It’s a coincidence but it could hardly be more fitting that the announcement of Sir Ralf Speth’s retirement next September from his 10-year role as Jaguar Land Rover’s CEO should come on the dot of the UK’s departure from the EU.
Years before Brexit was a firm decision, Speth was a vocal critic of the idea, warning anyone who would listen – from voters to prime ministers – of the dire consequences likely to affect and diminish Britain’s motor industry if the intricate relationship between UK manufacturing, its European suppliers and its global customers were interrupted. In many important ways, Speth has been proved right: the UK industry has declined rapidly and that trajectory looks set to continue for several years yet, before it begins to reconfigure.
The fortunes of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) were clearly always at the front of Speth’s mind: during his tenure, the two-marque company became Britain’s largest and by far its most profitable car manufacturer. But a sudden shakeout in 2017, caused primarily by rapid public rejection of diesel engines and major difficulties in China, brought serious losses, plus the unforeseen need to sack 4500 employees and to trim costs by £2.5 billion. The action worked and JLR returned to profitability six months ago.
However, Speth’s legacy amounts to far more than some financial bumps in the road. He has built Britain’s biggest car manufacturer – and given it manufacturing outposts in Brazil, Slovakia and China as hedges against both high manufacturing costs and the financial bumps of the future. He has brought a new rigour to JLR, learned from his several formative decades as a young BMW engineer. Today, the relationship between JLR and BMW moves ever closer.
He has embraced and worked in impressive harmony with Tata Sons, JLR’s Indian owners – whose arrival was a profound shock to many in the UK – always reserving a special respect for Ratan Tata, who stoutly led the original acquisition and whose influence in old age continues to guide JLR. Speth’s innate love of cars led to the creation of a succession of well-targeted and enticing Land Rover and Jaguar products. His restless love of progress led JLR to put a successful, desirable premium electric car, the Jaguar I-Pace, on the market about a year before his German opposition could respond.
In recent years, Speth has been a remarkable servant of his adopted country, too. He has taken British citizenship – hence the recent, quiet confirmation of his honorary knighthood – and has used his knowledge of what matters in modern industry to press local politicians on key projects, in particular the establishment of a fully fledged battery manufacturing operation. His close relationship with Midlands universities has greatly helped: so far, we have a UK Battery Industrialisation Centre designed to take innovations developed in universities and point them towards full-scale production. The next step, as Speth keeps pointing out, is large-scale manufacturing.