Those who knew Geoff Polites, the universally admired Jaguar-Land Rover chief executive who died over the weekend, knew perfectly well that he was ill. But we were mostly able to put it out of their minds because his demeanour, workload and optimistic outlook on life made him seem anything but a man with major health concerns.
He was still working at “full steam”, as he would have put it, until a few weeks ago, but died in his native Australia a few days after the birth of a grandchild he had been hoping to see.
Polites was the prototype of a straight-talking Aussie, an inspirational leader who served in his youth as a top-level Aussie Rules football umpire (“a top place to learn about the importance of fairness”). He had been both a car company boss and a big-note Sydney car dealer in previous lives.
A friend of the former Ford boss, Jac Nasser, he took charge of the two UK companies in 2005 during their most problematic phase in recent history, when Jaguar’s huge losses were wiping out the profits that Land Rover’s new wave of products were just starting to earn.
Despite his illness, Polities didn’t shirk from any part of the massive challenge of turning the company’s fortunes around. Land Rover is earning billion-dollar profits, Jaguar has reached break-even (with profit around the corner) and the rationalisation move from the old Brown’s Lane factory has completed. More importantly, the twin brands now have stable management and a credible forward model plan orchestrated by the company’s new Indian owners. Polites couldn’t make the signing ceremony for the sale of JLR to Tata. A huge shame, as orchestrating all of this was his supreme achievement.
Polites hoped to offer Tata another three years’ service, but with typical realism he left nobody in any doubt this might not be possible. His death leaves the company’s new Indian masters with a difficult decision, so early in their ownership, simply because his balance of experience and skill will be very hard to replace.
But the twin UK marques are now securely founded in a way they were not when he moved into his last big challenge. And their future success – which looks more likely than not – will be his memorial.