JLR performance shop is no boys club

Picture the scene inside Jaguar Land Rover’s performance division, and you imagine a lot of men gathered in a perimeter shed around a V-8 on a test bench, goading each other in the manner of ex-“Top Gear” host Jeremy Clarkson to extract more power.

The vehicles so far to emerge from JLR’s 2-year-old equivalent of Mercedes-Benz’s AMG or BMW’s M division are mostly V-8-powered, but it’s not all men creating them. Far from it. Several key executives overseeing the work of the Special Vehicle Operations division are women. And the sparkling, multifunctional headquarters is a long way from the image of a grimy mechanic’s shop

Mortiboys: However macho the vehicles, the female mix helps create them.

However macho the vehicles, the female mix helps in creating them, says SVO’s vehicle line director, Michelle Mortiboys.

“Succeeding as a female engineer in a male-dominated environment means you’re clearly quite pushy and you’ve got something about you,” she tells Automotive News. “You want that in SVO. You want that drive to be better.”

Mortiboys joined the company as an apprentice in 1989 and spent most of her career there as an electrical engineer. She says she has worked on every model JLR has produced in that time, except for the XJ limo. She won an internal award for her development of stop-start technology.

SVO creator Paul Newsome said when recruiting Mortiboys in 2014 that he was looking for a balance: “He wanted to understand what makes performance cars just as exciting to females as to males,” Mortiboys says. “He was looking for different voices.”

JLR is searching for an edge as it develops a performance line that it hopes one day will be as strong as BMW’s M and Mercedes’ AMG. Producing performance versions of key sellers — such as BMW has done with cars such as the 3-series based M3 — not only helps the bottom line, but lifts the profile in ways traditional marketing can’t.

Female voices are heard throughout SVO’s 691-strong work force. On the engineering side, Mortiboys says, about 25 percent of the division’s staffers are women, including program managers and engineering managers. Senior female executives include Catherine Etheridge, F-Type SVR program manager; Lorraine Toolan, global head of marketing; Gemma Oulton, senior brand strategy manager; and Samantha Adams, global experiential manager who is responsible for staging events such as auto shows and VIP viewings.

Clark: Chosen to ensure that SVO’s headquarters has pizazz

James Bond meets F1

The SVO division is in the U.K.’s traditional car-making town of Coventry, and occupies a newly completed building project that was managed by another woman, Sukhi Clark, business development manager. “It was my baby,” she says.

Clark, originally an electrical engineer who joined the company 26 years ago, was chosen to carry out SVO’s very stagy, almost showbiz ambitions for its headquarters, which plays a role in selling the vehicles as well as creating them.

“We wanted to create something that was very James Bond,” she says.

The £20 million ($ 26 million) headquarters, built on the site of an old Peugeot car factory, fulfills many roles, some customer-facing, some secret. SVO creates performance vehicles such as the

F-Type SVR and the Range Rover Sport SVR (an SUV with a top speed of 162 mph).

But it deviates from the AMG business model by also offering hyperluxury models such as the Bentley-chasing Range Rover SVAutobiography, and will soon branch into extreme off-road versions of Land Rovers, to be dubbed SVX. Imagine the Ford F-150 Raptor recreated as a posh SUV.

SVO says it will launch at least one new vehicle a year between now and 2020, with a goal of doubling the 3,600 sales achieved in the fiscal year that ended in March.

Although SVR vehicles are built on the same factory lines as their regular versions, the SVAutobiography is finished in the SVO headquarters alongside armored versions of JLR models. Also on the 215,000-square-foot site is a “personalization suite” where customers can discuss colors and options, as well as look around. Off-limits is an area inside where secret projects such as Queen Elizabeth II’s State Review Range Rover and the cars for the James Bond film Spectre were created. There’s also a paint shop.

The center is built to impress, at least on the inside.

“The customer arrives and you’ve got quite a small reception area, but there’s a secret door you go through so almost instantly, there’s that excitement,” Clark says.

It’s a sophisticated bit of theater that Clark says was inspired partly by visits to the factory/headquarters of luxury British makers such as McLaren, Bentley and Rolls-Royce. The influence of the famously fastidious McLaren can be seen in the white-tiled gleam of the Formula One-inspired workshop area.

Jaguar Land Rover hopes that its SVO performance line one day will be as strong as BMW’s M and Mercedes’ AMG.

Mostly male buyers

Attracting female SVO buyers remains a challenge. Women come to events at the headquarters, but getting them behind the wheel is harder, says Oulton, formerly a product manager for Bentley’s Mulliner bespoke division.

“On the performance side we’re seeing more women researching cars and coming to talk to us, but it’s still only about 10 percent,” she says. “The luxury side of things is predominantly male at the moment,” she says.

Why is that?

“You boys just like your toys,” she says.

Overall sales of SVO vehicles are minuscule, just 0.7 percent of the 521,571 vehicles JLR sold in the 2015-16 fiscal year, which ended March 31.

“JLR figures are still far away from its German rivals,” says Felipe Munoz, global analyst for data specialist JATO Dynamics. In the U.S., BMW’s M cars accounted for 5.9 percent of the brand’s total sales in the first half of this year at nearly 10,000, according to JATO data. In 2014 that share was just 2 percent. Mercedes’ AMG division accounted for 3.3 percent of its sales in the first half of this year at 8,138. However, JLR’s two SVR models did beat Audi’s two RS performance models sold in the U.S. in the first six months at 479 vs. 368.

The numbers are small, but they’re worth chasing, believes Ian Fletcher, principal analyst at IHS Automotive.

“There is definitely a strong business case for SVO not only from a marketing perspective but also financially,” Fletcher says.

The price bump for performance vehicles is significant: The Jaguar F-Type SVR coupe costs $ 126,945 in the U.S., compared with $ 104,525 for the V-8-powered F-Type R. The range starts at $ 62,325. All prices include shipping.

It helps strengthen relationships with high-end customers and affects its bread-and-butter business as well, Fletcher says.

“It’s an opportunity for JLR to gauge how much customers are prepared to spend, as it continues to push up the price point of its new vehicles,” Fletcher says. As an example, the maximum you could spend on a Range Rover in the U.K. in 2008 was about $ 95,000. Now that amount is $ 168,434 for the SVAutobiography.

Mortiboys regularly attends events to find out what customers want. So given they’re mainly men, what do they think when they discover a woman is in charge of engineering their vehicle?

“They might be slightly surprised, but generally customers are quite understanding,” she says. “If you’re buying a [$ 235,000] car, you want to make sure, male or female, the person doing the job is doing what they’re supposed to.” 

High-end performance

Jaguar Land Rover SVO aims to challenge European luxury brands’ performance lines. Here are U.S. sales in the first half of 2016.
BMW M 9,881
Mercedes-Benz AMG 8,138
Jaguar Land Rover SVO 479
Audi RS 368
Source: JATO Dynamics

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Automotive News Breaking News Feed

Share This: