In the unique case of Thierry Bolloré, the new and until now somewhat reclusive French-born CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, a picture is most definitely not worth a thousand words. Or even a hundred.
The grim and rather gaunt-looking corporate mugshot of Bolloré that publishers began using when his appointment was announced in September last year – for want of a decent photo session – appeared to show an austere, crop-headed business zealot, a my-way-or-the-highway sort of bloke with the beadiest stare going. But as editor Mark Tisshaw and I found out in a wide-ranging interview at JLR’s Gaydon HQ a few days ago, this description could hardly be further from the truth.
Of course, Bolloré is a serious and determined man. How could you not be, when one of your first decisions is to kill a new Jaguar project (the XJ) that cost years and billions, and embodied the best work of many good people – replacing it with a Jaguar EV revival plan so radical that it almost defies assessment? And when a few years before that, as the successor to the Renault Group’s all-powerful Carlos Ghosn, you were unceremoniously dumped amid political turmoil that followed your predecessor’s extraordinary arrest?
Yet I don’t believe I’ve met a CEO in recent times with such a frequent and friendly smile, who remains so patiently willing to explain in ever greater detail plans he has already explained many times before, or who signals so readily that, from here on, progress at JLR will depend mostly on the fighting spirit of a workforce he already regards as exceptional.
Bolloré’s appointment came out of the blue. Even the Financial Times, which prides itself on anticipating important corporate moves, failed to list the then Parisian-based ex-Renault chief in a German-centric list of possible successors for outgoing Ralf Speth, whose 10-year management span quadrupled the size of JLR, greatly expanded its global footprint and – despite some big bumps in the road – earned billions on the way.
The lingering problem under Speth was Jaguar’s meagre sales and negative earning power: Land Rover was a runaway success but, despite the appeal of its name and heritage, Jaguar never was, even though Speth set about building a BMW-like model structure to sell a car range that was generally admired. That approach has summarily failed, which is why much of Bolloré’s revival plan, dubbed Reimagine, concentrates on reviving Jaguar via early and wholesale electrification of a smaller range of models, radical in design and much more expensive.