After nine months in the job, Aston Martin’s new CEO, Andy Palmer, is still making up for lost time. There was much joy and relief when the Stratford-born 52-year-old left a top Nissan post late last year to take charge at Gaydon, although, as every Aston watcher knew, the challenges were massive.
Aston had been leaderless for a year. Its range was overdue for renewal, its global markets needed reorganisation, its core technology was changing and the needs of its shareholders – Italian, Kuwaiti and German – needed corralling into a single set of objectives. Could one man do all that?
Palmer made a flying start. He charmed and calmed the troops at Gaydon. On gardening leave from Nissan, he had part-invented what soon became Aston’s ‘Second Century Plan’. (“I wasn’t working,” he says, “but I was thinking.”) He schmoozed suppliers and Aston owners, and all the while his inquisitive eye was looking into neglected corners and watching markets, even those where you count Aston sales on the fingers of one hand.
I watched all this, wondering what the new CEO was really like. He was dynamic, but could he keep it up? Would the new philosophy stick? A few months ago I asked if I could hang out with Palmer for a day, to see things from the sharp end. He liked the idea, which is why early one Wednesday last month I was sitting in the kitchen of his house in Northants, about 40 minutes’ drive from the office.
Palmer and his wife, Hitomi, are ready for breakfast when I arrive. Hitomi is a superb cook and we tuck into a delicious full English while Palmer outlines his morning: a catch-up with technical assistant Nikki Rimmington (not a PA, but a young high-flier shadowing the CEO), a warts-and-all Asia Pacific sales review, a meeting of Palmer’s new female advisory board to discuss buyer research from Shanghai, and a visit to the design studio.
Palmer punts his Rapide towards Gaydon with brisk precision, taking care not to rile people in lesser cars. Some will be his colleagues. Succinctly, he summarises Aston’s challenges: introducing “clinical quality” into its cars, bridging the earnings gap to the new range with specials like the GT12, Vulcan “and a couple of others”, and embedding cost-cutting into Aston’s corporate psyche so the company develops a free cash flow by 2018. “It’s not sexy,” he says of the last point, “but it’s really important.”
With progress in those areas, Aston Martin will be ready to replace the DB9 and Vantage, moving them farther apart in look and character. After that, there will be models for new niches, such as the DBX crossover and the Lagonda Taraf saloon, the latter recently promoted from a Middle Eastern plaything to a model for the world. “In future, we can’t afford the feast-to-famine cycle where volume swings from 4000 to 7000 a year,” says Palmer. “Introducing new models such as DBX and Lagonda and stabilising sports car production at around 7000 a year will help us to avoid that.”
Palmer has been at his desk for 15 minutes, riffling through post that includes Autocar. Rimmington summarises his agenda, reminding Palmer about the presence of a group of female visitors from Indonesia, marshalled by a forceful lady dealer from Jakarta. Some are ‘prospects’ and the CEO needs to say hello.
Then engineering director Ian Minards pops in with news of a successful crash test for an experimental Aston. “Crash results are like waiting for your kids’ exam results,” Palmer says with a grin. “This one passed.”
The Asian sales review is a conference call featuring half a dozen experts at this end and a pleasant-sounding bloke called Patrik Nilsson, the Asian regional director, at the other. There begins a serious examination of Aston’s sales performance, with Japan and Korea soon identified as priorities for improvement.