Aston Martin: Driving growth globally

After a period of deep transformation, British luxury car-maker Aston Martin is helping to drive forward the UK’s high-tech manufacturing sector. Michael Kerr, Aston Martin’s vice president and chief HR officer, spoke to Ruth Holmes about the this, and how the company is relocating employees from Gaydon to St Athan, and beyond.

Aston Martin car grill
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Aston Martin is going places. Under the aegis of its Second Century Plan, introduced in 2015 to build a sustainable business for the next 100 years, the newly public-listed company has a fresh business plan, a new leadership team and a revamped product range.It also has two new UK facilities – a manufacturing plant in St Athan, which will bring up to 750 new high-skills jobs to the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales, and a testing and development one in Silverstone, Northamptonshire, England. This brings the number of UK sites to ten and will strengthen Aston Martin’s presence in its six global regions and over 160 international dealerships.Aston Martin’s UK precision manufacturing expansion is geared to sating strong demand for its luxury vehicles in China and the US while ensuring the company’s exacting quality standards are upheld.“The St Athan site is going great,” said Mr Kerr. “It’s as big as our Gaydon plant [n Warwickshire] and will employ up to 750 people. It starts production early next year [2019] and is a critical part of what we are doing as part of our Second Century Plan.”

People-driven change

Undertaking such fundamental and wide-ranging transformation across the business – including a public listing, new production and funding cycles, and senior management team – is no easy task.A quick look under the bonnet reveals how Michael Kerr and the executive team are transforming the business through a five-point plan that emphasises collaboration and co-operation, continual improvement, communication and continuous learning.“I want Aston Martin to be a people company,” says Mr Kerr, who before joining Aston Martin was HR director of West Ham United, a premier league football club built on the success of its team.“In terms of doing that – and there is nothing new or unusual in our approach to this – we set out a vision, planned around it, designed the processes, thought about the brand and our values, and applied all this to the manufacturing.“Quality is critical in the luxury sector and we can only achieve that through our culture. It cuts through everything we do. The responsibility for creating quality doesn’t sit in one place. This is why we don’t do anything now without getting a cross-functional team together.“I can’t stress enough how important cross-functional teams are in driving quality through the business and being solutions-oriented is.

Relocation and talent mobility at Aston Martin

For talent mobility within Aston Martin, a team of HR, Procurement, Engineering and Finance expertise, underpinned by HR’s day to day responsibility, oversees the strategic direction of Aston Martin’s expansive relocation programme.This encompasses a range of temporary and permanent moves, both domestically and internationally, and a very small number of expatriate moves. “We don’t have a mass of people relocating abroad. The number of expatriates we have is very small. There are lots of historic reasons around that – for cost as much as anything else.“In that sense we haven’t been big enough or had the money like other players in the global auto industry who would do a lot of assignments. But, in recent months, we’ve sent a finance director to work out of our American office with the American team as part of her career development, which is something that the business also needs.”

From Warwickshire to the Vale of Glamorgan

Domestically, it is a different story. With preparations well underway to open the new state-of-the-art St Athan facility, Aston Martin hired its first cohort of 70 people from the surrounding area who will work primarily manufacturing roles.“For us, this is a massive step forward,” says Mr Kerr. “We have never had a second manufacturing plant on the scale that we have now and our plant at St Athan is getting on for the same size as our plant here at Gaydon.”Until the new plant opens, the company is training these colleagues in the Aston Martin Way at Gaydon, Warwickshire. “This group will return to St Athan early in the new year, and start to assist in the training and recruitment and the pilot build of prototypes as we gear up to full-scale production,” says Mr Kerr.

Relocation challenges

Inevitably, with an average two-hour commute between the two sites, this raised the challenge of how to accommodate people during this temporary arrangement – a problem exacerbated by the relocation of some IT roles permanently to South Wales from Warwickshire.“We are struggling with the amount of available hotel accommodation there is in the area around Cardiff and that area of Wales, both just physically and on cost as well. These are all things we are looking at currently and part of what we are doing in establishing a plant with upwards of 750 in St Athan,” said Mr Kerr.To resolve this, Aston Martin is working closely with service providers locally who are able to provide excellent local information and insight into the accommodation options available.

...and opportunities

The permanent move of some IT roles from Gaydon to St Athan reflects both the company’s eye on the future and leading-edge automotive technology in its “seven years, seven models” business plan, and the rising reputation Wales has for digital services and research.While the West Midands has earned its mantle as a great place do business, live and work for tech expertise, South Wales is undergoing a digital boom of its own with a number of initiatives designed to drive digital innovation.This to the extent that in 2017, Cardiff beat London and Birmingham in business school INSEAD’s Global talent Competitiveness Index, which ranks 46 cities worldwide on 19 variables, including R&D investment, quality of life, education and the presence of major universities, average monthly expenses and airport connectivity.As just one example of the scale of these developments, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) established its Economics Centre of Excellence and Data Science Campus at Newport, following its relocation out of London.A network of other university-led projects and hubs are also delivering benefits, including knowledge and talent, which are being mapped by global innovation foundation, NESTA, and its Arloesiadur (innovation directory) network.These are all trends Aston Martin is very aware of and that help to make the location attractive. “We believe Wales does have a lot to offer in accessing talent. Particularly in the high-tech area. There is a lot of investment they [the Welsh government] are making to the Welsh Universities and the other high-tech firms based in Wales. And we’d very much like to be part of that,” says Mr Kerr.“We are looking closely at how connected cars are relevant to our product. Most of that work will be done from our St Athan facility,” he continues. “We’ve also been made most welcome by the Welsh government. We enjoy a close working relationship with them. We are happy to work collaboratively with them to access the best of what Wales has to offer us.”

Moving people

At an individual level for people in roles relocating from Gaydon to St Athan, Aston Martin has created a range of flexible options designed to support team members and their personal situations. “This allows us a good level of flexibility to ensure we can meet the needs of the employee in a sustainable and practical way,” says Mr Kerr.“Our approach has been to explain the opportunities and positions available, and encourage voluntary take up of the opportunity to move. The response we have received has therefore been very positive for the organisation.“We have had a mix of people who see the opportunity to live in South Wales as great for them and their family, and those who see the great career development this move offers.”The company also has a significant programme of 100 apprenticeships, which last four years. Committing also to the future skills pipeline in St Athan, Aston Martin will open a second apprentice training academy specifically for the new plant, which starts recruiting in September 2019.

Going forward under the Second Century Plan

Despite the UK’s still-uncertain trajectory out of the European Union in the next few years, Aston Martin looks to be navigating its internal and external challenges well.Aston Martin is set to achieve the top end of its sales targets this year. The company’s revenues have also nearly doubled to £282m, with an expanded dealer network in China boosting sales by 118 per cent as the broader market slowed, reports the FT.For Michael Kerr, stability is critical. A smooth transition of people to St Athan to bring the new production lines into action for the hotly anticipated DBX is the first step.As for Brexit, “We are reasonably well placed, we are looking for stability, and we will deal with that as and when things unfold.” With Aston Martin’s people-centred approach, its meticulously manufactured cars look to be in safe hands.
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