I have travelled a few sectors — brand and retail, businesses, technology and finance,” says Penny Hughes, the new Chair of the Board at Aston Martin Lagonda, “and I am now hugely excited to work with Aston Martin.” Hughes’ career history is more than impressive. As well as being the first female to take up the role at the 106-year old marque, the 59-year-old was president of the Coca-Cola Company in charge of UK and Ireland, has held director roles at The Body Shop, Vodafone and Royal Bank of Scotland, among others, chairs The Gym Group and sits on the board of Superdry.
“I bring depth of knowledge and insight,” she says. “I have seen how great companies are run and I know what the supply chain should look like. I view beauty in cars, but I trust experience and talent to make product decisions. Sometimes it is better not to know everything, just to know enough. You can then bring in fresh ideas.”
Sometimes it is better not to know everything, just to know enough. You can then bring in fresh ideas
Hughes joins Aston Martin at a critical time, too. In the past few months, the marque undertook its first initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange and sales are strong. A suite of exciting new products is waiting in the wings, from the luxurious new Lagonda to the forthcoming DBX SUV. There is much more in development. Hughes’ role has been to help draft Aston Martin’s Second Century plan. “I am hugely excited — we have a superb management team that has executed the FTSE so well. We are not yet there, but we will be the best-in-class in the FTSE 100.”
Of all her vast corporate experience, it is perhaps Coca-Cola that most informs her vision. “My 25 years with Coca-Cola shaped me,” she says. “I was the first female to be made president of the company — and at only 32.” Hughes admits it posed a few challenges — especially when dealing with older, male management. “But I had ambition, steel, drive and energy,” she says.
Hughes was in charge when the drinks giant made history as the first Western brand to enter East Germany
after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I needed to make sure the execution was perfect,” she recalls. “The brand was on top form and we saw incredible growth. It exploded my career and gave me enormous training. Coca-Cola is a benchmark of what a great brand can be — confident, strategic and with clarity.”
She then made the bold decision to try a very different business model, The Body Shop. Its founder, the late entrepreneur and human rights activist Dame Anita Roddick, was pioneering an ethical cosmetic brand. “She was one of the first in the business world to discuss progressive ideas; she spoke of ‘profit with principals’ and ‘business with ethics’,” Hughes says. “From Anita, I learned about integrity. I also learned that being on the board of directors, I can contribute to a business and have a family.”
Hughes appears to have an astute eye for the latest business breakthrough and a thirst for getting involved. Her next move was to join Vodafone just as mobile phone culture began its meteoric growth. “It was incredible to be a director of a transforming company in a transforming industry,” Hughes recalls. “We had less than a million customers when I joined in 1998 and over 150 million when I left in 2006. We took Vodafone to places where landlines didn’t even exist.” There followed a period at RBS at the height of the company’s crisis where, she admits, she learned a great deal about the financial world.
I am very excited about electrification and with the Lagonda we have the best car. I read the reviews with such pride
Such far-reaching experience stands her in good stead. At Aston Martin, the US and China are the fastest growing markets, the UK is historically a favourable place and European sales remain consistent. “The future is global,” says Hughes confidently. At the time of writing, Brexit uncertainty was rife and so Aston Martin was keeping a close eye on its supply chain. Yet, echoing statements made by company CEO Andy Palmer, in the long-term she feels Brexit will not have a significant impact on the business. Asked about her personal view, Hughes is refreshingly candid. “A ‘no deal’ or ‘hard deal’ Brexit will be very difficult. It will impact on London’s position as the global financial capital, which will affect the country. Generally, though, businesses are clever and will adapt to whatever happens.”
This is certainly an exciting time in the history of the motor car as the industry prepares itself for a new era — electrification, the possibilities of autonomous driving and the need for a sustainable future. Hughes, for one, welcomes the change. “I am very excited about electrification and with the Lagonda we have the best car. I read the reviews with such pride.”
As for her own vehicle, Hughes drives an Aston Martin DB11, in a “stylish sapphire blue”, she says. “I am new to performance cars, but I have always loved luxury brands. This car is so effortless to drive.”
Hughes has led a full career and raised two sons, seemingly mastering the work/life balance. “I have managed to schedule life to have a career and a family,” she says. “Honestly, I have been so lucky. I have done a lot of things for the first time and I love the adventure. Now I have experience, I can make a difference.”