Ron Dennis Interview: Life in the fast lane

Ron Dennis CBE is Chairman and CEO of the McLaren Group, and Team principal of the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes F1 team.
Commercial awareness
Business analysis

What kind of student were you?

My schooling was solid rather than exceptional. I took and passed a handful of O-Levels - 45 or so years later, I'm afraid I can't remember how many, or in which subjects, - and I went thereafter to Guildford Technical College, where I studied for an OND/HND. However, in the autumn of 1966, before I'd had time to complete those studies, I was made an offer that I couldn't refuse: to fly to Mexico City, via New York City, on a Boeing 707, and work for the Cooper-Maserati team in Formula One. I was still a teenager, and I'd never travelled further than the Isle of Wight before. I accepted the offer immediately. Can you blame me?

That first involvement in Formula One, 42 long years ago, was as a mechanic. But the word 'mechanic' is a little misleading, because in those days only two people - just the driver and the so-called 'mechanic' - had full control of the optimisation of the preparation of their car. Other than the engine, which was usually outsourced (and was a Maserati unit in the case of Cooper in 1966), each mechanic built his driver's car during the winter, in preparation for a season's grand prix racing ahead. Nowadays, by contrast, there are three mechanics per car, with hundreds of highly-trained personnel backing them up.

The technical side of Formula One fascinates me still. But non-automotive engineering and design, and more recently architecture and fine art, inspire me almost as all-consumingly. Management theory interests me greatly, too. And although I've never studied formally since leaving Guildford Technical College in 1966, I've read management theory books voraciously.

The writings of Edward de Bono, in particular, have had a profound effect on both my intellectual outlook and my business modus operandi. My fascination with his theories began in the early 1980s, when a friend of mine invited me to attend a three-day seminar conducted by de Bono at a Heathrow hotel. I went along out of curiosity more than anything else, but I'm fantastically glad I did; I found the experience profoundly inspirational.

As you surely know, de Bono is credited with the invention of 'lateral thinking', and to this day I actively try to think as laterally as I can. As a result, I suspect I'm capable of analysing a legal contract (including the important bits that a lot of people miss that reside between its lines) as well as anyone. I very rarely read for leisure, though.

So, to go back to your question on what kind of student I was, although I was awarded an Hon DTech from De Montfort University in 1996, an Hon DSc from City University in 1997 and an Hon DSc from Surrey University in 2000, academia has played a relatively small part in my life.

What challenges, if any, did you encounter by choosing to avoid the conventional school-then-university-then-job career path?

Before I started my career in Formula One in 1966, it was an activity in which social class played a highly significant part. Many team owners were wealthy enthusiasts who had been born with proverbial silver spoons in their mouths. Then along came a new breed of young and ambitious guys like me, who saw that the sport could flourish more than it had hitherto if a more technology- and business-based approach were adopted. Our arrival certainly ruffled a few feathers, but many of us - people like Bernie Ecclestone (President of Formula One Management), Sir Frank Williams (Team Principal of Williams F1) and me - are still around in senior positions today.

How did you meet these challenges?

I've always been ambitious. I've always wanted to excel and, even more importantly, to help my colleagues excel. I've always been a perfectionist - I get it from my mother, who ran our Woking home with meticulous attention to detail - and very early on in my career, I realised that the way to make my mark in Formula One was to turn a well-known adage on its head: instead of 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em', I decided that the best and perhaps only way to join 'em, was to beat 'em.

And so it was that, gathering together a group of highly-motivated and abundantly talented individuals, we were able to start doing just that. By that time, on the back of the achievements of guys like Bernie, Frank and me, Formula One had gradually become more about what you knew than whom you knew. In other words, it had become a meritocracy which, despite its imperfections, it still is today. Nowadays, the most respected people in Formula One are the people who do the winning, and that's the way it should be.

Based on your experiences, what advice can you offer to young people who are trying to decide which career path to pursue?

My three children - Charlotte, Christian and Frankie - are all far more academically orientated than I was, and that pleases me enormously. My wife Lisa and I both wanted them to have as good an education as possible, and I vehemently urge young people everywhere to get as much as they possibly can from whatever educational possibilities come their way.

I even encouraged Lewis Hamilton (whom we at McLaren took under our corporate wing when he was a young lad and have now nurtured all the way to Formula One) to continue to take his studies very seriously, long after it became abundantly clear that he was going to be able to forge a very successful career in racing. My belief is that education is about more than achieving vocational preparedness, you see.

Having said that, and going back to your question, it's also about just that, of course. It's certainly, in part, about training young people's minds for the world of work. So my advice to young people is to take their education very seriously, and to understand that the only way to achieve goals is to work hard for them. The corollary of that is equally valid, and is neatly expressed in another well-known adage, 'no pain, no gain.'

There's a lot of truth in that proverb, because hard work is far from easy. It requires a lot of effort and something else, which is just as important - a huge amount of preparation. It's emotionally and psychologically taxing, as well as physically and mentally tiring. The 16th president of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, once famously said: "If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I'd spend the first four of them sharpening my axe." That's fantastically good advice. So, in a nutshell: you

should aim high, you should think hard, you should decide what you want to do,

you should do a lot of groundwork, and then - but only then - you should be in a position to realise your dreams.

You're credited with completely turning around the fortunes of McLaren in four vital years (1980-84). During that time, you built the foundations upon which the McLaren Group's subsequent successes have been constructed. What skills and personal qualities did it take to achieve this remarkable feat?

I didn't do it - we did it. The McLaren Group now numbers upwards of 1300 employees, and everything that we do is very much a team effort. And, in the epoch to which you allude in your question, although the company was considerably smaller back in the eighties, teamwork was still of paramount importance. So really I see myself as an entrepreneurial facilitator; someone who gathers together and then harnesses the disparate skill-sets of a large number of complementary individuals, so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

As far as my individual contribution is concerned, people have been kind enough to tell me that I'm unusual in being able to focus on the big picture at the same time as drilling down into the detail, and I guess there's some truth in that. Perhaps I have de Bono to thank for that. But everything we do at McLaren, we do as a team.

What have you enjoyed most about being the CEO of the McLaren Group? What do you feel are the most challenging parts of your role?

I was once asked whether I'd rather be remembered as having been a successful racing man or as a successful entrepreneur, and I answered straight away: the latter. I love motorsport; of course I do. It's in my blood. But the achievement of which I'm proudest is having been able, with the assistance of a large number of equally-driven people, to make the McLaren Group what it is today. And you should remember that the McLaren Group isn't only about Formula One. It comprises seven companies: McLaren Racing, McLaren Automotive, McLaren Electronic Systems, McLaren Applied Technologies, McLaren Marketing, Absolute Taste and Lydden Circuit. Being involved in the Group's gestation and continuous maturation has been a hugely engaging and enjoyable process for me.

As far as challenges are concerned, there are probably too many to mention. So I'll focus on just one. Growing a company from a group of 100 people to a workforce of upwards of 1300 is an extremely complex process, and it would be tremendously easy to get it wrong. It isn't merely a case of multiplying everything by 13. No, as companies grow, whole new problems present themselves, and those new problems require solutions that wouldn't have been either feasible or suitable before that growth took place. We worked incredibly hard to get it right, and I think the fact that the seven companies that make up the McLaren Group are all market leaders, without exception, demonstrates that we did a pretty good job of it.

What plans does the McLaren Group have for the future?

We aim to win every grand prix in which we compete. We're currently engaged in a feasibility study, involving a prototyping process, the result of which may be the planning and launching of a new series of state-of-the-art production sports cars. And each of the seven companies that makes up the McLaren Group is projected to grow apace in years to come. It's possible that we may diversify our business even further. Here, we sometimes use the phrase 'to the power of McLaren'. And if we can do something to the power of McLaren - in other words, if we can do it our way and thereby do it better than anyone else does it currently - then we will consider doing it.

If you weren't the CEO of the McLaren Group, what would you be (i.e. did you ever consider another career path)?

I've devoted all my energies to McLaren for so long that it's quite impossible for me to imagine doing anything else. First, though, let me assure you that I never wanted to be a racing driver. Equally, although I love art, I've never aspired to be an artist. Architecture inspires me and the McLaren Technology Centre - the Lord Foster-designed building from which the McLaren Group operates, and to which I go to work in every day - was a project into which I invested not only time and money, but also a phenomenal amount of creative energy. The result is an award-winning building which combines both beauty and function.

But would I or, more to the point, could I, have been a successful architect if things had panned out differently? That I do not know; it wouldn't be for me to say.

As told to Chris Wilkinson

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