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When Christian Marti thinks back to what he learnt on his masters in management (MiM) course, Aston Martin’s global sales director can sum it up in one memory: fish and chips.
Living in a guest house during the English leg of a three-year, three-campus programme at ESCP Europe, he remembers recoiling in disgust as one of his British peers would eschew the in-house dinner three times a week and eat battered cod and deep-fried chips instead.
“Do you know what colour the newspaper changes to when it has had fish and chips in it?” the German-born Marti says, screwing up his face in horror. “That was really a deep dive into the British culinary experience.”
The son of a lieutenant colonel, he may well have been born in Germany, but he is not really German any more. His three formative years at business school made him a citizen of the world, and ultimately equipped him to reach the top tier of the global automotive industry.
Between 1990 and 1993, alongside 120 students from across Europe, Marti was taught in French in Paris, in English in Oxford, and in German in Berlin, spending two trimesters at each school and a third on an internship in the country. It was, he says, “a completely different way of growing up”.
“It was a unique experience. Of course it was a good level of theoretical teaching, but I think the most important thing was how much it made me grow, to spend three years in an international environment,” Marti says in an interview at Aston Martin’s headquarters in lush Warwickshire countryside.
“When you are surrounded by people with completely different backgrounds and educations, you have to adapt if you want to succeed. That definitely helped me in the situations in my career where it is impossible to be taught,” says the 48-year-old, who is fluent in French, Spanish, German and English.
“The cross-cultural influence you get from going into a country and opening up is something that changes you as a person.”
Since ESCP, Marti has worked at the intersection of dozens of cultures. He has led global initiatives, set up entire national businesses, and developed continental business plans. At every step of the way, his international degree surfaced.
“I remember arriving in Paris, being surrounded by 120 people from different nationalities and backgrounds, and having the first working group. It was impossible,” he recalls. “The first time that you are surrounded by different cultures, you never forget that.”
“This is something that is really important for me now,” he enthuses. “I have the capacity to go [to foreign countries] and talk to dealers and understand local challenges because I have the past 20 years and my time on the programme behind me.”
Those skills are more important to him today than ever before. Aston Martin is in a make-or-break period, investing heavily in its products and its global presence as it attempts to catch up with richer, more successful rivals such as Volkswagen’s Bentley or Fiat Chrysler’s Maserati that boast a larger sales network, especially in fast-growing emerging markets.
Marti quickly needs to scale up the carmaker’s business in China – and break into other markets such as Mexico and Indonesia – as the venerable British brand looks to take its sales volumes back up to pre-recession levels.
After seven jobs at five companies in 21 years, he is excited about his latest assignment. “I think I will be here for a long time,” he concludes.
He is no stranger to long-term challenges. The defining moment of his career came in 2004 when he became the first China-based employee of Jaguar Land Rover – the British carmaker that used to be a sister brand of Aston Martin when both were owned by Ford.
At the time, Jaguar Land Rover, whose factory is still next door to Aston Martin’s in the tiny village of Gaydon, sold roughly 800 vehicles per year. Marti’s task was to create a Chinese operation and secure government approval to become a recognised foreign carmaker. Last year, the company sold more than 100,000 vehicles in the country, its biggest single market.
“When I first got to China, I remember I was sitting in an office which is easily 10 times the size of this room,” he says, waving his hand around the meeting room at Aston Martin’s HQ. “And there were 20 desks there, completely empty. And I had my little glass cabin and the only desk with a computer on it. And the briefing was: make it happen. That was a big challenge.”
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The lessons he learnt outside the classroom have been as important as those at ESCP itself.
“One of my decisions was to employ local Chinese and not bring in more expatriates because I just loved the Chinese culture [which] is not easy to understand. There were a lot of expats around me that found the Chinese or Asian culture challenging or strange. But it is only [so] if you look at it from an American or western position,” says Marti. “That was certainly a part of my personality that I developed [at ESCP].”
While it was his hunger for a global career that drew him to the classrooms of Paris, Oxford and Berlin, the car spark came by chance.
His first love and career plans lay in engineering and emerged early. As a boy in Hanover, he used to play with a chemical laboratory at home. Aged 11, he built a wooden paddleboat with a wheel powered by a small engine.“After some months it got a little boring,” he explains. “So I put a little explosive inside, made it float down the river and then explode. I was very interested in chemistry, engineering, science. That was always what I wanted.”
Spurred by his international education, he looked for foreign postings with big chemical, petrochemical and engineering firms. But what he got was a domestic carmaker. “It was never my intention to start in Germany, but when you get a job offer from BMW on their international trainee programme, it is too good to turn down.”
At BMW, where Marti “developed the passions and the interests that shaped my career,” he was product manager of the Z3 sports car during its time as James Bond’s wheels of choice in the film Goldeneye. He jokes that at Aston Martin, which has since retrieved its position as supplier of Bond vehicles, he has now returned to looking after the cars driven by the world’s most famous fictional spy.
After two years at BMW, he moved to French carmaker Renault, where he looked after sales and marketing for the brand’s premium vehicles. Then, in 2002, at the age of just 35, he was made Austrian managing director of Jaguar Land Rover.
“Once you touch the automotive industry, it is so special, so specific and attaching, especially working with products like Aston Martin, that you never want to get out.”
Today, Marti lives in Oxford, a 40-minute drive from the office but just a few miles from the buildings where he studied on the British leg of the ESCP course, which is now taught in London.
A dedicated snowboarder who drives a white Aston Martin DB9 convertible, he hopes his long-term girlfriend will soon move from Singapore to join him in the UK.
And while Marti acknowledges that his post-ESCP journey has taken him to a career pinnacle that he could only have dreamt of as a young student, he notes that it was not without sacrifice: “You pay the price.”
“For me, the international challenge was always the driving factor,” he says. “[But] for the last 20 years, I did not spend more than three years in any country. As exciting as the life is, you lose your roots.”
“And while it is exciting, the first two, three, four, five experiences, when you pack your suitcases for the sixth, seventh time, it starts to become challenging,” Marti concludes. “Sometimes you think if you had stayed in one country, you would have a house, a garden, furniture that has been with you for decades. And I have none of that. And so at my age, you develop, suddenly, a passion for stability.”