‘Like our cars, this job isn’t for everybody’ - McLaren Boss
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MCLAREN BOSS MIKE FLEWITT’S STRATEGY IS TO BOOST PRODUCTION WITHOUT LOSING THE BRAND’S EXCLUSIVITY
I don’t have average days. I have great days,” says Mike Flewitt, chief executive of the sports car manufacturer McLaren Automotive. He has just finished having lunch with one of the company’s best customers (who has bought eight cars in five years) and has returned to McLaren’s futuristic headquarters in Woking, Surrey, a Bond villain’s lair if ever there was one, with its glass gantries and “boulevard” displaying priceless historic racing cars.
Between sips of his double espresso, his love of all things automotive shines through. Is he a petrolhead? “That’s not an expression I would use, I’m a huge enthusiast,” he says, his normally muted Scouse accent strengthening slightly.
Headhunted from Ford in 2012, he joined McLaren as chief operating officer and took the top job six months later with a remit to “industrialise” the company and ramp up production. McLaren is now in its sixth year of full-scale production, and expecting to deliver about 3000 cars this year, rising to about 5000 in 2022 under Flewitt’s “Track 22” strategy.
He makes the point that though the road car business is young, it was born out of the Formula 1 team first set up by Bruce McLaren in the 1960s. Motor racing legend Ron Dennis, chairman of the company, decided in 1988 to build “the ultimate road car”, to mark the McLaren team’s on-track success. It took four years to produce the McLaren F1, and just 106 were built between 1992 and 1998.
All the same, the acclaimed F1 drove McLaren into the top end of the sports car market, though its next wholly McLaren-designed and built model, the MP4-12C, did not go on sale until 2011.
But lifting volumes presented challenges. “I came here to take this company forward as an automotive company, which is different to an F1 business, or an engineering programme,” Flewitt says. “My job was to link up all the pieces, turn an engineering project into an integrated business operation.”
A look at Flewitt’s CV makes it clear why he was chosen. He joined Ford as a technician apprentice, gaining rapid promotion, did stints at Rolls-Royce and Bentley, then worked at a Ford-Volvo joint venture, where he met his wife Mia, also a car fan. He was operations director for Tom Walkinshaw Racing then returned to Ford where he topped out as vice-president of EU manufacturing.
The step from the giant Ford to minnow McLaren might have taken some adjustment but he says he now can’t imagine being anywhere else.
McLaren, privately owned and with seven major shareholders (the biggest is Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund), is a different kind of environment from Flewitt’s past roles. Ron Dennis holds a stake and wields a “great deal of influence”, according to Flewitt, “and rightly so. He was the founder and inspiration”.
But not having to satisfy the public markets brings freedom. The owners have “not taken a penny” in dividends, and are “fully bought in” to the Track 22 growth plan, in which McLaren will invest £1 billion over six years and develop 15 new models.
Looking to the future, Flewitt wants McLaren to build lighter cars because they are “more fun to drive, as well as being more efficient and cleaner for the environment.” Safety regulations, which are bulking out cars, are frustrating, but there for the right reasons, he says.
“It’s the biggest engineering challenge we face, especially when you look at adding in hybrid and electric systems, which are all heavy.”
Noise is one more knotty problem. Part of the sensation of driving a high-performance sports car is the roar of a V8, something absent in an electric car. Recreating it artificially is one solution, but Flewitt is not sure if this is the way to go.
Another issue is just how big McLaren should become. Flewitt is limiting production as “there has to be an exclusivity to owning a McLaren; customers like that. Oversupplying the market will destroy what’s special about our cars.”
Flewitt is basking in the praise TV’s Top Gear lavished on McLaren’s new 675LT car. “To me it’s the most exciting car we’ve done. It might not be as expensive as the P1, but what it delivers in feel and emotion is staggering. “What we are selling is a luxury that people enjoy. How do we build on that?” Flewitt asks.
“I don’t think by building cheaper cars and selling more of them. It might be building more expensive cars. We certainly won’t be moving into the SUV sector.”
He admits people “really don’t need” cars like McLarens and that they are “an indulgence”. However, there will always be a market for them.
Flewitt says he demands a “huge amount” from McLaren’s 1700 employees, with long hours and dedication required.
“Just like our cars, this job is not for everybody,” he says. “We’re constantly challenging ourselves, it’s not a nine-to-five culture where you earn money to have a life outside. This is a very big part of your life.”
— Sunday Telegraph