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China has an appetite for European design talent

When Mini chief designer Anders Warming abruptly bid his employer goodbye in July, it was a surprise — and it stung. 

Warming, now 44, was one of BMW Group’s design stars, with a portfolio that includes some of BMW and Mini’s most successful cars. The departure set tongues wagging in the German industry. 

A few weeks later, the mystery was over: Warming emerged as chief designer and board member of Borgward, the long-forgotten German technology leader that resurfaced at the 2015 Frankfurt auto show more than five decades after its spectacular demise. Today, Borgward Group is a subsidiary of Beiqi Foton and aims to squarely attack the German premium carmakers. 

The Chinese auto industry is brimming with new players and investors, and they are seeking design talent from established European carmakers to help them compete successfully.

 

Talent flow
A sampling of European designers who have taken design jobs with Chinese-owned companies

Page Beermann, Faraday Future (BMW)

Guy Bourgoyne, Geely (Holden)

David Napoleon Genot, Borgward (Audi, Kia)

Gert Hildebrand, Qoros (Mini)

Peter Horbury, Geely (Ford, Volvo)

Benoit Jacob, Future Mobility (BMW)

Ajay Jain, Geely (Renault)

Pierre Leclercq, Great Wall (BMW)

Aditya Mahajan, Geely (Renault)

Olivier Molody, Great Wall (BMW)

Tim Pilsbury, Qoros (VW Group, Nissan America)

Roland Sternmann, Borgward (VW in U.S.)

Kris Tomasson, NEXTEV (BMW)

Anders Warming, Borgward (Mini, BMW)

Andreas Zapatinas, Shangan (Fiat, Subaru)

 

One of the earliest and most prominent examples of the trend is Gert Hildebrand. The German designer, coincidentally Warming’s predecessor at Mini, in 2011 joined Qoros, a joint venture between Chinese carmaker Chery and investor Israel Corp. The German industry was not amused. 

“Established players were clearly concerned about losing talent to China,” Hildebrand says. 

And they had reason to, especially after Audi’s acquisition of Italdesign in 2010, a move partially motivated by the desire to block Chinese access to European designers. In fact, it may have achieved the opposite. 

“Taking Italdesign off the market was a trigger for Chinese carmakers to aggressively build up their own design departments,” Hildebrand says. 

The list of international design talent moving to Chinese carmakers features some illustrious names beyond Hildebrand and Warming. What unites them is that they are not second-rate designers but have distinguished records at established carmakers or were in the process of building such a career. 

Some designers admit to the lure of career advancement. Others cite a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a brand identity on a blank sheet of paper. Still others want to work in an atmosphere in which hierarchies are still developing and the painstaking decision-making process of established carmakers has not developed. 

And then there is the sheer sense of adventure. 

Warming believes that the industry will be reshuffled with the new players: “You have to be daring, to push yourself and remain authentic,” he says. But he also cautions that a move like his own may not be for everyone. 

Hildebrand agrees. Working for a new carmaker means “being tough and willing to get “down and dirty,'” he says. In his case, that included searching for and securing studio space, working out of motels near suppliers. And there were mundane tasks such as putting up decoration and basic office equipment. “I had to leave the ivory tower,” he says. 

But Hildebrand says he has’t regretted the move. “Working at Qoros gave me the opportunity to leave a lasting mark in automotive history,” he says. 

The appeal of a new opportunity is strong, and established carmakers are beginning to feel the drain. 

“There are good and poor Chinese designs, but they are getting better, not least because they hire a lot of designers from the German industry,” says Marc Lichte, Audi’s head of styling. 

“At Audi it’s not a problem yet, but it could certainly become one.”

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