Irene Nikkein, APAC Regional Director of Rolls-Royce: Spirited Rise

Taking over the helm as the Regional Director of Rolls-Royce, Irene Nikkein is leading with grit, tenacity, and passion.

Jun 02, 2022 | By Joseph Low and Joe Lim
Irene Nikkein, APAC Regional Director Rolls-Royce
Image: Rolls-Royce

Irene Nikkein is the new regional director, Asia Pacific for Rolls-Royce, taking over from Paul Harris who had been in the role for 11 years, and she’s taking this challenge positively.

In the evolving automobile industry, Nikkein has to look after the British marques’ business in Asia Pacific from the regional office in Singapore but the brand’s operations also cover key markets in Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea.

Nikkein has no qualms asserting her business sense and style in a male-dominated industry. Her humble beginnings started in BMW Asia back in 2007. She started as BMW Regional Experiential & Sponsorship Manager, was appointed Head of Marketing for MINI Asia in 2010 and then, relocated to MINI Japan in 2016 as Head of Brand Communication and Product Management. To date, she still reminisces about her time in Japan because her stint there taught her many valuable lessons, which she still carries with her when she took up the top job as Regional Director for Rolls-Royce.

As someone who has worked in a male-dominated industry, what would you like to see change for women? How do you think this can be accomplished?

“I think what a man will accomplish will always be very different from what I will accomplish as a woman for Rolls-Royce in the Asia Pacific region. We will push boundaries differently — certainly one of my focus points will be how our brand evolves over the next few years as we head into a new, electric future and with an increasingly younger, diverse customer base.”

Nikkein explains, “In the past, Rolls-Royce had included strong female characters in its brand communications with the previous generation of Ghost and more recently Phantom. The one that made me sit up was the latter, a campaign called ‘Rules Rewritten’ where Gwendoline Christie (of Game of Thrones fame) was washing a dirty Phantom — that certainly got my attention.”

Rolls-Royce is pivoting the way it communicates with its customers. The tagline, “Inspiring Greatness” aptly exemplifies this shift that the marque is taking. Last year, the company embarked on a campaign where three distinguished women were featured. Each of the ladies held different occupations and was paired to an iconic Rolls-Royce model. From the Phantom to the Ghost and the Cullinan, it was a reminder that Rolls-Royce cars are not solely for one gender.

Since 1904, the prestigious British marque has been courting the aristocratic, wealthy and the famous. Nikkein enthuses, “Rolls-Royce can really appeal to a broader set of people than the commonly perceived older segment. We are moving into different demographics and subgroups. In terms of more women working in the car industry, it’s already increasing.”

Irene Nikkein, APAC Regional Director Rolls-Royce
Image: Rolls-Royce

Aside from the increased emphasis on putting more women behind the wheels, Rolls-Royce contends that owning a Phantom, Ghost, or Cullinan is not simply for its utility. The marque’s status has transformed over the years, and it is perhaps more accurate to liken bespoke Rolls-Royce cars as art pieces — an alternative asset that will appreciate over the years.

The beaming Asia Pacific Regional Director of Rolls-Royce is contented working and living in Singapore on home ground and notes that women hold high positions in many companies, thereby, changing the perception of what a woman can achieve. However, Singapore’s unique position is not a common occurrence in other parts of the world, and she hopes to see more women in leadership positions.

Nikkein adds that it’s fair play for women and men in Singapore, but she would like to see more of the former in management roles. She adds that in Japan, in the context of putting women first in top business roles, the culture has just recently changed in the last few years. She emphasises that traditionally for women to be in leading positions, it’s been important to build respect first and work doubly hard.

When quizzed about some must-have traits of a modern working woman, she opines, “I think some women live their lives the way society expects them to be — to be someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s partner… I think women should live their lives for who they want to be. It’s about appreciating your own self and being authentic.” Also, she says never to settle for less. “It’s not about always looking for something better, rather, it’s about continuing to improve yourself. It’s good to learn something new each day and challenge oneself.”

When she was asked, “So what do you think that women can bring to the table that is unique compared to men?”

She was quick to point out that women generally have better sensitivity than men. “I can sense someone’s view is not expressed during a meeting and I will drop him/her a note. I will check with the individual if he/she is okay? I guess women have the sixth sense.”

As a mother and career woman, does she find it hard to have both a career and a family? She feels the challenge between family and career will tend to conflict with a woman’s mind. She feels a woman must weigh the pros and cons and strive to obtain the family support she needs.

She points out the saying, “It takes a village to raise a kid.” She feels women should come forth and rally support when she needs it, and that business needs be more accommodating to single mothers or individuals who do not have an extended family around them.” Juggling career and family is never easy, so it’s important for family members to help out where possible.

Nikkein is also happy that she notices a lot of men are also stepping up to take on a lot more household responsibilities so women can focus on their careers. Perhaps, she would like men and women to share equal roles in the family, too, while balancing their careers.

Having worked at BMW for more than 15 years, Nikkein explains that there are more ups than downs. Her most memorable experience was working in Japan as a foreigner. In that culture she worked doubly hard to prove she was worth her salt. When you get recognition from Japanese colleagues she recalls, it’s very gratifying.

On how she would like Rolls-Royce to be as a company in the next five years under her leadership, Nikkein says, “I hope to gain a bigger footing in the Asia Pacific with an evolving wealth segment, especially in an era where more Ultra-High-Net-Worth individuals are younger, and transform the brand to be more modern.” She would like to continue to change the perception of Rolls-Royce as a luxury brand rather than an automobile brand. The self-effacing lady boss also quips, “As we move forward with this heavily storied and prestigious brand, Rolls-Royce will continue to be bold, we will push boundaries!”

The plans for a more daring Rolls-Royce have already started to unfold. The recently launched Black Badge Ghost epitomises this change. The new model consists of the company’s most technologically advanced equipment. It is said to be the “purest” Black Badge experience yet. Further adding to the opulent factor of Rolls-Royce is the option for personalisation, where customers can customise almost anything. This option for bespoke creation is the hallmark of a luxurious brand.

Rolls-Royce Black Badge Ghost
The New Black Badge Ghost. Image: Rolls-Royce

When questioned about the advice she would give to women aspiring to become leaders in the workforce, Nikkein beams. “My first advice is never to see yourself as disadvantaged, more as a capable worker. We must never enter a room feeling shy. Once acquainted with our industry and knowledgeable, people will treat one with respect. Also, it pays to have confidence, but not arrogance.” She also adds that women should not be afraid to ask for help. It does not show weakness. In fact, it shows that you are ready to take action and responsibility. Therefore, it’s always okay to ask for help.”

Lastly, when we asked her about a woman she admires, Nikkein was quick to point out that it was not a woman, rather, a man — Simon Sinek. Simon Oliver Sinek is a British-American author and inspirational speaker. She admires him for his inspirational leadership talks; his focus on leadership behavior and how to perform as a team rather than any performance disparities between genders at work.. Instead, it’s how each sex can do it differently yet achieve the same goals. However, she feels where women leaders potentially excel is the ability to show more empathy than their male counterparts. In a world where the number of highly successful female entrepreneurs are increasing, and the super-luxury segment comprises increasingly diverse audience, the rules are definitely being rewritten.

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