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Burning ambition and the need for speed

PUBLISHED: 15:57 04 April 2013 | UPDATED: 21:24 05 April 2013

Williams F1 CEO Alex Burns

Williams F1 CEO Alex Burns

Williams, one of Oxfordshire's most exciting businesses, races towards the 2013 Formula 1 season on full throttle

Burning ambition and the need for speed

Williams, one of Oxfordshires most exciting businesses, races towards the 2013 Formula 1 season on full throttle

After a fallow few years where wins on the Grand Prix circuit for the Williams F1 team were as difficult to come by as a sighting of Jonathan Porritt at Silverstone, all of a sudden the team were back on winning form in 2012 thanks to an incredibly exciting win by their Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado at the Spanish Grand Prix last May the teams first win since the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2004.

A big relief for the companys 650 or so employees based at its Wantage headquarters, not least Williams F1 CEO, Alex Burns, who has been with the company since 2002, joining as general manager running the production facility, before moving to chief operating officer then into his current role in 2011.

On the second day after I started here someone said to me I hope youre an optimist and its true you do have to be optimistic to work in this industry because if you look at any motor sport organisation they generally lose more often than they win, says Alex. We always have to believe that we can do better in the future. We maintain that optimism, and it is addictive, you do get focussed on what has to happen next.

Alex says one of the exciting things about working at Williams F1 is the immediacy of the results compared to other industries hes worked in. Good decisions result in progress on the track very quickly. Everything we do moves at an incredible speed and everyone has passion in what they are dong. We have to harness the passion and get it moving in the right direction.

It helps that the companys eponymous founder Sir Frank Williams remains so engaged with the business. Frank is an iconic figure. I get on with him very well and while were now a public company he still owns 51% and continues very much as the businesss entrepreneur. His personality still carries a lot of weight and quite rightly so, he provides that overarching leadership to the organisation. A lot of people here will say they work for Frank, rather than for Williams Grand Prix Engineering Limited. They have a very strong personal association and loyalty to him, its a real asset.

Alex doesnt come from a motor sport background. He trained as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry, sponsored through university by Westland Helicopters.

My time at Westland was relevant to what we now do here in terms of the speed of getting things done. I joined the company just after the Falklands War and everyone was talking about how quickly Westland was getting helicopters into service fast and safely, both in the building of them and developing modifications. Then, when the conflict was over, everyone relaxed and went back to doing things in the same, slow, way. I wanted to know why they couldnt carry on at the same rate and became interested in the speed with which things can be achieved.

This has now become a characteristic of his career, doing things faster and better, and no more so than at Williams.

So where did all this engineering talent come from?

Alex grew up in South West London before moving to north Dorset with the family and was sent to school in Yorkshire. Thanks to Concorde, I always wanted to work in aerospace engineering. When I was a kid I was taken into the back garden at Barnes when it was doing one of its first public appearances It shook the roof tiles.

During the second World War, Alexs grandfather had worked on the Pluto pipeline, designed to supply petrol from storage tanks in Southern England to the advancing Allied armies in France in the months following D-Day. Hes also recently discovered that his grandfather was in the same department as Barnes Wallis, both working on the bouncing bomb. His grandfather helped develop the system that would ensure the aircraft was the right height to release the bomb.

From Westland Alex moved to global engineering business Meggitt, working first in Hemel Hempstead, Slough then Swindon, progressively moving up the career ladder. He was headhunted for Williams F1 while seconded by Meggitt to run a programme for what was the Society of British Aerospace Companies, the trade association for the aerospace industry.

What Williams does in terms of manufacturing is very similar to aerospace work in the materials we use, the fidelity of the work and the use of lightweight carbon fibre structures. There are more parallels between aerospace or even space and F1 than between automotive and F1. We are very low volume, low weight, hi-tech.

On his side, Alex was fascinated by the motor sport industry. While the processes were familiar, this was the opportunity to get into something quite different. Im fascinated by the intellectual challenge of F1, its such an intense and pure competition. F1 teams all work to exactly to the same rule book and do exactly the same thing, but were all trying to do it better than the other guy.

Alex continues to look for speed in the manufacturing process. How do you get the same safety and fidelity into the design and manufacturing process and do it in a fraction of the time? Take out the waste, improve communications, make sure everyone know what they are supposed to be doing, what the customer expectation is and their contribution to that. You make sure everyone knows whats required and then you look at all the things that stop people doing what they should be doing and get rid of them. Its about techniques helping people to find out how to do things better. Everyone wants to do a good job and do things quickly and this approach enables people to do that.

Williams receives income from three sources: Most comes through sponsorship and a share of the TV money through the commercial rights holder, and obviously success on the track improves this income. However, Williams has spent the last few years putting its engineering intellectual property to use outside Formula 1 and in January this year received the Motor Industry Association Company of the Year Award for excellence on and off the track. We won in part became of our improvement at F1 but also because we are successfully diversifying into a number of areas, explains Alex.

When the 2006 KERS regulations came in, Williams went looking for technologies suitable for energy storage and saw the potential for commercialisation. Although most of the companys income continues to come from commercial rights and sponsorship, Alex is hoping Williams Advanced Engineering, home to Williams Hybrid Power, will grow significantly and become a strong third leg of income.

The company has now opened a Technology Centre in Qatar in the Middle East, the first F1-related technical centre outside Europe. Alex explains: The Middle East is very interested in some of our technology. We have two key developments. One is a road-going version of our racing simulator. We have adapted the Formula 1 simulator in which our drivers drive the worlds circuits, for training road car drivers. While Middle East roads are good, the accident rate is high. Qatar has a big expat population who come for short periods of time, bringing their driving habits from places such as the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines with them. Its an issue in a lot of the Gulf States. We have modelled some of the streets of Doha in a simulator that can be used for training road car drivers and are working with the government agency that trains taxi drivers and bus drivers.

The Qatar Technology Centre is also where Williams is looking at larger flywheels for the burgeoning development of the Middle East metro systems. Alex visits Qatar around every six weeks.

While the advanced engineering side has significant potential, Alex is keen to emphasis that Williams will always be absolutely grounded in F1 racing. We exist to race, we exist to win and its absolutely in the DNA here that this is first and foremost a business that goes racing, and the racing team is a very high performance engineering business. We develop and manufacture cars that go racing and there is a great opportunity to build a significant high performance engineering business alongside that.

At Williams, the engines come from Renault, tyres from Pirelli. We are nimble and we introduce changes all the time because we are constantly improving the cars. The pace of development here is extraordinary. Driver feedback is really important in the development of the car. The engineers understand the physics but drivers not only have to be brave and bright, but articulate in their ability to explain the driving sensation in the car to the engineers.

Attention to detail in the design and engineering of a F1 car is essential, but its just as important to keep on the business side. Alex has an eye on the wider strategy but he stays close to the money. There are a lot of ways to spend money in F1. Our engineering team is pretty mature about the budgets and financial constraints and the trick is trying to understand what will give the biggest return in lap time for the investment. It might not just be particular projects but also which departments we invest in and grow and which we keep leaner because although they are essential, they are less likely to contribute directly to improving the performance of the car.

Alex was one of 30 Industry Champions appointed by the Government to support the Make it in Great Britain campaign in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. It was all about success stories. The UK is very good at making things and were still one of the largest manufacturing countries in the world. Manufacturing still represents ten per cent plus of the economy and its an area where people can have long, fulfilling and profitable careers. Studying engineering and going into manufacturing is a growth area and its interesting and rewarding.

Williams has what must be one of the most desirable apprenticeship and undergraduate internship programmes in the country and it is growing its apprentice base. Alex comments that there can be an issue with the quality of applicants, however they evidently have enough to be able to select the cream of the crop.

Our discussion moves to the wider economy. Can the UK maintain its competitiveness in the world in regard to tiger economies such as China? Yes, costs continue to rise in Asia and we are seeing some in-shoring, bringing manufacturing back to the UK. And so we should because companies were bonkers to go in the first place. If you want to change a design and you have three months worth of inventory sitting on a boat coming over, it will take six to eight months to introduce a change. If youve got it in house under control or with local suppliers and short lead times you can make a change in a week and its much more flexible.

There is strong motor sport cluster around Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, a very good supply base here and Williams is proud to be involved with that cluster.

Such an all-consuming business must eat into his down time, and Alex admits that hes always attached to his smart phone, but with four children under fourteen, he doesnt get much time off at home. I guess my hobby is my kids, there isnt much time for anything else. I live close by and try to take weekends off, though Im regularly at Grand Prix meetings during the season but thats business for me and there are meetings and sponsors to look after.

With his heavy travelling schedule, holidays have recently been spent in Devon. Last year it was Salcombe and well be back in Devon again this year we all enjoyed it so much, he said.

Like Tom Cruise, Alex Burns has a need for speed. Unlike Cruise however, this Top Gun is happy to leave the driving to others, his need is about design and technological innovation and thats great for British business.

KERS and the environment

At the end of 2006 F1 introduced new KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) regulations to promote the development of environmentally friendly and road car relevant technologies in F1 racing. As a result F1 cars are now hybrids, using both fuel and electricity to power the car (the same architectural layout as a Toyota Prius). As the car brakes it generates electricity, stores it in a flywheel or battery converting it back into kinetic energy by helping to accelerate the car.

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