

Dr Hentschel holdes a degree in electrical engineering from Braunschweig University, Germany, and proceeded to a doctorate at the same university

Dr Hentschel holdes a degree in electrical engineering from Braunschweig University, Germany, and proceeded to a doctorate at the same university

Dr Robert Hentschel directs Lotus Engineering's worldwide operations, a position he took up in January of this year. He previously held management positions at engineering firm EDAG Group including a spell as COO of its North American operations. Dave Leggett got his perspective on Lotus' engineering business.

DL: You have worked in Germany, the US and China in the past, and now UK. What did you make of the differences in approach?

RH: There are, of course, different cultural attitudes around the world, different ways of life and of doing business. In China, you learn how to negotiate; in Germany, things are very structured – and perhaps they are a little less so in the US, but there is a very optimistic attitude in the US.

In the UK, there is a very traditionalist approach, which has its advantages, too. I try to learn from the most positive aspects of the different mentalities to bring the best mix of approaches to the business.

DL: Having taken up your position as Lotus Engineering CEO early this year and moving to the UK, what have been your first impressions?

RH: I write down the first impressions early on, because you soon become part of the organisation and lose that initial perspective.

We have very good technology and capability in electrical integration, electric motor and drivetrain integration. We have well-known expertise in driving and handling, lightweight architecture.

There are a lot of people with long-term service at Lotus.

There has been a big change recently to get everyone motivated alongside important changes in the upper management of the organisation since October. That has generated some excitement in the organisation.

DL: There’s a mix, then, of the traditional strengths alongside some change in attitude or culture within Lotus?

RH: Yes, tradition is good for the benefits of experience that come with it, but tradition must not work against beneficial change. I am working hard to implement changes.

DL: And what are the most important changes you think need to be made?

RH: First of all it is important to have a medium-term business plan. We are in the first year of a five-year business plan. It is vital to get the house in order from a business perspective.

But it is also important to ask the question: what can we say to other markets? We have so many technologies and so much research experience, but the first thing is to establish what we are capable of and what people in the market want, across the world.

A priority is China, because customers there like and know Lotus and it will be an important growth market for our capabilities. We have to focus on building up our organisation in China.

We are also watching developments with new niche OEMs looking at the US and especially new growth opportunities on the West coast.

DL: You see new entrants to the auto industry as presenting a bigger opportunity for Lotus than working with established players?

RH: Yes, I think so. Electric and hybrid vehicles are still a niche. In Geneva, a big OEM contacted us and asked us how we can develop our vehicles at such low cost. I think they come to us to learn from us, but the core issue for them is the process they have. We have a much leaner process.

Because electric and hybrid is a core competence for us, it’s a niche and we have excellent solutions for new OEMs who want low-cost niche vehicles.

We can offer four key things:

If you look at these four areas of Lotus expertise, they can combine to give us a very strong niche vehicle capability.

And we want to position ourselves in a high-technology area – we have unique capabilities - with these four core elements and bringing them together to produce niche vehicles.

DL: But there must be wide differences in terms of what you are being asked to do?

RH: Yes, there are. In Europe and the US, we are being asked to do things based on these four competencies. In Asia, many companies are still learning how to develop vehicles, normal vehicles, and they are still learning about process management and things like that.

But I think I would like to prepare Lotus with a presence in China for when technology comes back from China in the future. They are learning very quickly about electro-mobility.

DL: And what is your physical presence in China currently?

RH: At the moment we have a sales office in Shanghai, with 12 people. We have to build up a local base in China. We have to train people with our core competencies. But I’m also interested in looking for partnerships because I think growing organically is a long-term process.

DL: What do you see as the types of vehicle that will be of growing importance in the future?

RH: I think there will be a focus on urban mobility, with smaller and lighter vehicles, but still with sports performance retained. I see an opportunity for intelligent lightweight structures with high performance and with the functions you need to live in the city. I think there will be a focus on connecting the car to the local infrastructure and getting information from it.

People are becoming more aware of intelligent mobility. There is a mindset change going on. People are thinking greener and I think they will be receptive to additional functionalities or helpful information that makes the journey better in some way.

DL: So enhanced connectivity is something that you see as a growth area?

RH: Yes, and if you think about niche vehicles they are particularly going to be a focus for new connectivity services. Niche vehicles are not high-volume products; the customer is paying a premium for something special; they want to be different. And I can see a big opportunity for Lotus in partnering with other specialists to provide the added functionality and services that drivers of niche vehicles will be increasingly demanding through intelligent mobility.