“Kings, Rogues and the Piranha Club – Lessons from Walter and F1”
Walter Hayes Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust
RAC Club, London. January 22nd 2019
courtesy of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust http://amht.org.uk
“Walter, for those of you who aren’t so aware, was my Chairman of the company, and was responsible with Henry Ford II for buying Aston Martin and investing in the company initially, on behalf of Ford Motor Company.
“I have to say Walter rescued me from the Dagenham production plant. I had quite a reasonable career in product development at Ford, but decided for some crazy reason that it would be a good idea to learn about manufacturing. I decided to volunteer to go and run a manufacturing plant.
“One afternoon in early 1992 I was sitting at my desk having afternoon tea, and my clerk said Mr Halstead’s on the phone. Mr Halstead was the chief executive of Ford Europe, so I immediately stood to attention and took the call. He said come and see me now. So I drove from Dagenham to Brentwood in Essex to see him, and he handed me across his desk a picture of a car and said that’s going to be the new Aston Martin. If you’re interested Walter Hayes needs some help, so go see him tomorrow.
“Ford had some magnificent offices in Grafton Street round the corner not so far from here. I completely miscalculated how long it would take to get there in the morning, and turned up about an hour late, and I thought I’d completely and utterly blown it.
I went up to one of the upper offices where Walter, who I knew because I was very keen on motor racing, obviously I knew he was a compete icon of car racing, I was very thrilled to meet him. I apologised profusely for being an hour late, and he spoke very nicely and said don’t worry, traffic is terrible all around Europe, every city in the world, don’t worry about it. And he said let me tell you a story and then he launched into a 45 minute tale which covered the purchase of Aston Martin, winning at Le Mans, Jackie Stewart, the Ford DFV, and I just sat there and I didn’t say one word. And at the end of this mesmerising speech he said well, do you want the job? This took me a millisecond, I said yes please.
“I went there as operations director and shortly thereafter I was promoted to managing director.
“Things went from bad to worse in 1992, it wasn’t a particularly good time. I can’t remember exactly how many cars had been made by the time I got there that year, I think it was between 40 and 50. I walked into the production facility which seemed to be full of lots of old stuff that didn’t appear to be doing much, and there was no-one around because most of the people who were supposed to be there, because there wasn’t much to do, we were paying a third of the workforce to be home at that time. It was a bit ropey to say the least. But the thing that we did have, at least nearly had, was the Vantage. We were really really at death’s door, and I really started to realise why I had been asked to go along there and help a little bit.
“What we wanted was clearly DB7, the car that I’d been shown by Mr Halstead a couple of months earlier, but really we had no way of getting there. What I’d been given by Ford was £60 million to develop the DB7, and then about £12 million as cash float to run the company. The Virage had lots of strong points and what Victor (Gauntlett) had done was really work the magic of Aston Martin, but as a product it probably wasn’t the most competitive, which is why it wasn’t selling and why we had to have the Vantage
“We decided to change the whole production system. One weekend we cleared out nearly 60 tons of stuff from the production line. We sorted out the production, and went for a so-called modular production system.
“The engineering team were on the opposite side of the road, they were on the service side and it was very clear to me that the engineering team didn’t really talk very often to the manufacturing team. But, fortunately, very early on in my tenure one weekend there was a huge rainstorm and the engineering office was completely flooded, so the engineers had to disappear from their little empire and we took that opportunity to build them a brand new office right at the end of the production line. The engineering office had a glass wall all the way around it so there was no hiding place, so it was a very crude way of bringing the two together.
“The thing that was extraordinary about Aston Martin was that although Ford wasn’t quite sure why they owned Aston Martin because Henry had bought it, Walter really got together the most extraordinary board for such a little company, which was actually losing money hand over fist and not doing very well. Walter assembled, with himself as chairman, Jac Nasser the chief executive of Ford Europe and later went on to be chief executive of Ford worldwide, Nick Scheele, chief executive of Jaguar, and then we had the two Scotsmen, Jackie Stewart and Tom Walkinshaw, Bruce Blythe who still works with Peter Livanos in a different capacity, and Peter Livanos. Jac Nasser said that the Aston Martin monthly board meetings was the highlight of his month, there wasn’t a better place to be and with those egos in the room you can probably see why.
“We had terrible times to keep this going, I have to say, but the thing that was great about working for Walter is that he gave you immense confidence, that he was just a great PR guy and used that to his advantage, in that nothing phased him. So I could go into Walter’s office and say I’m very sorry, a nuclear bomb has dropped the other side of the road, and Walter would say “exactly according to my plan”. A completely truthful story. Whatever I said, no matter what disaster befell us we were going to be all right because Walter said we were going to be all right
“Ford never really knew why they had us in the first place, because Henry unfortunately died not long after the purchase. They kept threatening us with selling us or closing us down or whatever, because we were a bit of an irritant, and one of the things that Walter and I did, but really I have to say the brains behind the operation was very much Walter, was that we decided to call their bluff because we got a bit upset with them constantly threatening us that we weren’t going to be around much longer. So about this time we drew up a sales document which was a complete spoof. Walter and I went through the newspapers for the week before, picked out the names of very rich people and put them in this document as potential purchasers of Aston Martin.We drew up this lovely document, cornered Jac Nasser, stuck it in front of him and said if you really don’t want us we will sell it so sign here, and he wouldn’t and they shut up after that. I think those days may have gone in business – the determination and the willingness to pull stunts to keep alive was very much Walter, with me doing the donkey work.
“On the one hand Ford didn’t really know why they had us, on the other hand we weren’t short of help at a very senior level.
“I took a picture to show you the last handwritten message I got from Walter. He wrote: “There wouldn’t be an Aston Martin without you. You’ll always deserve your wings.” I have to say I would like to feel that this is the case, I’d like to feel that I had some small part in it, but I can put to you quite strongly in my opinion that there would not be an Aston Martin without Walter Hayes.”