Interview Chris Knight
Lotus is fighting fit once more after years of near terminal financial troubles. Steve Cropey meets the many who has nursed it back to health.
Chris Knight believes the day is coming when Lotus will build 10 000 or 12:000 cars a year, three-or four times the number it does now. Within five years, he has told staff, he wants annual turnover to exceed 2500 million, four times the present level, with profits to match.
In short, Lotus's chief executive sees the kind the future for the Hethel factory which successive bosses have dreamed of but few have imagined could become real. Until now.
After years of clinging to the cliff face by its fingernails, the Lotus Group has just announced unaudited profits of X8.5 million - double last year's - on a turnover of il.08 million. Car production is running flat out; they're having to dream up ways of pumping Elise production up from 3000 to 3500 a year to cope with demand. What's more, the engineering side of the business is well founded and growing quickly. The man who has made most of the difference is Chris Knight.
Eighteen months ago, Lotus's newly appointed boss looked what he was: a rather hesitant former oilman in a white shirt, sitting behind an unfamiliar desk in Hethel wondering if he'd bitten off more than he could chew. He had an impressive track record as a businessman, but no experience of the car game whatsoever. Today Knight looks no different, but to those who know Lotus he has become an entirely different character. In fact, he's a key figure in Lotus's 50-year history: the man who is saving it.
Knight wouldn't dream of taking the credit for what has been achieved. He speaks of team effort, dedicated workforce, releasing potential, only part of a hard-working group - and there's truth in every one of them. But behind it all, Lotus's growing stability and financial power is attributable, more than anything, to the enabling skills of the new chief executive. He's tough, they all say, but by God he's getting things done.
Hethel always has a tangible mood - a bit like seeing a particular expression on a friend's face. Today's expression is deep concentration: cars are being built in numbers, exciting new models are on the stocks, there seems to be a plan for everything - reorganising the site, building a visitor centre, improving the test track, acquiring subsidiaries, getting Lotus cars back on race tracks and more.
Since Knight arrived in September 1997, he has ridden a rollercoaster of extraordinary happenings. It seemed remarkable enough that of all the car companies in the world, it should have been Malaysia's Proton that bought the majority interest; Knight is Proton's appointee. There were rumours at the time that the Elise, then recently launched and universally admired, simply wasn't making enough money. Would Proton and Knight be able to cope? They started well. Soon Proton's big plans began to be aired, most prominent of them a huge new body design and prototyping centre for Hethel. As it was being erected, without warning the "tiger" economies of the Pacific Rim crashed into recession. Building stopped, and it became crystal clear that Proton would not be in a position to bail out Lotus, should that be necessary. The pundits groaned. Was Lotus going down for the last time?
Then, incredibly, Proton boss Tan Sri Yahaya Ahmad died in a helicopter accident. Things looked bad. Now and then, Knight would say his plans were working, but the "experts" hardly heard, so busy were they speculating about Lotus's future. Lotus kept quietly on. Elise sales held up, and so did residuals. In November last year the company acquired the Coventry engineering/design business formerly known as MGA, andrenamed it Lotus Coventry, where today’s band of 30 employees will become 150 next year. Otus Engineering, the customer consultancy side, completed its 42 engine test cells and found there was a heavy demand from clients to use them. Through persistence, the group managed to replace its Asian clients with others from the US and Europe. Now, Asia accounts for only 20 per cent of Lotus Engineering's work, but it's on the rise again. You can't keep the tigers down for long. Lotus expects them back as clients quite soon.
The most telling thing about Knight's success is his confidence about raising the N15 million needed to develop the new model codenamed Emas, and to reorganise Hethel so it can be built. "I'm confident we'll get the money," he says. "It's all a matter of investor confidence. People know now that if they put their money with us, it'll be looked after."
Such mild-mannered confidence is infectious. It suits the straightforward nature of Lotus's workers. They are keen to see just how far Knight and his management principles - backed by their own effortscan take the company founded by Colin Chapman on not very much. In short, those who were not particularly impressed at Knight's arrival are now dead keen that he should stay behind the big desk.
AutoCar 5 May 1999