THE NEW MAN AT JAGUAR
Chief Executive Geoffrey Robinson talks to Philip Turner about his own post and Jaguar’s future.
They bought him in to revitalise Innocenti. He tore up the place and achieved things it would have taken lesser mortals four years to complete. Now he’s Jaguar’s new boss, only the third in the company’s history. Who is Geoffrey Robinson and what has he in store for the Coventry firm. Revelations by Philip Turner.
Last September British Leyland announced that Geoffrey Robinson had been appointed managing director and chief executive of Jaguar. ‘Who is Geoffrey Robinson, everyone was asking, especially at Jaguar, for all most people knew about him was that he was managing director of Leyland Innocenti, the highly successful British Leyland operation in Italy, and that he was very young, only 34.
Soon it was being murmured about the Midlands that a very brisk new wind was blowing through the Jaguar organisation.
To all outward appearances a new’whizz kid’ had arrived on the scene. I had spent a day at the Innocenti plant in Milan in June 1972 when Geoffrey Robinson had taken the time to show me personally around his then still new domain. I had been greatly impressed by him then, and by what he was doing with the plant. I was impressed once again when I visited him in Coventry recently to see how he had coped with his first six months there.
Born in Sheffield on May 25 1939, Geoffrey Robinson grew up in blitzed wartime London, won a scholarship to Cambridge where he read German and Russian, and gained a fellowship to Yale to read economics and to have his already highly developed political sense still further aroused by the exciting Kennedy presidency. On returning to Britain in 1964 he worked as a Labour Party research executive until 1968, then joined the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation at a time when it was deeply involved in merging Leyland and BMC, which brought young Robinson into contact with Lord Stokes and John Barber.
When the newly elected Conservative party closed IRC in 1970, Robinson joined British Leyland, first as a staff executive, facilities planning,’ about which I knew nothing’, then after four months was offered the top job of financial controller of the corporation even though he wasn’t an accountant, by John Barber. In addition for being responsible for agreeing strategy on profit planning, capital spending and new model policy, he also ran the negotiations for buying Innocenti which hitherto had been assembling BL cars under licence in Milan. Having bought the company, he was made managing director and sent to run it.
When Robinson arrived in Italy in May 1972, Innocenti were building 65,000 cars a year. One of the first things he did was to stop production of the 1-5, the Innocenti version of the 1100 which had never been a success, in order to increase the production of Mini’s which were – and are, selling extremely well and making better profits. In August during the summer shutdown they did what he describes as a’fairly massive’ tear up of the facilities which increased production to 75,000 a year, then the following summer ‘against all the advice we received from the experts in the UK we tore apart the paint shop and put it back together again to increase its capacity to 110,000 units a year. We also lengthened all the production lines. In addition the total re-equipping of the press shop is underway so that Innocenti will be a completely integrated assembly plant from pressings right through to the final assembly operation. Doubling the capacity has meant an enormous workload on the Innocenti people. They have responded magnificently and all the programmes are on time.’
Then all of a sudden last year Robinson got a telephone call asking him to fly back to Britain to see Lord Stokes.
‘He said,˜I would like you to go to Jaguar,’ I said well, that’s very nice. I was sorry to be leaving Innocenti, particularly at a fairly important time for them. I therefore told Lord Stokes that I had a lot of commitments there and asked if I could phase the switch to Jaguar over a few months, to which he agreed. I am still President of Innocenti. It is a nominal role but the request did come from Italy.’
He says that Lord Stokes gave him no definite brief when appointing him chief executive of Jaguar. But when Robinson was financial controller, he set a target for Jaguar production of 1,000 cars per week, in round terms 50,000 cars a year.
‘I still think this is the target to aim at. As you know we have set ourselves the task of increasing our production capacity to double our previous record output of just over 30000 cars per year, provided sales are there. We shall then be ready to deal with what the market can absorb under reasonable sales pressure. We don’t want to lose the Jaguar specialist image, but you can’t say you are doing as well as you should be if you’ve got an excessively long waiting list.
We have got to be able to give people delivery. You can’t expect people to wait around for ever and I’m sure many of the Mercedes and BMW’s would never have been sold in Britain but for this long waiting list. We now have a very clear plan for modifying the body and assembly area to increase production. We are adding 80 yard extensions to all four arms of the two U-shaped assembly lines very shortly. We also have a completely new track on which we will build the two door XJs.
We have plans for removing the trim shop from the main assembly building and to put down a further track there and we shall have a new paint shop as soon as we possibly can which will make the old paint shop available for other uses. All of this, within two years, will have given us a radically changed assembly facility on the Browns Lane site.’
Geoffrey Robinson said he’d learnt a lot about production from running Innocenti. ‘I’m very pleased I had that experience before coming here, because we did so much in a short time. If one can say it without in any way wanting to appear presumptious we probably did in a year and a half what in most places would have been a programme extending over three or four years. I think I crammed a lot of experience into a relatively short time.’
Most people expected the fuel crisis to hit Jaguar harder than most manufacturers but Robinson said, ‘We have a long waiting list, to long for my liking, on the UK market. We have found that a dealer, if he has a cancellation, has only to go one or two slots down the waiting list before the car is snapped up. I think there is bound to be a shift in emphasis between the XJ6 and the XJ12, but on the other hand we are selling all the XJ12’s we can make at present. Don’t forget that in North America the V12 is not a big engine by their reckoning, and in a market which hitherto has taken up to half a million big Cadillacs and Lincoln’s a year, not to mention 40,000 to 50,000 Mercedes, 10,000 Jaguars a year is so relatively insignificant it is hard to imagine that a specialist car of this kind with such a relatively small niche will feel the pinch very much.’
‘In European markets on the other hand, the XJ12 is much more likely to feel the pinch. What we have done, therefore, is to delay temporarily the expansion of V12 production that was underway until the markets have settled down and we can see where we stand. We have switched the emphasis to not merely maintaining but to actually increasing production of the XJ6. We did this immediately and we are now in a position where we can move either way whenever we want to. The European markets may have fallen a bit flat but our overall order position in the world is such that we are still undersold, so that other markets are more than ready to take up immediately any slack from the European markets.
‘Although the UK, Europe and the USA are our three main sales areas, Australia and South Africa are also very important and the rest of the world will always absorb a certain amount of our production. So overall we are still in a very strong position. We accept that the price of fuel is bound to go up and it therefore follows inevitably that people will be much more cost conscious in relation to fuel. We have our own plans to make sure our cars remain competitive in this situation, and these plans will be put into operation as the situation demands.’
Lofty England, when he retired as Jaguar chairman, said: â€œBig developments are on the way for Jaguar, and having worked with Geoffrey Robinson in recent months I’m happy to retire in the knowledge that in him Jaguar has a young and highly talented chief executive who will lead the company successfully through the challenges ahead. He inherits one of the most dedicated teams in the motor industry and I know that they will give Geoffrey all the support they have given to Sir William Lyons and myself over the past vital few years.’
I asked Geoffrey Robinson about the changes in top management that have occurred since his arrival in Coventry.
‘We have brought in three people from outside the group (from Ford) and three from inside this corporation. The other management changes have been promotions within Jaguar. We have a strong management team and there is a good spirit within the company; the whole emphasis of our approach is to develop good management within Jaguar. I think the record to date shows that we have done a lot in this direction. Indeed, our relationship with the workpeople is one of mutual trust and frankness; and we have changed over to measured day work.’
Joint talks are now in progress between workers and management with the aim of improving working conditions further, things like canteen facilities and washing facilities.
‘I don’t say an improvement in working conditions will solve all industrial relations problems but it will certainly make a significant contribution.’
Geoffrey Robinson stressed that the production facilities at Jaguar are not just being expanded, they are also being modernised, which he regarded as even more important than increasing production.
‘Unless we modernise the facilities we shall not in the future be able to maintain the quality that is required of us in the price bracket we sell in, against the competition we have to match. While modernising the facilities we are at the same time building in the extra capacity which we hope through additional sales will give us the sort of return we need to pay for the modernisation.’
Until fairly recently, Jaguar formed part of the BL Specialist Car Division together with Rover and Triumph, but this arrangement has now been dropped and Jaguar and Daimler (with Vanden Plas now added) are on their own. Would it remain a separate entity in the future?
‘Engineering wise, I would say there is absolutely no sense in putting Jaguar together with Rover-Triumph. They have got more than enough on their hands with their cars which are very different from ours and we are in the same position. On the production side our integrated body and assembly operations make us quite distinct. There is no commonality in purchasing between us. How can there be, for their cars are smaller and cheaper than ours and they must be kept that way if we are not to compete with each other.
Where you need close co-operation is in the selling force, and we must both to a large extent sell through the same network and have the same policies. There are the corporate staffs there if we need them but both companies are large enough to recruit people of the calibre they need to run themselves. We accept that we are part of a corporation; we accept the disciplines of a corporation, for certainly financial controls in respect of model policies and capital expenditure must be agreed by the corporation for these are the key central controls to which any constituent element in a corporation must submit.’
‘There are two aspects of Jaguar that make it different from any other motor company. They are its engineering and the way it is sold, in that order. The engineering must be different, must be separate. The Jaguar is a very personal car. The XJ6 from an engineering point of view is the personal car of Bob Knight. It is’˜his’ car for although the styling was always the responsibility of Sir William Lyons, the structure of the car, the engineering of its chassis was always very much the responsibility of Bob Knight. We must do nothing to upset the close personal identification of the car with our engineers.
‘That is much more vital to the success of Jaguar than the imposition of any theoretical organisational structure on the engineering or any other department.’
‘In the approach to selling, the Jaguar is a very different car which sells to a different category of customer. But from a purely mechanical point of view the various departments function in the same manner as in any other manufacturing, finance or purchasing organisation. The difference is that we are a small enough organisation with a prestige product to have a sense of identity that runs through all departments. Therefore although certain of them function in a similar manner to equivalent departments in other companies, there is a difference because they are concerned with the Jaguar, and the product has a prestige and a glamour and an attractiveness outside the company which makes us all feel very different about making, selling, buying bits, or whatever it is for Jaguar than we would for any other car.’
He did not think the need to sustain this prestige and glamour would take Jaguar back to Le Mans.
‘We don’t have any need to, for the cars sell in their own right as magnificent vehicles. Secondly it would take so much engineering time that we simply don’t have to spare. The world has changed since the days of the old Jaguars when the cars that won Le Mans were driven to and from the circuit. We are now building some of the most sophisticated cars in the world, and to achieve this, we must in some respects aim away rather than towards the characteristics you need to win races. We have been low on engineering resources, but we have had considerable success in recruiting more engineers. Nobody has turned us down so far and we have recruited nearly 30 people for engineering. But we are still low in engineering resources relative to the sophisticated demands of the motor car and relative to our competitors. We still have to build up our engineering staff so we simply couldn’t afford at present any divergence of our engineering effort into such areas as racing.’
Geoffrey Robinson has driven Jaguar’s ever since he was financial controller and continued to run a Jaguar when at Innocenti. Has he always enjoyed driving?
‘Yes, particularly Jaguars.’
- All the cars I’ve owned : Austin Allegro 1500 Super - 7 June 2021
- Car of the Month : June 2021 – Stephen Wright’s Rover 75 Tourer - 3 June 2021
- Concepts and prototypes : BMC 10X (1968) - 1 June 2021