A week into his new job, the Chief Executive Officer of Ben Ainslie Racing talks about how he got here, and where he sees the company going. When the head-hunters called one of the aerospace industry’s brightest talents and told him that they had an opportunity at a small engineering and racing organisation they probably weren’t expecting a very positive response.
After all, Martin Whitmarsh was a very young CEO, and a founding director of Aerostructures Hamble Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of BAe plc. The job the head-hunters had in mind was tiny in comparison, just a hundred employees and a turnover of £19 million – but it was at a company called McLaren International, whose business was racing Formula One cars.
Twenty five years later, when Whitmarsh left McLaren, the team were employing over 3,000 people and had a turnover of £650 million. Another year on, and Whitmarsh finds himself at the head of another small racing organisation, and sees exactly the same opportunity for growth.
Whitmarsh’s Formula One career is well known. The team won over a 100 GPs and eight world championships while he was with them, a fifth of those while he was Team Principal. And then there are those very impressive growth statistics.
“If you’re going to go out and recruit the best people into the team, then I think it’s implicit in your duty of care to them that you are going to grow. If you are growing, there are necessarily challenges and demands on people in the organisation and that leads to opportunity.”
Martin Whitmarsh is clear about the path that McLaren followed to achieve that growth. “Firstly [at McLaren] we had to make sure we could succeed and win. In any of these environments, to have confidence and credibility you have to go out and succeed in the core proposition, and develop technical capability as you do it.”
Whitmarsh explains,”The next step is to say ok, we’ve got an organisation that’s running well, it’s performing, it’s got technology, how can we monetise that? How can we take some of those opportunities and create shareholder value?”
“At McLaren, our first developments were largely technical, selling technical services, then we reached a point where the brand had become established in its own right. We’re in a brand conscious world and if you are going to sell to consumers as well as businesses you need the brand.”
Whitmarsh sees a similar path and opportunities for BAR. He sees the America’s Cup as a fantastic platform from which the team can demonstrate its capability in high technology. He is also clear that the recent changes to the format of the Cup with initiatives like the America’s Cup World Series, are all going in the right direction to a little bit more continuity and to find a more consistent commercialisation of the sport.
“The problem with any form of entertainment – and that’s the business we’re in – is that people have an almost infinite number of choices in how they can spend their leisure time. What I saw in San Francisco – watching as an average punter – was a truly exciting and televisual America’s Cup. And there are those who would say; great we can do it again in four years time. But I think it’s quite difficult to commercialise the sport and grow public interest in it when it only hits awareness once every four years.”
Whitmarsh has only been with the team for a few days, but he’s had a chance to have a look around at what’s already been put in place. “It’s a significant act of faith to believe that we can win the America’s Cup and build a sustainable organisation. People within the team and the investors all believe in it, which is fantastic, now we have to go out and convince everyone else.”
He highlights the new Portsmouth headquarters as being central to that task. “It will do a lot of things for us. It will give us the space to operate, it will co-locate everyone and it will help build our identity. But I think it’s also a statement of intent.”
“When anyone arrives at the new HQ, the state of mind that I think it will produce from its location, the architecture, the scale of the undertaking, and the seriousness of the investment will then be reinforced by the team of people that they will meet as they pass over the threshold.”
“It’s going to be an extraordinary boost in anyone’s belief in this team, and the ability of this island to win a trophy that was created by us 164 years ago, but hasn’t been won by us before.”