Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ralf Speth: The passionate engineer

Ooooonga booonga :)

First Published: Sun, Jul 21 2013. 05 06 PM IST

Speth is a stickler for detail, describing each of the miniature models in his room at some length. Photographs: Bhaskar Dasgupta<br />
Speth is a stickler for detail, describing each of the miniature models in his room at some length. Photographs: Bhaskar Dasgupta

The two-storeyed corporate headquarters I’m visiting is modest in all respects, except one: A fleet of Jaguar and Land Rover automobiles is parked in its forecourt, including the new Jaguar F-Type. I am in Coventry in the British Midlands to meet Ralf Speth, the chief executive officer of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), and the man seen as responsible for leading the company’s turnaround, after it was bought by Tata Motors in 2008.

‘Product, product, product’

The fleet in front of the office block consists largely of company vehicles for senior management, I am told. The two brands continue to exert their presence inside the building, and inside Speth’s glass-walled office, which is almost entirely bare of decorative accessories. Only a Jaguar print/artwork on the wall and a few miniature models of specific Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles add vibrancy to the room—he describes each one in some detail.


Speth’s glass-walled office has a six-seater meeting table and a storage cabinet with a TV, but there’s little by way of decorative accessories

By now, I’ve realized that Speth is clearly more than a design enthusiast —he is the only chief executive I’ve met to test my knowledge in this sphere. Before we begin our conversation, he walks me around the office, shows me a series of iconic wall-clocks in the cafeteria, and asks me to name the designer. Luckily I know the answer—email me if you’d like to know.

Speth’s L-shaped desk is conventional, with a shiny chrome frame that reflects the company’s industrial character. Although the room is large enough to accommodate a six-seater meeting table, and a storage cabinet with a TV, there is little difference between Speth’s cabin and those of his senior colleagues next to him. “The office was designed by our designers,” Speth says, in a distinctive German accent.

The spare, non-hierarchical room, with just premium automobiles on display, is entirely congruous with Speth’s strategic drive to focus on “product, product, product” and “whatever it takes to come up with competitive vehicles, with a killer combination of design and engineering”. A seasoned automotive industry professional, 57-year-old Speth insists: “The priority is not to shoot for financial figures or for volumes, the focus is on the products. If we deliver a solid product, engineer it in a solid way, have a good design, then I am quite sure we can make good business.”

Engineering a turnaround


The Range Rover sports utility vehicle

It is a business mantra that has served the company well, so far. Speth joined the company in February 2010, when it was beginning to show the first signs of profitability. Since then, new product launches and global market expansion have propelled annual sales and profits before tax to £15.8 billion (around Rs.1.4 trillion) and £1.675 billion, respectively, for the year ending March 2013. The company is now regarded as a poster-child of British manufacturing competitiveness.

Speth’s obvious passion for industrial design conceals an equally critical aspect of his personality—the engineer’s ability to deal with detail, especially in tweaking and refining business strategy, until there is smooth alignment between all moving parts.

This becomes evident when he discusses how the turnaround took place. “We tried to do restructuring and growth simultaneously, to free up cash and to inject that money into new programmes,” he explains. “You have to know how you do it, where you do it, and when you can do it. We precisely define when and how much money to inject, to get the best results,” he adds.


There is a fleet of Jaguar and Land Rover cars parked in front of the office block including the Jaguar F-Type

Investment in new products was accompanied by significant new hires in manufacturing, to cope with increased demand and a greater presence in previously underdeveloped markets such as China, which is now nearly as large as Europe in terms of sales.

Moderating the scale, timing and choice of investment is particularly important for the company since its key competitors, including Mercedes, Audi and BMW, are significantly larger in volumes and revenue. “Volkswagen profits are higher than our sales,” Speth points out. “We have to decide what is the right innovation, the right technology, what is the right product portfolio, in an even more thoroughly thought through way, in order to make sure we can grow in a profitable and sustainable way,” he says.

Managing nationalities


Pursuit of perfection: (clockwise from left) An advertising campaign for the Land Rover Defender; miniature car models add vibrancy to an otherwise sparsely decorated office; and Jaguar Land Rover has three royal warrants to supply cars to the British royal family

Speth’s job also includes managing alignment of a different sort. Jaguar Land Rover has an assortment of varied stakeholders—a distinctively British heritage, a largely British workforce, an Indian parent and global sales operations, with an expanding Chinese footprint.

Some of these are reflected in the building. Three framed certificates with the royal family’s crest are placed in the building’s foyer. These “royal warrants” officially certify that Jaguar Land Rover is a supplier of motor vehicles to the queen, the duke of Edinburgh and the prince of Wales, and explicitly cite Speth as the recipient of the warrant. “We are the only (motor vehicle) company with three royal warrants,” Speth says.

Interestingly, the Tata brand is not particularly visible at the corporate headquarters. Speth says it was discussed internally, as well as with the Tatas, and the conclusion was to not display it, although he doesn’t recall the reasons for the decision.

His views on the Tata group are much less ambiguous. “It is a British company but the owner is Tata. Without Tata, JLR could not exist at all, that’s as simple as it is,” he says. Speth points out that there is a dedicated office near his own for visiting Tata colleagues. He particularly admires the “visionary approach” of the Tata group’s chairman-emeritus Ratan Tata, and the group’s “mid- to long-term” business outlook, adding that he feels “very well integrated into the Tata empire”.

More than nationality, Speth says he looks for “competence and passion for the business, for cars and for our brands. We don’t want to see our company being located in the cellar of the British heritage museum, being dead as a brand. We want to be alive. We want to sit at the high table of the premium car manufacturers around the world.” Enough of a mission to galvanize Speth to start his workday at 7am, and continue working until after dinner.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Nov 2012: At the Ironmongers

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I went to the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, one of the oldest Livery Companies in London. I was lecturing here on the joys of innovation and technology and banking and financial intermediation and and and. Boring stuff. The history of this company dates back to 1300 AD, then called as Ferroners..wow! This is the great hall, where I lectured…amazing place.

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the shields on the walls relate to the masters of the company. You can just imagine the history of this place. You walk in there and are hit by the susurrations and whispers of the millions of Ironmongers who have walked the corridors of this building..wow

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Gold Box….

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Snuff box! lol

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dating back to 1515

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Amazing places, these guilds. I used to belong to the IT one but frankly couldn't really participate, they are based in the city, I am in the docklands, just couldn't get into the city at a decent time to participate in the events…

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Nov 2012: Clicking with the iPhone

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View over East London on a surprisingly sunny day..

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Now doesnt this look like an angel to you? or a Fairy? see the eyes, the ears, the wings…Seen at the four seasons hotel in Toronto..

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I hear and Obey my master

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Lines in the skies and on the ground…

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the christmas trees are out

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unfortunately, the low clouds are also out..

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trading waste, eh?

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lol lol lol, this was furiously funny ! :)

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Trees at work with lights on..

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Autumn leaves

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Right after a charity meeting, saw this board…now that’s not very polite is it?

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Somebody just came back from doing a demo…

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that’s my little princess, lol

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now this was the Camel Pizzeria in Sao Paulo…just what's the connection with the sphinx i don't know…

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that is one dangerous looking cow, in SP

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View from the office…in Sao Paulo…

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nov 2012: Food and Drink…

Here are some of the photographs of food and drink that I took in Nov 2012

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Some juicy steaks

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Baked apples with loads of booze and nuts inside them :)

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Pork Stir Fry

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Drinking beer up in the Toronto CN Tower

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Hmmm, I have to admit that these Canadian Starters were deeply disappointing..

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But this is more like it, big hunka meat

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lol@ fortune cookie in Toronton. You are so full of the brown organic matter

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Disciplined Bananas

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Hmmmm, do I really want to drink something called as Knob Creek? no..

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A steak in NY…

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mmmmm, i can still smell this

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And then when you open the package, this wonderful offering of the gods appear…mmmm

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Starbucks…candy cane

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Hmmmm, this was tasteless, seriously BA, you need to improve your in-flight meals..

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An excellent salad in Mexico City

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This is called as a Molcajete Teotihuacano, it has beef, pork, chicken, chorizo, cactus, cheese, salsa and onions.

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Served in this volcanic rock dish

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It was brilliant, just so fine! mmmmm.

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lightly fried maguey worms on guacamole on blue tortillas. Very nice.

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These were put outside the restaurant in the Mexican Hotel where I stayed. Bloody things were lethal! chilly balls! why why why would anybody put this shit in a bag and let greedy people like me snaffle them?

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Chicken Mole, chicken cooked in chocolate…with almonds on top…very interesting combination of tastes.

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hot chocolate, pistachio ice cream and chocolate pudding…mmmmm

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A pizzeria in Sao Paolo

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the pizza in SP was brilliant, its apparently a tradition, Sunday dinner, everybody goes off into a restaurant, has pizza and light beer! yummy

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These were little fried dumplings…very lovely. Brazil has great food.

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Not so sure about the bloody cake. This was the cake that the hotel got for me, on account of my birthday, after Sangeeta spent hours trying to explain to the hotel that it was my birthday and she wanted a cake delivered to my room. Apparently its not done in Brazilian Hotels. WTF?. It was a brick, seriously a brick.

but I was laughing about this at work and my boss was there, and he is Brazilian, and then he arranged for a beautiful cake for me, and all the chaps sang and made me right totally embarrassed and stuff. :)

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Cheese balls, this was absolutely delicious! I must have eaten half of these.

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A special tomato soup with cheese…SP restaurant..

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Some brilliant Brazilian Steak…mmmmmm

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A fish preparation..this was amazing, I didn't catch the name, but it was brilliant, with spices and stuff, very nice.

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And you know Christmas is coming when you see this kind of stuff in the office cafeteria! :)