Your career trajectory was not always a straightforward one. Do you believe that people in general – and managers in particular – grow when they face transitions?
If you are strongly focusing on the future, there are of course many incalculable risks that will force you to reorient yourself. The process of simply managing a business is bound to be a more streamlined affair.
In 1993, you relocated to Korea to work at the Daewoo corporation. What sort of experiences did you have there, especially when it came to management culture?
Korea was obviously a challenge, and there was no guarantee that I’d be returning. Being there was an eye-opener in terms of the economic and societal challenges of the 21st century. The Confucian style of management was and is a major factor in how quickly things developed in Korea and China. It suited me well.
How important are logic, creativity and passion for car manufacturers who want to create a brand?
Passion and competence were already present in many employees at Aston Martin. When the company expanded and new employees were hired, creativity and logic came along with them. An exclusive product has to have an emotional aspect too, but without logic, almost nothing works on the development side.
You once said that people need organized chaos to work. What does that mean?
What structures does that approach involve? Organized chaos always leads to new scenarios and horizons. Chaos requires having a leader who sets the course and knows what the goal is for the next step. Chaos rarely yields perfection, but on the other hand, perfection is the death of innovation. So it all comes down to finding the right combination and to the leader’s judgement.
Aston Martin can look back on a history of crises. What went wrong there, and what did you do differently?
There was a heyday in the 50s and 60s with victories at Le Mans and iconic products like the DB4/5/6, and after that came a period where the company lacked orientation. Products that were not competitive and an ill-suited dealership network resulted in minimal units and financial losses. The real rock bottom came in 1992, when 46 vehicles were sold. Then Ford took pity and got involved. But the real turnaround did not start until 2000 when I came on board.
Solving problems matters more than finding a culprit.dr. ulrich bez, senior advisor, staufen.ag
An exclusive product has to have an emotional aspect too, but without logic, almost nothing works on the development side.dr. ulrich bez, senior advisor, staufen.ag
In a company with such a fraught history, how in the world do you generate optimism and enthusiasm?
As they say, hope dies last, and Brits do not give up easily either. Unlike my predecessor, I was highly regarded as an engineer from my work at Ford. My reputation was based on projects including the BMW Z1, different Porsche models, the Daewoo Matiz, and race-car driving, so expectations were high among the general public when I started at Aston Martin. I developed a vision for the company that had its roots in quality, dependability and utility, and the four pillars of this vision were the product, its image, the dealership network and our customers. For the product itself, I created a comprehensive modular strategy which ultimately became the basis for all models up to 2015/16 with over 20 variations. Employees quickly realized the charm of this strategy, and they implemented it over time.
You’re a race-car driver yourself. What has it taught you that you can apply to your abilities as a leader?
Racing all comes down to smooth and effective team work. If problems come up, the first task is to solve them: people don’t go looking for a “culprit” until after the race, if at all. Then they analyze why there were problems and how they can be avoided in the future. Mistakes can happen, but you can’t let the same ones happen twice!
You stepped down from your position as CEO at Aston Martin in 2013. Have you since felt the urge to stay involved in business operations?
That was the year Aston Martin celebrated its 100th anniversary with all the models in company history, and I had the privilege of accompanying Prince Andrew through the exhibition. I also had the chance to greet numerous friends from around the world. In my eyes, that was a fitting way to conclude matters. If you ask me, letting go at your peak is the best thing a manager can do.
The automotive industry doesn’t have it easy nowadays. People are discussing topics such as the foreseeable end of the combustion engine, car-free cities, and Brexit, which will impact Aston Martin. Seen in this context, how do you regard the company’s future?
A complex question. But to summarize it succinctly, Aston Martin will outlive the impending widespread demise of individually-owned cars just as race horses survived the widespread demise of workhorses.