The small Yorkshire town of Garforth is a fairly unremarkable place. Once a thriving mining community, its proximity to the northern arterial network has long-since seen it merge into yet another commuter suburb of Leeds’ sprawling metropolis.
Yet despite the proliferation of newly-boxed housing, the sense of industrial heritage remains, and nowhere is this more evident than when you turn into Isabella Road and come face to face with the imposing facade of Lawrence Neil Tomlinson’s LNT Group.
Tomlinson is a man who understands success. His effort is relentless and his headquarter building, which houses Ginetta, and his care homes, construction, software and chemicals businesses is not only a place of work, it is a testament to ambition. From the carefully parked G60 outside, to the photographs of the famous inside; everything and everybody here serves his purpose.
But this is not some dark Dickensian tale. The story of how the young engineer borrowed a small fortune and turned it into a large one has Tomlinson’s moniker stamped across every page, yet had there not been an unwelcome intervention by a maverick Russian, it’s quite likely that the chapter on Ginetta would never have been written. This is not to say that Ginetta hadn’t already gained a reputation for producing notable cars – the four Walklett brothers founded the marque back in 1958 and within just a handful of years were building club racers that more than held their own against the more popular Lotus’s, MGs and Triumphs.
After the Walkletts retired in 1989, Ginetta continued under new management, with new funding and full type-approval. Nevertheless, the succession toiled towards failure and Ginetta seemed destined for a hapless existence… that was until Tomlinson’s attempt to buy TVR from his friend Peter Wheeler was scuppered by Nikolay Smolensky – some things are destined to follow a different path.
Turning Orange into Gold
The inclusion, in late 2005, of Ginetta into LNT’s already diverse portfolio of companies caused a few to furrow their narrow brows; there were voices of concern from some over the stewardship of a much-loved heritage brand, and fears from others believing Ginetta would ultimately be sacrificed should TVR re-emerge as an “opportunity”.
But anyone who knows Tomlinson knows that he is no ordinary business man. The engineer and entrepreneur walk hand-in-hand; fuelled by a passion to do great things, and then do them better still. If he commits, he remains committed. As he likes to point out, the first car he ever raced was a Ginetta. It’s in his blood:
Fast-forward to today and with almost seven years of Tomlinson’s influence to bear, Ginetta’s resurrection, even in the midst of recession, has been spectacular. From producing just a handful of cars in 2005, 150 cars annually just 24 months later, and now reaching their target volume of six cars every week produced by a team of 70 people – it’s been a remarkable transformation.
And transformation is absolutely the right word to use.
Martin Phaff made a valiant effort to keep Ginetta alive during the latter years of his tenure, but there is a pace and demand of investment that even low-volume brands must maintain, simply to survive.
Before Tomlinson, vanishing revenues put paid to much needed development. The G20 (their main product at the time) and the recently introduced Junior cars had their supporters, but the engineering had become dated, in some ways even crude. The business didn’t just need cash to survive, it needed direction and most of all, it needed purpose.
Tomlinson and Dean
In every one of his businesses, Lawrence Tomlinson is a “hands-on” leader. He has a solid management team running day-to-day operations, but as we walk around LNT’s thoroughly modern facilities, everybody is keen to pay respect to the man they know as “boss”.
This isn’t cowering respect; there’s a genuine feeling of admiration for the man who drives the machine, but as we move from the offices, into the engineering bays, onto the factory floor, through the stores and up to the carbon fibre shop, it’s clear that Tomlinson has earned the respect of his employees.
Back in 2005 when Tomlinson bought into Ginetta, Phaff was retained to look after running the championships but someone was needed to lead the Ginetta’s development in motorsport; someone who understood racing, and race cars, and Tomlinson!
Every niche manufacturer needs someone like Dean – people who speak the same language as its customers, and use the same dialect as those on the factory floor.
There was only one candidate – Where Tomlinson was Ginetta’s heart and soul, Richard Dean became its backbone. Entrepreneurs can sometimes demand (and promise) the impossible and therefore “Deano” was there, not only to guide Ginetta (and Tomlinson) forward, but also (occasionally) picking-up the pieces too.
Every niche manufacturer needs someone like Dean – Caterham have Andy Noble and Westfield has Simon Westwood – these are people who speak the same language as its customers, and use the same dialect as those on the factory floor. They’re a rare breed and without their engineering experience, brands and businesses can sometimes lose their way.
Tomlinson and Dean quickly set about delivering the promise of Ginetta’s brand that had long-since been forgotten. Yet the blueprint for Ginetta’s future was not conceived in the boardroom alone, as Tomlinson is eager to point out, you don’t build success without listening to the people that will help take you there.
So despite inheriting a near-empty order book, Tomlinson and Dean courted and consulted the G20 racers, ambitious parents in the Ginetta Junior paddock and the teams who competed in other national championships. Strip away the fickle and the oblique and a picture emerged that would once again allow Ginetta to make its mark.
With TVR now gone, Caterham and Radical focussing on their existing model range, and Lotus seemingly underwhelmed in its own mire, nobody was providing a path for well-funded club racers looking to transition into GT racing.
Delivering value to customers
Of course, understanding potential is one thing, being able to deliver it is quite another. This is what re-made Ginetta. They not only invested heavily in creating the right product, they made sure to give it the right environment.
In terms of product, the early focus was on producing race cars – they had a ready market, race cars are significantly cheaper to develop than road cars and the time-scales are also much shorter – facts borne-out by the design team as we sat-down to discuss method. “Put it this way” I’m told, “We can be notified in early October that a new model is needed by the following March and that 20 cars must be ready for delivery to race customers by then.”
Imagine this being said at Hethel? It would take six months purely for an idea to reach the discussion agenda in Shah Alam, and probably another six months before any sort of report was commissioned: Words might make good reading, but actions create revenues.
Ginetta’s first all-new car, the G50 made an immediate impact. On short, twisty British circuits, the car was not only fast, it was agile, reliable and, as was soon to be discovered, very, very strong. This video shows Hunter Abbott’s barrel-rolling crash at Oulton Park where he miraculously walked away with only minor bruising and burns to his face and hands.
I was there when it happened and then visited Ginetta’s factory just a few days later, where the remains of the car were being studied. Nobody likes to see accidents like this occur, but I was happy to stand in awe as I viewed the integrity of the safety-cell (which barely looked troubled). Style is clearly important in the motorsport world, but substance more-so, and it is to Tomlinson’s credit that safety is his always his foremost concern.
He’s an “on the limit” racer but he’s also a dedicated family man, so his ethos is very clear; go and have a great time on track, then return home safely afterwards. While the G50 set about redefining Ginetta as a constructor, away from the factory, their presence in the paddock made equally strong statements. Gone were the old 7.5 tonners and faded shirts. In their place arrived a new generation of neatly liveried transporters, welcoming hospitality, a well-stocked spares truck and a team from the factory to guide and assist. Tomlinson understands only too well that you create value (for your business) by creating value (for your customers). It’s not rocket science, yet few others demonstrate the principle so clearly.
TOCA TV package brings in seven million viewers
Of all the words that can be used to describe Tomlinson, principled has to be the most telling. There’s no mystique to Ginetta; he knows exactly what he wants, how he wants it to be and he knows that the way you set about building your business defines the values that others will associate with you.
He’s not afraid to do things the hard way, or take risks, so long as it feels true. It’s this approach that continues to fuel his passion for Ginetta Junior; a passion that ultimately led to the G40, but before this, saw the start of his affair with TOCA, the home for the British Touring Car Championship.
When Alan Gow purchased the rights to BTCC back in 1991, he started a revolution that would transform domestic motor racing into a global entertainment force. He was the Simon Cowell figure of motorsport, only without the high-waisted trousers and whitened smile.
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Not every young driver wants to take the single seater route and to be fair, not every parent can afford to nurture their child’s talent this way either.
Today, TOCA isn’t just big business for Gow, it’s a must for anyone who is serious about building careers and partnerships on this side of the Atlantic, outside of F1.
So, at the end of 2007 when BMW announced the departure of Formula BMW from the TOCA Series, Tomlinson seized the opportunity to pitch Ginetta Juniors into the spotlight of large crowds, live TV and corporate sponsorship.
It was a costly exercise, very costly, but one that Tomlinson remains absolutely committed to. “Not every young driver wants to take the single seater route (to professional status)” he remarks, “and to be fair, not every parent can afford to nurture their child’s talent this way either. We want to give youngsters who are serious about motorsport the platform to learn and to showcase what they might be capable of.”
As ever, Tomlinson is keen to avoid rhetoric; something that sets him apart from some of his contemporaries. Instead, he points to the Ginetta Scholarship Programme where a fully-funded Ginetta Junior season can be won – worth £40,000. The qualification round for this year’s scholarship programme runs from 29-30 October at Bedford Autodrome, with the final on the 31st October – book your place now if you’d like to be considered.
There’s onward investment too, as young talent progress through from G40 to G50/G55 and beyond. Frank Wrathall, Adam Morgan and Seb Morris have all journeyed on from Ginetta’s ranks thanks to the opportunities provided by Tomlinson.
Many young racers have found a home with Ginetta whilst pursuing their on-track ambitions, a policy that was ably demonstrated by Fergus Walkinshaw (son of the late Tom). He had his first full season in Juniors back in 2006 and now races a self-built G55, yet during the week, can be found in the engineering shop working on drive train assemblies. And Mike Simpson, by day, Head of Sales, at weekends, G55 GT3 pole man. These are alliances which on one hand, help to keep Ginetta at the sharp end whilst at the other, build young people into motorsport professionals.
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In 2009, SEAT’s exit from the TOCA support package opened the way for Ginetta to take its G50 sports car onto the main stage – again at considerable cost to the factory.
Of course, it’s easy to say that with a £500m fortune behind you (Tomlinson is the 151st richest person in the UK according to the Sunday Times), this sort of thing is easily funded but that’s probably the biggest disservice you can do to both Tomlinson and Ginetta. Neither are in business to lose money.
Every decision is weighed up carefully and every pound spent is expected to be recouped.
What Ginetta has done is build a sustainable format to attract and retain driving talent of all ages. Here, Tomlinson was keen to press home the message. “We’ve created a home at Ginetta to welcome people who are new to motorsport and then progress them through to whatever level they are capable of reaching. If you invest in your customers, they’ll generally remain loyal and invest back into you.”
The success of the G40, as both a junior and “GT5” racer, and its relative affordability, made the decision to sell it in as a road car fairly easy.
But whereas most manufacturers think “volume”, Ginetta opted to preserve both residuals and demand by limiting production of its “R” version to just 100 units per year. As is often the case, acts that go against the norm will lead others into conjecture as to why, if something is so good, you wouldn’t want to sell as many as you can. But this isn’t Ginetta’s way.
During Tomlinson’s seven years in charge, the economy has only ever been “flat” at best. Their model, though, is simple – build well, invest well, preserve demand and create value for all.
As we glance over the newly built cars, and those in for service, it’s clear that there is substance to the philosophy. When I first saw a G40 prototype, I was concerned that maybe the transition wouldn’t work – I should have known better. This isn’t just a good car, it’s a great one.
Of course, the other hallmark of Ginetta is its lack of pretence – what you see is what you get – but this doesn’t mean the cars lack substance. Every G40 comes with a full FIA roll cage and feels like the real deal. I’m already starting to see G40Rs around the smarter streets of London, and before long I wouldn’t be surprised to see those being used for track days, then making their way into club racing. Caterham Academy take note.
If Tomlinson has a weakness, it has to be his penchant for “Remington moments” (liking the product so much, that he buys the company). He loves fast cars and he loves something a little different.
So, when, Chris Marsh finally chose to dispose of the Farbio/F400 project that he’d acquired from Arash Farboud, the alarm bells really should have rung very loud indeed. To be fair, they probably did, but as Tomlinson quips “there’s nothing like a challenge . . “
Two years down the line, and with perhaps more re-invention than the wheel itself, we’re presented with the finished product (well almost) – the Ginetta G60.
If ever there was a car to show our German, Italian and Japanese friends how a sports car should be done, then this is it. Patriotic fervour aside, the G60 is the real deal!
It may have been a typical Yorkshire day outside (cold, wet and generally miserable) but put two guys with a combined age of 99 and a bit inside, fire it up and head-off onto the open roads and believe me, we were both beaming like young boys.
But the beauty of the G60 isn’t just in its compact design, it’s that it does exactly what you want, when you want it to – no aids, no gimmicks, just ball-busting acceleration, exquisite balance, vice-like grip and brakes which allow you to push beyond the limit yet return with ease. There will only be around fifty G60s made each year, and as each month passes the waiting list continues to grow.
I ask, in hindsight, if wouldn’t have been better to have started with a clean sheet of paper?
I’m greeted with a laugh. “Absolutely yes..” says Tomlinson, “..but then absolutely not. Had we not forced ourselves by taking this on, it probably would never have happened. As it stands, we now have a brilliant new car and it’s built here in Leeds. I believe it’s been worth it.”
Coincidentally, as I left the Nurburgring the other day, a rare G60 caught not only my eye but those of the admiring super car fans who scrambled to gaze over its sleek carbon curves. It may-not be a red-bodied stallion, but cars like this stand out for their purity.
For all the good work Ginetta is now doing, the downside of their focus on road cars is the change this has brought to their business. Where once the company focused all its resources on racing, now it spends half its time designing, building and developing road cars for customers with a very different set of requirements.
Consequently, Richard Dean, the man who kept Tomlinson grounded, decided to move on. Not through bad words or spoilt egos, simply that Deano is a racer, first and foremost.
Dean’s departure may have been inevitable, but nonetheless it created a void which could have stopped a niche car maker like Ginetta in its tracks. Thankfully Tomlinson acted swiftly and promoted experienced Ginetta engineer Simon Finnis to the helm.
During the transition period, some of the harmony was lost and others felt the need to move-on. However, it’s to the credit of both Tomlinson and Finnis that “normal” service was maintained and customers remained in focus throughout.
It could have been very different. For all the heritage, style and money, the most important asset in a niche car maker is its people. Ginetta are fortunate that Finnis had the knowledge and experience to take up the reins, but the outcome could so easily have been different.
A British product, built in Yorkshire
As we return to the factory, our conversation switches to some of the other challenges facing low-volume car makers – issues such as logistics and the quality of sub-components.
Any delay in production, even a short one, can have a significant impact on car makers (you only need look at Lotus to see the consequences); with race car constructors, it can prove fatal.
Tomlinson, and Finnis understand this only too well. They work hard with suppliers and keep them local, where possible. Indeed, with the exception of their powertrains, every Ginetta is very much an all-British car. This is important to Tomlinson, he’s not just a passionate businessman, he’s also a passionate Yorkshireman.
Despite its significant manufacturing capabilities, Ginetta are careful to choose what they produce in-house and what they source from suppliers. On the one-hand, Tomlinson is happy to engage specialists to produce any type of component but he remains steadfast in his pursuit of quality.
In one instance recently, where the standard of carbon fibre work received was too variable, Ginetta chose to bring production in-house, installing a double oven, capable of baking two complete G60 shells at a time.
With a volume of just 50 units per year, other chairman may have baulked at such an expense, but for Tomlinson there is no room for compromise.
A new F1-dyno also sits proudly on the factory floor. It may not be needed today or tomorrow, but it’s clear that with the ongoing development of the G55 GT3, there’s a determination to equip the factory with the resources needed to remain competitive.
But the investment isn’t just confined to infrastructure. Walking through the handling area, I’m faced by a wall of engines – sixty, seventy? It’s difficult to count, but they’re neatly stacked from floor to ceiling – and it’s a very tall ceiling!
For a business that works with such low volumes, there’s an extraordinary high level of stock. It must affect the bottom-line, but it’s clearly a price Tomlinson believes it worth paying in order to deliver the promise made by the brand.
Building a New Legacy
As we near the end of our visit, I’m left alone for a while to ponder what distinguishes Ginetta from other niche car makers. Outwardly, they’ve yet to match the allure of Radical, Lotus or Caterham, but the substance behind their appeal is no less credible and the £68,000 G60 has extended the reach of Ginetta’s brand into a whole new demographic.
In deliberately limiting volumes, Ginetta can take a measured approach to growth. Most low-volume manufacturers invest to attain European Community Small Series Type Approval (enabling them to register up to 1000 vehicles each year). This opens up export markets, but is costly, and draws brands into the all-consuming cycle of managing compliance.
By taking the IVA route (individual vehicle test approval), Ginetta is instead able to focus its investment directly on its products. Of course, there may be a time when legislation forces change, but for now it gives them the edge in delivering both quality and value for money.
There are many people who would not be racing today if it were not for Lawrence Tomlinson and Ginetta. Caterham can point to a similar influence, but as time continues its Academy format looks tired, while Ginetta (and Radical) continue to innovate, invest and grow.
There’s no single principle to follow, all of these are needed – including supporting and engaging your customers. And without them, you stand very little chance of keeping, let alone growing your business. Tomlinson is a racer, he understands this, and so do his team.
In Tomlinson, Ginetta has a driving force. He may have other, equally demanding businesses, but he leads them all with a clear vision for what can realistically be achieved.
Whether Ginetta will be Tomlinson’s magnus opus, only time will tell – although somehow I doubt it. Not because he lacks the determination. He puts the same energy into everything he does, whether that be racing, building cars or developing care homes.
Ginetta is his passion, one that provides him with a great deal of pleasure, but he’s realistic about his aspirations for the brand and that means it should be around for a long time to come.
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Next Stop: Caterham Cars