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CAR interviews McLaren Group CEO Ron Dennis (2014)

Tue, 17 Jun 2014

By Gavin Green

Motor Industry

17 June 2014 09:44

It seems 903bhp may not be enough. Ron Dennis – back in charge of McLaren Group as CEO after two years of hands-off frustration – confides that some owners of the P1 hypercar are demanding ‘something a bit more edgy’. Perhaps there’ll be a second chapter in the P1 story; 375 hand-built cars have already sold out to wealthy enthusiasts. People who, it appears, are never satisfied.

A similar accusation could be thrown at Dennis himself. At 66, having transformed McLaren from occasional Grand Prix winners into a $900 million ‘technology business’ – telemetry clients include Team GB Olympic cyclists and the NHS, and every F1 team uses a McLaren control unit – and of course, having launched the F1 and P1, two supercars that redefined the performance boundaries… after all that, you’d think Dennis would be happy to sit back and spend his many millions while his disciples continue his corporate legacy. But no. Ron’s back. And he wants to win all over again.

He’s running McLaren Group again because the non-executive role ‘wasn’t working for me. I’m too hands-on, too passionate about the detail. Formula 1 and the whole group, I think, will benefit from my experience.’

Although he doesn’t want to talk about it, it’s clear that Martin Whitmarsh and Antony Sheriff – who ran the F1 team and the Automotive unit – were not delivering the Dennis vision. They no longer work for McLaren. ‘The company wasn’t going in the right direction,’ explains Dennis.

He accepts there were many difficulties and problems launching McLaren Automotive. ‘It was like climbing Everest – you know it can be done but it is very difficult and things can, and do, go wrong.’

The 2011 launch of the 12C was far from perfect, and Dennis is a perfectionist. ‘At the beginning you need tremendous investment and you have investor pressure to bring the car to market, even though you have some unresolved technical problems. The first 100 cars weren’t mature enough in certain areas and I felt very guilty for those customers. So they all had upgraded technology applied retrospectively to their cars, free of charge.’

While CAR knows there were some aggrieved early 12C buyers, Dennis claims the fixes ‘created a very positive impact with customers, and it set a mindset for high customer service that our customers now expect and that we must continually deliver. Our standards, I think, are somewhat higher than many of our rivals.'

He rejects rumours – at the 650S launch – of many unsold 12Cs. Rather, he points out that last year McLaren Automotive made a small profit (it lost £12.4 million after tax in 2012; the 2013 profit – yet to be disclosed – was fuelled by sales of the £866,000 P1). He won’t deny 650S will dent 12C sales, nor that 650S represents a significant advance, just three years after the 12C hit the road. Instead he insists McLaren is right to continue developing the P11 family (12C, 650S). ‘We’re a racing team at heart, and we innovate and improve our products fast… and offer them to the customer as soon as possible. We’ve taken all we’ve learnt from 12C and P1 and put it into 650S.’

He insists he still has the passion and the drive to succeed. ‘If I close my eyes in front of the mirror, I feel 25. I have no pain, no illness, and as much energy and passion as I’ve always felt. But when I open my eyes, I’m north of 60. But so what? In Japan, they have tremendous respect for experience and maturity. Never disregard the importance of having been there, done that.’ 

He says he is mystified when people criticise him as a ‘control freak’: ‘I’m obsessed by high quality and to get high quality you need great detail. If you say you’re obsessed by quality, people get it. But if you say you’re obsessed by detail, that’s a negative. To me, that’s a contradiction.’ He happily admits to being ‘fastidious’ and a ‘workaholic’.

Although McLaren is best known as a racing team, Dennis insists the future of McLaren is as a company that sells technology. McLaren Applied Technologies – the group’s technical arm – ‘is where the growth is. I’m confident we can transform a company [the McLaren Group] that’s currently turning over $900 million into one turning over $2 billion in five years. We are a technology company that has a Formula 1 team. That’s our future.’

By Gavin Green