CEO Andy Palmer has just returned from Aston Martin’s Gaydon manufacturing facility, having personally signed off the latest DB11 as ready to be shipped to its customer. This was the 148th DB11 that Andy has inspected following his pledge to personally sign off the first 1,000 cars, taking hands-on management to a new level for a Chief Executive. And these signatures are not just a gesture, for Andy takes more than 30 minutes to check over each car in detail.
Andy Palmer knows what he’s looking for. A trained engineer, he spent the first 18 months of his career working on a car production line as an apprentice. His knowledge and determination to get things just right is confirmed when he tells me that so far he has rejected a handful of DB11's. So why did he decide to personally sign off the first 1,000 cars? His answer is immediate: “This car is the most crucial in our 103-year history. I want people to feel confident in the quality. I hope my signature will give customers confidence, but they also have my personal email address should they wish to get in contact.”
Andy says that he also wanted to send out a message to his employees through these daily visits to the production line that “quality is of the upmost importance”. He adds quickly that “there cannot be a compromise on quality”. Since his appointment in 2014, the CEO has emphasised that he believes the successful future of the company is about people. “When you look at Aston Martin’s history, it is the people that have always made a difference,” he says.
This approach is why Andy made “Passionate and Professional People” one of the six key pillars in the brand’s six-year Second Century plan to shape a sustainable long-term future for the business. He puts this philosophy into stark context when he reminds you that “all of our cars are handcrafted and handmade by craftspeople. Our ability to deliver beautiful cars is literally in the hands of our skilled employees.” Andy says that it is not only the abilities and skills of the workforce, but also their loyalty to Aston Martin: “We have more than 500 engineers who could all up sticks and move next door to Jaguar Land Rover. Instead, they choose to stay here.”
All the people here have a passion and enthusiasm for the business
The CEO points to the brand’s apprentice programmes as another example: “As we are a relatively small company, our apprentices are given more hands-on experience and the opportunity to learn more quickly.” He feels that the passion of his workforce for the brand is a tangible asset. “All the people here have a real passion and enthusiasm for the business,” he says. “Now we are giving them cutting-edge technology to go with their talents.”
Andy Palmer is a huge advocate for keeping his workforce well informed, so the team was given an early glimpse of the next-generation Vantage model. “Seeing the car gave them a real buzz. The energy here is edible and it helped to motivate the team by showing them the future.” Andy also recalls the international unveiling of the AM-RB 001 hypercar, revealed at the Gaydon Headquarters to the workforce at the same time as the global media, further underlining their importance. “We could have taken the wraps off at an exotic location, but we felt that Gaydon was the best location because the media see not only the car, but also the people who will make it. They are the heart and soul of the company.”
The people at the forefront of Andy Palmer’s future plans include the brand’s dealers, a traditional cornerstone of Aston Martin’s growth. “Our dealers are the first and last port of call with our customers. Dealers define the brand. We go to extreme lengths to educate our Dealer Principals on what we are doing so they share our vision and in turn pass it on to our customers.” “Customer is King” is an over-used mantra in the automotive world, but talking to Andy you believe he really means it.
As if to prove the point, when we walk through the reception at Gaydon, he breaks off to chat to a customer about his new car. Andy not only knows his name, but also about his business. It’s a bond you don’t see with many other Chief Executives of luxury brands. “You need knowledge about your customers to understand them and their needs. We know that all our customers are passionate about the brand,” he says. “They are naturally confident, they are successful people with nothing to prove and they like the understated nature of our cars. They have a love of beautiful things and we are the ultimate in beautiful cars.” Aston Martin is also constantly looking at fresh ways to engage with its customers, such as the new Art of Living experiences that bring the brand and the customer even closer: “We want to offer a lifestyle and luxury experience that go beyond just the car.”
The people factor has even played a part in how Aston Martin is tackling the Brexit issue, which has turned the UK car industry into a political football. Unlike the majority of UK car companies, which urged workers to vote to remain in Europe, Aston Martin provided their workers with official facts and let them decide. The company made contingency plans for Brexit, based on pound sterling falling — which it did — and also the prospect that UK and European sales would fall if we voted to leave. Andy says that, in reality, sales in the UK since Brexit have increased and stayed mainly flat in Europe and they have received a boost from countries outside of the UK because of the falling pound. “The ongoing uncertainty does not help, but my role as Chief Executive is to tackle hurdles put in front of us and that is what we will do. But I do wish people weren’t so negative. We should talk about the positives and there are plenty to talk about with Aston Martin.”
Those positives include 600 very excited Aston Martin customers, who will have picked up their new DB11 by the end of November. The new Vanquish S is on the way, along with a host of as-yet-unannounced projects for 2017. Andy reveals that the final design for Aston Martin’s first ever SUV has now been fixed, a model that promises to open up major new markets for the business. Also waiting in the wings will be Aston Martin’s all-electric model, based on the Rapide, which Andy reminds me will be the first luxury electric car on the market in 2018. And perhaps most significant for a company that prides itself on the calibre of its workforce, the marque will soon be taking possession of part of the new Welsh site that will be building this car from late 2018.
These are exciting times for Aston Martin, with innovation and new products pushed to the fore. One thing will always stay constant: the importance of the people who build the cars.