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Interview with Nick Fry

1. What lessons do you think businesses can learn from the competitive world of F1?

Every business can learn something from Formula One and sport in general. The F1 Teams benefit from intense competition and a global performance report in front of 100 million people every fortnight. That focusses their minds on rapid resolution of reliability concerns, constant performance improvement through innovation and an absolute focus on great teamwork.

The requirement is to design a new product for the first race in March with over 4000 designed parts which needs to perform at least 10% better in all areas compared with the car that completed the prior season in November, to avoid going backwards. This means that all the normal challenges that any business faces need to be addressed much faster.

And that is using normal business tools that would be commonplace in any high performing technology company – CATIA design tools, frequently SAP, high levels of mandatory safety testing and owners and sponsors who require high levels of corporate compliance on financial and audit matters.

2. Can you highlight the challenges you faced moving from Ford to leading Aston Martin through a period of great change and how you overcame them?

Ford provided me with huge experience in Product Development, Manufacturing and Marketing which proved invaluable in addressing the substantial problems faced by Aston Martin in all areas of the business. When I arrived, Aston had produced only 60 cars in 9 months. A significant part of the workforce sat at home each day and in my first few weeks the engineering office was flooded with rainwater such was the dilapidation of the facility! Paying the wage bill each month was a major issue.

Having full responsibility for Profit and Loss is always a challenge but in very difficult situations cash management becomes a daily concern focusing your mind on generating short term revenue and reducing costs. Inevitably in these situations ‘restructuring’ or to be more specific reducing the number of personnel on the books is unavoidable as people are usually the highest cost item. In my experience a single round of deep cuts with swift re-organisation around the key people and a clear plan on how to move forward needs to be put together and implemented in the first 90 days. Delay only makes the situation worse and increases uncertainty – and the good people always leave first.

Talking about what you are going to do only goes so far – what the employees, suppliers, shareholders and markets want to see is action which means getting new product out, increasing sales, revenue and profit. Working out which buttons to press to achieve those outcomes and not getting distracted by other things which are nice but don’t have the same leverage is critical.

3. Can you pinpoint what makes a Formula 1 team successful – is it the people or the process?

The foundations of any good business are built by great people and this is even more so in Formula 1. The margins between success and failure are small and it is essential to get the best people in all areas –

from factory maintenance to Manufacturing, Marketing, right through to the race drivers – if you are to compete at the highest levels. Alongside the best people you need to give them the tools to do the job – a top level aerodynamicist is unlikely to perform to full capability without a good wind tunnel or the right analytical tools.

The right processes and lots of practice are essential to a high level sports team. The sport moves far too quickly for solutions to be invented ‘on the spot’. For example, although the media may like to romanticise about split second decisions on the pit wall being the difference between winning and losing, the reality is that virtually every situation that can occur during a race is thought through and the reaction is planned the week before a race weekend. So a safety car between laps 1 and 15 might result in one set of actions and the same thing 5 laps later will have a completely different set of outcomes. Maybe changeable weather is the only area where it’s just as easy to be right as wrong!

Overall, there are so many variables and possibilities in F1 that the most important thing is to understand what makes a difference and prioritise resources in those areas.

4. As a UK Business Ambassador how would you describe the current state of British business and the outlook for the future?

There has been a sea-change in attitudes within Government at the highest level to focus on assisting and encouraging business to grow and sell, especially overseas. This started with the prior Government but stepped up a gear when the current regime took office. Government departments are acting much more commercially and the Business Ambassador programme has more than doubled in size.

Business in the UK has clearly improved since the dark days of 2008 but there is some way to go, notably in spreading the improvement from the South East across the whole nation. Overall, I am optimistic and truly believe that the UK can continue to grow and gain a significant position in not only European but, more importantly, global trade.

5. Has any particular individual or group of people inspired you through your career?

I have had the honour to work with and for some of the best people in the automotive and racing business – from top drivers like Jackie Stewart and Michael Schumacher to auto industry leaders like Bob Lutz, Jac Nasser and Walter Hayes.

Putting aside ‘the names’ I have found over the years that you can and should learn from everyone. If there is a problem on a car production line the person who frequently knows first and can explain the issue best is the person on the line putting the product together.

Mr Honda had a mantra loosely translated as ‘go to the place’ – going to see for yourself and not relying on second or third hand understanding has a lot in its favour.