The deep roar of the Bugatti supercar was superseded by the tunes booming from the iPhone. The exhibition hall was full to bursting point and brand leaders fought for attention as the crowds watched in eager anticipation.
Earlier this month, thousands had gathered at the Geneva motor show – the annual jamboree where car giants turn up the volume and pour on the glamour to showcase their latest product lines.
People drooled at the sight of Lamborghinis and Ferraris. But a few feet away, Apple was in danger of stealing the show. The testosterone-fuelled motor shows may have changed little in way of scantily clad models and eye-wateringly expensive supercars, yet technology is casting a virtual cloud over the automotive industry.
Apple rocked the Geneva show when it revealed a partnership with Volvo, the car manufacturer, which will see its cars fitted with an iPad-like display: Apple CarPlay, which links to the driver’s iPhone and uses the Siri voice-command system to dictate messages without having to touch the screen.
Nissan, another car giant, went further when it announced its new Connect system, which links the car to the web through drivers' mobiles. Their electric car, Nissan Leaf, can even be remotely heated via commands sent from your laptop.
Cars are becoming more like tablets.
The popularity of the automotive sector’s tech-mindedness, combined with the global technology boom, has given rise to a feast of opportunities for MBA students who want to work in the industry.
“Much like mobile devices, vehicles are starting to become connected to the internet and utilise the mobile app business model. Self-driving cars are also on the horizon,” says Neil Fry, an MBA graduate of Cranfield School of Management who works for Ford Motor Company.
He graduated from the full-time MBA in 2012 and took on a consultancy role for the Williams F1 Team, and joined Ford’s Business Relationship Management team in September last year.
Neil was at the Geneva motor show on a business trip and is currently working on the implementation of fuel cell technology, which will one day replace petrol and diesel cars, he says. “It is an innovation leap that is coming to a showroom soon. All the major OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are aiming towards this,” Neil says.
It is a sentiment echoed by Yash Khandelwal, an MBA graduate of Nanyang Business School who worked for Tata Motors. “Cars will now become smart-cars, remotely operated from any location – like smart-phones,” says Yash, who started his career at General Motors. “It’s become a disruptive business right now because of the key new technologies.”
Many of these disruptions mean MBA job opportunities have cropped up. For Yash, the United States and Asia have some of the biggest potential, among other regions. “There are a lot of job opportunities for companies hiring MBAs for marketing or finance roles, and the same trend is there in Europe,” he says.
Yash added that automotive companies in Asia are on big hiring drives. Nissan, one of the pioneers of the new car-tech-era, has a rotational development program designed for MBA graduates. The NRDP is a five-year program which includes three to four cross-functional, cross-regional rotations in the Americas, Africa, Middle East, India, Europe and Asia.
MBAs’ global business skills and exposure give them an advantage in the sector, says Neil. “As the majority of automotive companies operate on the global stage, working in business teams and building relationships is a key to success,” he says.
“The MBA gives you a chance to work with a very diverse range of cultures and nationalities in a high pressure environment, to give you the best chance of success.”
Business schools see the potential too. Spain’s IESE Business School holds an annual automotive industry meeting that has been running for 28 years. And the Vienna University of Technology has an accredited automotive-specific MBA program, which is partly funded by the European Union.
Other schools, such as EBS Business School in Germany, offer specialist MSc programs in automotive management.
Germany is arguably the powerhouse of the industry at the moment, home to a plethora of top brands including BMW and Mercedes. But Neil says the UK is up-and-coming, as are the BRIC countries.
MBA students’ growing interest in the industry is fuelled partly by the traditional backgrounds associated with business school graduates. Although schools are much more diverse now, many MBAs still come from engineering stock.
Yash, who studied at Nanyang, which is renowned for its technological culture, was a mechanical engineer before he was a businessman.
Others are drawn by a personal passion. “It felt like a natural move of my aerospace engineering and project management background,” says Neil, who studied aerospace engineering at the University of Hertfordshire.
“I feel I am in a good position to add valuable transferable experience, as well as driving the next big leap in the automotive industry.”
There is no doubt, however, that it can be a lucrative sector to work in. MBAs that jump on the technology bandwagon in the automotive sector may also benefit from a 30 per cent demand increase for MBAs among employees in the technology sector in the Africa & Middle East regions, according to QS.
However, MBA students caution that it is a challenging sector to work in. Neil says that it was more difficult than he expected to find a role which combined his technical and MBA background.
“I was fortunate to gain a short consultancy role with Williams. This was the key to me making the move into the automotive market,” he says.
Yash says that the competition in developed markets is a big challenge. But he thinks that MBAs who have an engineering background stand the best chance of achieving automotive success.
“To excel in any industry you need to be close to the product,” he adds. “MBAs with an engineering background, primarily in electrical or mechanical, have the best chance of excelling.”