Horbury’s current job – finding design directions for the disparate Geely, Lynk&Co, Proton and Lotus marques – is arguably his toughest. The group’s Chinese founder and owner, Li Shufu, who started as a refrigerator maker and didn’t build his first car until the late 1990s, is addicted to quick progress. Despite having trebled group volume to 1.25 million cars in two years to become China’s second-biggest car maker, Li still believes the greatest growth lies in the future.
Each of Geely’s marques faces challenges, however, and Li is relying on Horbury’s nose for design, and his ability to build teams, to define the key characteristics of the quartet. Horbury’s Ford links helped put him where he is today. After a distinguished US stint at the top of Ford’s global design set-up, in 2009 he was offered a second chance at Volvo where he had succeeded spectacularly through the 1990s. The Swedish company had been knocked off balance by the abrupt departure of a previous design boss, just as Ford was preparing to sell.
Horbury, with a family settled in Sweden, was happy to become an enticing part of Ford’s offer. A year later, Geely completed a £1.3 billion deal to acquire Volvo and promptly installed a new German CEO, Stefan Jacoby, with whom Horbury failed to bond.
“I’d been told to expect a three- year assignment, but it ended in two weeks,” he recalls. “It was a case of the new broom sweeping clean. But next day Chairman Li announced in the press that I’d been appointed Geely Group’s head of design. This was news to me, but I liked the idea.”
The brand new Geely Design Europe division began work immediately in Gothenburg, housing its five-strong team in a solitary room borrowed from Volvo. Now Geely Group Design has centres in half a dozen key locations around the world, employs 600 people and has vacancies for 160 more. Horbury is based in Gothenburg but is often in Shanghai, which continues to be China’s design hub and main talent pool, though the competition to hire the best people is “pretty fierce”.
His first task, Horbury says, was to sell the idea of brand identity to his new employer. “No two Geely models bore any resemblance to one another,” he recalls. “They’d been created in different factories, with different factory managements.”
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Horbury’s first presentation featured a collection of unrelated animals – panda, giraffe, shark, donkey – to represent cars; there was no plausible family look or hierarchy. Then he displayed members of the cat family: lion, tiger, puma, tabby. Suddenly it was possible to place them in an order, and to understand at a glance their relative capabilities. It was a telling lesson: Geelys in different classes needed common themes but need not be the same. Then in 2013 the company conceived the KC1 concept, a handsome four-door saloon, and was on its way.
Much has happened since then. Sales of Geely cars to Chinese buyers are soaring, even though they have historically tended to shun unsophisticated home-grown products. Horbury puts the change down to design and quality: “Geely is being lifted by its build standards, which are incredible. The cars are already almost as good as the Germans. We’re moving much faster than the rest of the Chinese, and really narrowing the gap to Volvo.”