Writing the epitaph of a once great brand is never an easy thing to do, but yesterday I learned of the departure of Sales and Marketing Director Andy Noble from Caterham Cars – joining the company’s former bosses Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards and leaving just one member of the original management team, after Air Asia boss Tony Fernandes acquired the business last December.
I’m reminded of the famous Lady Augusta Bracknell quote from The Importance of Being Earnest (slightly amended), “To lose one executive, Mr. Fernandes, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three looks like carelessness”
For much of this year, I’ve been commenting on the current Formula 1 season. Throughout, my recurring theme has centered on individual “defining moments”. Yesterday, some 6,000 miles away from the hilly slopes of Interlagos, one such moment came to bear as a proud man waved goodbye to the company that has been his home for much of his working life.
Andy Noble joined Caterham Cars at a time when its founder, Graham Nearn, was starting to see a growing fascination for his rejuvenation of the Seven. They were humble beginnings, but the young salesman effused the dogma, allowing him to build a 24-year career which saw him steadfastly take the brand further than anyone other than Nearn or, indeed, the great Colin Chapman himself could have done.
Tony Fernandes is a darling of the automotive media – he brought the Lotus name back to Formula One, helped defeat the Wicked Witch of the East (Dany Bahar) and has now pulled off a deal with Renault that will see the Alpine name brought back to life. What’s not to like?Well before we get too carried away, it’s worth reflecting on a few things. After three years in F1, he’s yet to accumulate a world championship point, and will lose tens of millions of Euros if Caterham F1 finish only 11th in 2012.
His much publicised friendship with lead driver Heikki Kovalainen, has cooled to such an extent that Kovalainen will probably be out of a seat in 2013. And three out of four Caterham Cars executives have now departed, along with concerns being raised about Fernandes’ understanding of what it takes to run a sports car (or motorsports) business.
Fernandes will dismiss these as the cries of naysayers – those who fail to understand the sacrifices required – but it remains to be seen whether he’s the messiah as first assumed, or in fact the smiling assassin.
From innovations such as the much-lauded Academy Motorsport series, and the Caterham Drive Experience, to building long-standing and notable relationships with the media and commercial partners, Andy Noble embodied the very best that the marque had to offer.
Even during his two-year excursion (following Simon Nearn’s notice that the family were to sell Caterham to a consortium headed by Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards), Noble’s loyalty, vision and understanding provided a bedrock of stability for owners, staff and customers alike.
I recall one occasion when I sat with him in his Motorsport Vision (MSV) office at Brands Hatch. Our conversation was halted as he took a call from Ali, who was seeking guidance and reassurance on a number of issues: It was clear that the men who thought that they could do it their way soon realised that they couldn’t.
I’ve known Andy in and out of the office. I worked alongside him in supporting the Drive Experience events and I cheffed at his 40th birthday party. And when I left the Caterham family to join Westfield, he was one of the very few to shake my hand. Yet his fierce loyalty to the Nearns and then Ali meant that he wouldn’t shy from pointing a finger if he felt that Caterham’s interests were being questioned.
And then in April last year, Tony Fernandes took control. I was at Duxford for the announcement. Managers sporting tired white shirts suddenly rediscovered their zest for the brand. The once struggling kit car business now had the backing of an owner who could boast both a Formula 1 team and an airline amongst his leveraged assets. This was surely to be Caterham’s coming of age; it was a time to live the dream.
But dreams have a habit of ending abruptly. Having toiled at times to keep Caterham alive, Ali and Edwards found their vision and employment surplus to Fernandes’ requirements.
There’s a purity to the Chapman DNA these ex-Lotus men had managed to preserve, but Caterham’s new direction as a mass market player left the Dartford factory fragmented. With Ali gone and ex-Finance Director Graham MacDonald in his place, Noble was sidelined and moved from Sales And Marketing Director (a position he held for 25 years) into the role of Head of UK Sales.
Of course, that needn’t have been the end. He could have stayed-on, alone in an office of so many memories, stripped of both pride and responsibility. But Noble is better than that.
Caterham, like so many businesses of its size, depends upon the combination of product and people, and whether by design or sheer carelessness, they’ve been losing a growing number of these key people lately.
This might be because the two cultures (Dartford and Tune) have yet to fully understand each other, but it seems clear that both Fernandes and his lieutenant, Riad Asmat have yet to comprehend the qualities which gave it one of the most fiercely loyal customer bases of any car maker.
Whatever Andy does next, I know he’ll do it well, and I hope for Caterham’s sake that this doesn’t become one of their defining moments.
* * *
So what now for the Caterham of old? For the future of the Seven and the hard-won relationship with customers and partners?
MacDonald knows he needs to push hard for new sales as the legislative clock is ticking. But despite the talk of growing export markets and opening-up new territories, anyone who knows this business will tell you that all is not what it seems. MacDonald’s new underlings, David Ridley and Simon Lambert gained their positions partly on the back of their success in building new business, yet the reality is that many of these initiatives either failed or never got off the ground.
Attempts to roll-out the Academy concept across Europe and the Far East is evidence of this, with many new dealers finding they either can’t establish or sustain the programme. Elsewhere, agents have been offering road cars at heavily discounted prices simply to offload stock, while others have resorted to importing cheaper used cars from the UK. None of this bodes well for the bottom line.
And then there is the obvious distraction of the deal with Renault (in building the new Alpine Caterham model). Already, a number of key executives are spending considerable amounts of their time in France, so despite the arrival of the R600 race car, the focus and resources needed to develop existing models will clearly be stretched.
There’s also the ongoing demand of maintaining low volume type approval of their European road car range. The deepening crisis in the Euro zone has seen Sterling regain in value, and cars that cost £30,000 in the UK now reaching almost €50,000 on the continent – easily taking the Seven into Porsche territory. The company that once pioneered through engineering is now driven by accountants and it won’t take them long to calculate their likely returns, or not, on the investment needed to keep the Seven in showrooms.
And what about the UK? The one normally dependable market?
The new R600 racer should see motorsport sales boosted but they’ll have to work much harder at all levels of the grid to meet the challenges being posed by Ginetta, Radical and Lotus-On-Track. Offering a worthy top of the range car addresses some of void but they’ll need to be spot-on with reliability this time, an area where Caterham has notably fallen short of in the past.
And as for road car sales, providing they can continue to deliver an “on-edge, in-car” response, there ought to be a line of customers willing to pay good money for the experience. But again, they need to keep pace with what’s happening elsewhere. The Atom and BAC Mono are both sipping from Caterham’s cup and with more boutique offerings in the pipeline, the distraction of lunch in Dieppe might ultimately be a costly one.
Ultimately, despite protests to the contrary, the Fernandes vision of Caterham will see the Seven become a heritage product, which might not be as upsetting as first thought. There are sufficient cars out there for a healthy independent after-market in both spares and upgrades, and if production falls, residuals will simply continue to rise.
Nevertheless, it will also remove much of the spirit that has accompanied the brand throughout its journey. Instead, the Leafield-based Caterham will focus its effort on collaborations and platform sharing, with production being outsourced and managers attempting to fill the role that Lotus once aspired to.
But for the Seven, that virile icon of virtue and pleasure, the days are, I’m afraid, sadly numbered.. Unless, of course, Ansar and Mark follow the example of the late Graham Nearn and acquire the rights to bring about another new era for the Dartford brand.