There have been mutterings on the industry grapevine that change was coming to the top of JLR, but today’s news that CEO David Smith is leaving still comes as a surprise.
Smith was the linkman between JLR and Tata Motors during the 2008 sell-off and made such a good impression on the Indian team that he jumped straight to the top of the list when a new CEO was needed.
Officially the reasons for his departure are “confidential between the two parties”, whatever truth that really masks, and company insiders are keeping to that line, although persistent rumours that former Opel exec Carl-Peter Forster was being sounded-out for some high ranking job at JLR can’t have helped.
Smith gave the impression of being a finance man at heart rather than a car guy - even though he joined Ford in 1983. That’s not a bad thing, of course, JLR has always needed a strong hand on the purse strings.
But the CEO’s job also needs enormous empathy for production, engineering, styling, strategy, marketing, sales and PR. Maybe those things never quite gelled?
It also seems strange to make this key change at a critical time as the new XJ nears production. Also D-Day nears on the monumental decision to close one of JLR’s three Midlands factories, widely expected to be Solihull.
This feels like a critical year when JLR needs stability at the top, a point that could have been made many times in the past when the revolving door at the top of the company was spinning at full speed.
There are rumours that the XJ launch is facing a delay. Certainly the old XJ was completely sold out last year, so we have to hope that the run-out of the XJ hasn’t gone wrong again.
At the moment there’s no suggestion of a repeat of the disaster of the previous switchover from the X300 to the alloy X350, which was delayed by nearly twelve months and largely blamed for Jag’s descent to a £500m loss that year.
Hardcore detail like this ought to be meat-and-drink to an exec like Carl-Peter Forster, although JLR still isn’t confirming Forster’s or anyone’s name.
He’s got masses of wide-ranging industry experience, and ended his career at BMW as board member for vehicle development from 1999 to 2001, the start of the Bangle era.
If Forster does turn-up at JLR, he brings 13 years experience at BMW and a further 10 or so at General Motors Europe, although his time at GME ended less than happily.
My sources suggest that the twists-and-turns of the GME sell-off ultimately took their toll, a process not helped by Forster’s championing of the Magna deal with the German government.
And during his tenure at GME, Brits saw him as favouring German working methods at the expense of Vauxhall, even though GM’s British arm was out-performing Opel. Of course he did OK the Astra investment at Ellesmere Port.
Unusually, Forster has a mixed business and technical background including an aerospace degree from Munich University and a spell at management consultants McKinsey in the early 80s.
In that sense he would become probably the most qualified boss JLR has ever had. And Forster has another secret that’s relevant to JLR - he was born in Britain in 1954 - spending his early years in London.