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
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.
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.