THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: BIBIANA BOERIO
It is a good time to be on the board of Jaguar and new finance director Bibiana Boerio knows that her most important career move to date comes loaded with opportunities. After years of decline, the luxury car maker is enjoying its most successful period since being bought by Ford in 1989.
“Jaguar is starting to work. There’s a lot to do, but it’s really coming around,” explains Ms Boerio, who officially took up her post seven days ago. Aged 41, she has spent almost 20 years working for Ford’s North American operations and this move to Jaguar is her first posting to the wider reaches of the empire.
Four years ago such an appointment might have seemed like a punishment. Ruinous exchange rate problems were undermining sales in Jaguar’s largest market, North America. And chronic underinvestment was doing serious damage to quality and efficiency. The picture looks very different today. The company returned to profit in the fourth quarter of last year and is still in the black. Ms Boerio declines to disclose any figures, but she acknowledges that the current boom in sales points to Jaguar remaining profitable for the rest of 1995. The company’s worldwide sales this year are expected to reach 40,000 against 20,600 in 1992, and 30,000 in 1994.
Two years ago Ford began a massive investment programme to upgrade Jaguar’s plants in Coventry and Birmingham. Sophisticated quality control procedures have been introduced, and while quality still falls short compared with some Japanese luxury brands, independent consultancies have testified to the vast improvements that Jaguar has made. Productivity has risen, with staff levels having been halved to 6,200 since 1988.
These are improvements, certainly. But they still have to be set against the estimated pounds 770m in losses Jaguar has made since Ford paid pounds 1.56bn for the company six years ago. It has been said that Ford overpaid for Jaguar, and regretted the takeover once the depth of the problems were revealed, but Ms Boerio was having none of it.
“I never heard anyone at Ford say the purchase was a mistake,” she says. “We always knew that buying Jaguar was a long-term decision.” Anyone who might still doubt Ford’s faith in Jaguar only has to look at last month’s announcement of a pounds 400m investment in new manu- facturing facilities at the Birmingham plant. The factory will build the new X200, a much-needed medium-sized rival to BMW’s sporty 5-Series, and push Jaguar’s annual production beyond 100,000 cars.
It is, then, an extremely exciting time to be joining Jaguar, says Ms Boerio, who has replaced long-standing Jaguar executive John Edwards, who is now finance director at Northern Electric. Unmarried, and living in Stratford-upon-Avon, she has had chance to do little except read through the mountains of Jaguar files at her office.
Ms Boerio is cautious of talking about the company’s future plans, and maintains that she has not come to the job with a specific brief. Her reticence is understandable, given her recent arrival. “My aim is to find the right balance,” she explains. “The objective is to improve shareholder value.”
Given the breadth of her experience, it is obvious that Ford sees Ms Boerio providing a more valuable contribution than to utter the odd truism. Jaguar has some key issues to address over the next 12 to 18 months. It must decide whether to build a four-wheel drive rival to the Range Rover, work out how to improve sales in the key German market, or whether to build cars abroad.
Ms Boerio’s career at Ford – which included spells in sales and marketing, development of future products, and finance – was, no doubt, crucial in her selection for the job. A graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, where she gained a masters degree in accounting and marketing, Ms Boerio joined Ford’s finance department as an accountant in 1976. Seven years later she transferred to the future products division, which gave her experience in planning in an industry where development times can span ten years or more.
There then followed two years in the sales reporting division – a “tough and demanding” job – which basically involved telling the Ford board the good or bad news about the company’s performance. It was, she says, a valuable period in which she was able to sharpen her analytical skills.
For someone who declares that the best jobs “are the ones where you are in the field, dealing with the real world”, the next job may have appeared something of a step backwards. In 1988, Ms Boerio was moved to assisant controller’s job in Ford’s credit office, a department with $75bn in assets and second only to General Motors’ operation in size.
“At first I said if I wanted to work for a bank I would not have come to work for a company,” says the woman who admits to loving cars, but having no technical knowledge. The credit office had achieved 11 years of year-on-year record profits – a record itself that I managed to break. Interest rates were rising. Sales volumes dropped. Everything went wrong at the same time.”
Unsurprisingly, Ms Boerio describes that period in her life as “challenging”. But she was able to add accounting and corporate treasury experience to her growing list of skills, and it did not stop another important posting, to be manager in the auditor’s office at Ford’s North American operations. She agrees that it was an odd job for someone with no audit experience, but the move fitted with Ford’s tendency to shift people around “horizontally” so they could get a broader knowledge of the corporation. “The Ford way is to add on another layer of experience each time,” she says.
A spell as head of her own mini-business followed in 1993, when she became controller of Ford’s glass division. This $700m turnover operation was a self-contained unit within the group, and it gave Ms Boerio the chance to demonstrate what she could do running her own show.
She joins Jaguar on the back of the Ford 2000 programme, a global restructuring aimed at streamlining operations into worldwide units. Mrs Boerio did not apply for the job, it was offered to her, and – so far as anyone at Jaguar knows – no other internal or external candidates were considered. She admits that she had little knowledge of the Jaguar operation before her appointment, and had not previously had any direct experience of a manufacturing and assembly business that trades worldwide. But she strongly rejects suggestions this is a handicap.
“If you understand the processes of an organisation, the specifics will come,” she says. “I will still go up a learning curve as far as the specifics are concerned. But I already know the processes.”