Antony Sheriff, McLaren Automotive’s managing director, says the phrase “It’s all just common sense” rather a lot.
He drops it in frequently when talking in his rapid-fire way about the specification of a new McLaren, his company’s attitude to marginal warranty claims, or the way manufacturing will be organised in his soon-to-expand Woking factory.
For Sheriff, you sense logic has always provided opportunities. He believes the most challenging situations can be boiled down until the sensible approach appears — and that’s the one you adopt.
This philosophy has become a part of McLaren Automotive, not least because four-fifths of its 500-strong staff has been hired since 2003, when Sheriff rather unexpectedly took the job. You can see it in the way people get things done: quickly. You can also see it in the practical qualities of the new MP4-12C.
Six years ago, aged 40, Sheriff abandoned a promising career in the Fiat Auto hierarchy — notably the enormously influential position of director of product development for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and all the commercial vehicles — because here was a chance to do everything, to be in at the ground floor in a new firm.
He’d be “responsible for the design, development, manufacture and distribution of all current and future McLarens”, the job description said. If you were as keen a car guy as Sheriff, it was just common sense.
Brought up in Manhattan, Sheriff qualified there as an engineer-economist but decided he needed to try car design. He worked one summer in the UK for designer Richard Oakes, and another at Pininfarina before joining Chrysler in the US and then the management consultant McKinsey.
Then came the Fiat jobs, but all the while Sheriff just wanted to build cars. The wish was granted in 2003, when he joined McLaren just as it was getting ready for the launch of the SLR. On his watch, the big Mercedes-McLaren has become by far the world’s biggest-selling carbonfibre car and super-exotic, with nearly 2200 cars on the road.
This success doubtless explains why Sheriff feels more exhilaration than fear as the launch of the MP4-12C approaches.
“We want to be a proper car company,” he says, “with a range of cars, not just one of them. We’re the right size to be world-class, and we have big advantages. We have every department right here, in this building. I can be anywhere I want in the company in about 20 seconds. That’s a real luxury.
“Still, the car has challenges. The biggest one is that everything is new. We’re not taking a single component from another and that takes a hell of a lot of work. But it also means every single thing will be fit for purpose. If we get it right we’ll have a fantastic car, far better than if it contained a lot of unsuitable components from other sources. It’s just common sense.