Gerry McGovern, chief creative officer of Land Rover

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Gerry McGovern Land Rover

It’s one of the most remarkable success stories in UK business history – Jaguar Land Rover’s recovery from the brink of closing factories to record profit and global growth. Land Rover’s chief creative officer Gerry McGovern, instrumental in the turnaround, tells Director it couldn’t have been achieved without smarter leadership, streamlined decision-making and uncompromising design

Step into Gerry McGovern’s office in the heart of Land Rover’s Warwickshire HQ and you would be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a Design Museum exhibit of iconic 20th-century furniture.

Ushering Director to a sleek white Eero Saarinen tulip chair, McGovern – sharply styled in a blue Savile Row suit – points out the highlights. “That’s a Bertoia bird chair,” he says, gesturing to a low-slung seat nearby. “And that’s a Charles Eames screen – it comes in walnut, but I painted it white. Sacrilege!”

In keeping with the room’s meticulously considered styling, a white wire-frame sculpture of a Range Rover Evoque sits on a stand next to the boardroom table. Indeed, as you walk the corridors of this nerve centre of automotive design and engineering, you’ll pass endless canvasses displaying eye-catching photographs of Land Rover’s latest vehicles. In one, a Range Rover Sport waits in front of a futuristic American home – the vehicle consciously elevated from driving machine to work of art.

It wasn’t always so. When car design guru McGovern returned to a Ford-owned Land Rover in 2004 (he had previously worked as lead designer for the business when it was owned by the Rover Group in the 1980s and 1990s, before being lured to work in the US), it was preoccupied with practical vehicles, rather than pin-ups:

“I found a company very much in the mould of the Land Rover I’d left – a company that had its roots in functionalism, where design played second fiddle to function, to engineering,” he says.

“It was a struggle at that time to get decisions made, because we were in the Ford empire. Don’t get me wrong, Ford is a big company – and has been around for over 100 years – so it knew what it was doing. But I found it quite difficult, in the decision-making process, to form strategies, to get decisions made about future product. Of course, not very long after, the company went up for sale [in summer 2007] and that was a time where it was, to a certain degree, lacking in confidence, its future unclear.”

Undeterred during these uncertain years, McGovern was convinced that Land Rover’s fortunes (profitable, but not enough to satisfy Ford) could be improved by focusing on aesthetics – making its vehicles as celebrated for turning heads as they were for tackling rugged terrain.

He took to his drawing board and, by late 2007, the world got a first look at the vehicle that would help power the company to previously unimagined levels of profit – the LRX concept car, a compact luxury SUV that made car writers’ jaws drop and would eventually go into production as the hugely successful Range Rover Evoque.

Fast-forward seven years to January 2015 and McGovern was explaining his philosophy at an event in Iceland to herald the launch of another designed-to-be-desired new model – the Land Rover Discovery Sport.

“As the automotive world gets more and more competitive, once innovation and technologies become comparable between manufacturers, you’re really left with brand and design to differentiate yourself in the marketplace,” he told the assembled press, Director included.

A few weeks later, figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders revealed that Land Rover
sales in the UK were up 29 per cent compared with March 2014. Indeed, Land Rover sold 17,702 cars in March 2015 alone – meaning that Brits were snapping up the vehicles at the rate of one every three minutes.

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Gerry McGovern, chief creative officer of Land Rover

Design on board
At a glance, then, it might all seem relatively straightforward – refocus design on desirability, while maintaining engineering excellence, and sell more cars.

But, says McGovern, the Range Rover Evoque would never have gone into production as he envisaged had it not been for the unwavering backing of design at board level by the company’s new owners – Tata Motors, the Indian automotive giant that bought both Land Rover and Jaguar from Ford for £1.3bn in 2008, uniting the brands as Jaguar Land Rover Automotive plc and securing the future of production in the UK.

“They allowed us to define our own destiny and Mr Tata [Ratan Tata, then the chairman of Tata Group, who stepped down in December 2012 but remains as chairman emeritus] was incredibly supportive of the vision we were trying to create,” says McGovern, settling into his own tulip chair.

“He was incredibly supportive of design, partly because he has a high degree of design literacy – he trained as an architect. One of the first things he did was insist that design sat on the board and was equal with other disciplines in the business. At the time when Tata Motors came along, we’d designed the Evoque, but we hadn’t started producing it. They could have turned it away, but they said, ‘No, you’ve got to do it’.

“So we started to develop a vision for the brand in terms of what we wanted Land Rover to be, as opposed to what it was,” he continues. “To a certain degree, Land Rovers looked the way they did because of their roots in functionalism, but as a consequence they were quite polarising – a bit like Marmite, you either loved them or you hated them. We created a design strategy that was all about relevance – in a world that was changing, designing vehicles that people wanted to buy, that resonated with them on an emotional level, but still maintained the essence of the brand.”

This backing from the new owners would prove crucial, as there were those at the company who didn’t believe in the design of the Evoque – which went into production in 2011.

“I remember that was a vehicle that people within the business said, ‘Oh no, this isn’t the right sort of thing to do with this brand’,” says McGovern.

“One marketing guy said, ‘You’ll sell about 30,000 of those, Gerry’ – we’re selling 130,000 a year, and I haven’t seen him for a while,” he jokes. “But I was convinced this was a vehicle that would change the perception of the Land Rover brand, would make it more accessible, giving it greater appeal while bringing younger people and more females to the brand.”

Holding the line
So, faced with that perennial business problem – staying true to an idea when the realities of day-to-day commerce threaten to chip away at its brilliance – how did McGovern ensure his concept for the Evoque came to life precisely as he envisioned? “The worst thing you can do is design by committee,” he says.

“Our decisions are more based around how we work together and respect each other’s disciplines – I don’t tell the engineering director how to design his suspension system, and he doesn’t tell me how to design the overall car. It’s about having a vision and sticking to it – I like to remember Gladiator, when [Maximus, leading a cavalry charge], says, ‘Hold the line, stay with me!’ If I had backed off I’m convinced we would not have created a vehicle as compelling – it wouldn’t have sold as well. I was totally intransigent
at times.”

Given the experience, what advice does McGovern have for visionary leaders when difficult conversations with doubting colleagues arise? “Be prepared for the difficult conversations,” he says.

“Demonstrate your expertise in everything you do and be passionate about what you believe in. Bring people with you and learn the battles you need to fight. I use the term ‘battle’ because back then it was. Now, I think there’s a much greater level of receptivity to the relevance of design and the power it can have. Design has proven its worth in terms of the success of the products it has created. That’s something we in Britain tend to forget. We’ve got a fantastic design culture in this country and we don’t promote it enough.”

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The new Land Rover Discovery Sport, designed for desirability

Driving growth
In the years that have followed, design has indeed proved its worth to Land Rover. By the quarter ending June 2014, Jaguar Land Rover’s revenues had risen 31 per cent on the same period in 2013 – to £1.3bn.

Pre-tax profit rocketed from £415m to a record £924m. This year, Land Rover has already reported its best ever sales for the month of March – selling 49,099 vehicles globally, a 13 per cent increase on the same period in 2014.

Investment in new models has also brought benefits to the wider economy – 250 new jobs have been created to produce the new Discovery Sport at Land Rover’s plant in Halewood, Merseyside (where the Evoque is also produced) and some £3.5bn in contracts have been awarded to 55 UK suppliers. As a whole, Jaguar Land Rover now employs over 32,000 people directly in the UK.

Now that the company is united behind its philosophy of creating desirable, relevant vehicles, how are decisions made at Land Rover today? “We have a [Jaguar Land Rover] board meeting on a Monday and they tend to be operational,” says McGovern, adding that these weekly meetings are kept to a maximum of an hour wherever possible.

“We discuss: What’s going on that week? What are the issues we’ve got? Each functional head, from purchasing, to marketing, to engineering etc… is at the table. We all input where appropriate. When it comes to the decisions relating to design, we have what’s called the ‘chairman’s design forum’ and the people who attend that, you can count on one hand – Ralf Speth [CEO of Jaguar Land Rover]; Cyrus Mistry [chairman of Tata Group], Mr Tata [Ratan Tata] and myself, or in the case of Jaguar, my counterpart Ian Callum [design director of Jaguar].”

And what is the executive team’s main focus today? “Building on our success and implementing our vision,” says McGovern. “By 2020 there’s going to be 22 million SUV-type vehicles sold globally. So that’s a massive market. We’re asking: What are the products we could be creating that don’t actually exist yet – like the Evoque, which we didn’t have in our portfolio before?”

But, while he admits Land Rover is keen to increase sales volume, McGovern implies this would not be to a scale that might jeopardise each model’s standing as an aspirational vehicle:

“We don’t have a desire to be a massive volume producer but we need sufficient volume to give us the critical mass required to sustain our investment plan. Between Jaguar and Land Rover, we’d want to see a significant growth compared to today [in 2014 Land Rover sold 381,108 vehicles, Jaguar 81,570]. But that’s all about making sure we develop a business that’s sustainable, where we can reinvest in future product development, employ more people, and grow.”

One region expected to play a major part in this growth is, of course, China – where demand for luxury British goods has grown rapidly and Jaguar Land Rover sold 122,010 vehicles in 2014, a 28 per cent increase on 2013 (by comparison, the company sold 86,310 cars in continental Europe and 74,981 in North America).

In October 2014, the company opened its first full overseas manufacturing plant in Changshu, near Shanghai. The 400,000-square-metre plant will produce 130,000 vehicles a year for the Chinese market only.

And, while forecasts suggest that vehicle sales in general will grow more slowly in China this year, Speth told reporters that Jaguar Land Rover is pushing ahead with its growth strategy in the country: “We are opening new dealerships and we’re optimistic about volume growth in China,” he said.

But, says McGovern, satisfying the demands of the Chinese consumer won’t mean compromising on vehicle design: “Different cultures have different sensibilities when it comes to aesthetics,” he says.

“But if somebody said to me, ‘China is a massive market for us, we need to be designing a vehicle to Chinese visual sensibilities,’ I’d say, ‘Why would you do that?’ Because what you’re designing is something that represents a British brand. If you start trying to dilute it for a specific market, in terms of its core DNA, you’re going to fail – because they’re not buying you for that, they’re buying you because you are British and that’s what they want. That’s not to say, though, that you can’t create certain specifications based on cultural differences – the number of seats, perhaps, or the size of the vehicles.”

On the subject of customising vehicle specifications for the more demanding consumer, Jaguar Land Rover recently launched its Special Vehicle Operations division. Housed in a new £20m facility, it is primed to produce bespoke versions of models including heightened performance, ultra-luxury interiors and special paint options.

Shortly after our interview, McGovern joined Director’s shoot team to be photographed for our cover in front of one such creation – the Range Rover Sport SV Autobiography. With an extra-long wheel-base and opulent luxury in the back – from power-deployed tables to mohair carpet – the vehicle is aimed at those who prefer to be chauffeur driven and, with a price tag of £147,745, is expected to have strong appeal in the Middle East market.

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“Demonstrate your expertise in everything you do and be passionate about what you believe in. Bring people with you and learn the battles you need to fight” – Gerry McGovern

Artistic steer
But while it’s hard to deny that the new families of luxurious Range Rovers and sporty Discoveries are every bit the head-turners that McGovern designed them to be, a more famous old name from the company’s stable could soon be stealing the spotlight from its younger siblings.

When Land Rover announced that this would be the last year for production of its iconic Defender model – a farmyard staple and favourite of the Queen – there was outcry from fans and their second-hand price duly rocketed. Land Rover has, however, announced that a newly designed Defender will be going into production soon, with press reports claiming the design has been signed off and will be revealed next year.

For now, McGovern is unable to comment – but he does confirm that Land Rover’s design-led philosophy will hold true. “For new Range Rovers, Discoveries and Defenders, it’s design leadership and engineering integrity – they’ve got to be great designs with all-terrain capability. That’s our major differentiator in the marketplace,” he says, sweeping a hand across the top of his Eero Saarinen table.

And does McGovern, also a professor at the Royal College of Art, take inspiration from the design classics around him when creating his cars?

“I consider myself predominantly a designer, not necessarily a car nut,” he says. “If you saw my homes, you’d see an eclectic mix of art and design – and while most of my peers would collect cars, I collect modern art. I’m a great fan of British modernism – Victor Pasmore, Patrick Heron, Bridget Riley, I love all that stuff. A lot of my inspiration comes from that. I don’t know whether it’s conscious or subconscious…”

His design inspiration may come from many sources, but McGovern concedes that the judgement of his creations is the same as for the rest of his peers: “At the end of the day, if the vehicles don’t sell then you’re not a success – in my work you’re only as successful as your cars are.”

To see more of Gerry McGovern’s designs, visit landrover.co.uk

@LandRover_UK
youtube.com/LandRoverUK

CV
1956 Born in Coventry
1978 After completing a degree in industrial design and studying automotive design at the Royal College of Art, travels to the US to work for Chrysler
1982 Following a stint as senior designer for Peugeot, joins Austin Rover and works as lead designer on the successful Land Rover Freelander and third-generation Range Rover
1999 Joins Ford in the US to work on the Lincoln-Mercury brand, before returning to the UK in 2003 to run a Ford design consultancy in London
2004 Rejoins Land Rover, then own  ed by Ford, as director, advanced design
2008 Appointed to Jaguar Land Rover board as chief creative officer of Land Rover, after company’s purchase by Tata Motors

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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