A few weeks ago at the LA Auto Show, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rolf Frech, a modest family man with a kind face and a thick German accent who just so happens to have been the engineer behind some of the most important cars manufactured in the last 30 years. Oh, he’s also the Member of the Board at Bentley who’s charged with overseeing company-wide engineering projects, including the creation of the long awaited Bentley SUV. Needless to say, sharp dude.
How long have you been an engineer?
Where has your career taken you so far?
It’s easy, I worked for 28 years on Porsche, and now for three years on Bentley. I started as a power-train engineer for eight years and then I got the chance to take over 3D simulation. That entire aspect of the industry started at that time—it was the transition period from when we were stuck working only in hardware with schematics to working digitally in three dimensions. After that, I took over total vehicle integration, an oversight role. And now I’m responsible for the entirety of the engineering program at Bentley.
So, during 31 years of working in the field, you must have learned an immeasurable amount. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to yourself as a young man, knowing what you know today?
I think that what I learned over the years is that change is inevitable, but people will always try to stay in the past. I would tell myself to embrace the challenges of change—even when you say “Okay, physics is physics,” you need to be always trying to move the limits, to move the limits ahead. It’s so common to say to yourself, “Okay, it’s impossible, let’s face it,” and that stops so many people from achieving great things, but in reality it’s that impossibility that frees you to think really creatively about a problem. Those are the challenges you need to be taking when you’re young, taking on the impossible.
What’s one of the biggest engineering challenges you’ve run into in your career?
I think it was in my time in Porsche, taking a brand that had become so known for one type of product [sports cars] and expanding into an entirely new category where we not only wanted to compete, but to lead. The SUV was by far the biggest challenge in my time at Porsche. And I think it will be my biggest challenge at Bentley. Any time that you take a brand with rich history and structure and focus and expand, it’s a huge undertaking. But it’s that challenge that will pay off for Bentley as it has for Porsche.
Is it difficult to champion a project like an SUV at a sports/touring car company?
At the end it’s a board decision, but of course there is a kind of a strategy group working on different opportunities with an organization, because you can’t just make a decision to build an entirely new product on a gut feeling. That’s not the way to do it. There are a lot of functions that contribute to the creation of something new, you have interdependent teams, marketing, finance, engineering—everyone must be in line to create something special. That was how we did it with the SUV at Bentley, we had to get everyone on board before we charged ahead. So in that respect it is challenging, but you have a whole organization committed to creating great automobiles, which makes it easier.
What are your techniques for bringing someone on board a radical project or idea?
You can’t use techniques, or tricks, or what have you. It has to come from deep inside you. You have to believe in it 100%, and you have to be able to defend it, work hard for it, fight for it. You can’t just flip to a rule book and pull out “Rule 37” on how to execute your ideas. It’s not like that. People have to see it in your eyes.
You have to bleed it.
Ted Gushue is the Executive Editor of Supercompressor. As a student he failed nearly every Engineering course he took, but he really, really liked them. Watch him engineer a tweet or two on Twitter @TedGushue