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Outgoing Jaguar Land Rover boss Ralf Speth on steering the firm from bankruptcy to EV innovation & the new Defender

JURGEN KLOPP is a household name but few will have heard of his fellow countryman Ralf Speth.

The German has been boss of Britain’s biggest car firm, Jaguar Land Rover, for the last ten years and responsible for 40,000 jobs.

Speth has steered JLR through some of the most turbulent times the car world has ever seen, including the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008-09 and now the Covid pandemic, before he steps down this week.

The former BMW executive has transformed JLR from niche player into a truly international business with factories all over the world.

In an exclusive last interview, Speth’s passion for the two great British brands is crystal clear when he says: “This company was my life. It has taken over my life.”

The ultimate recognition of his work at JLR came with a knighthood in 2019, which he says he was “deeply proud and honoured” to have received. It’s something even Klopp hasn’t achieved. Yet.

His love of Britain extended to him successfully applying for citizen- ship. He says: “I was working for a great British company that had its heart and soul in Britain. I thought I should also be a British citizen.”

For Speth, who turns 65 on Wednesday, his ten years in charge have been a rocky road of highs, record sales and depressing lows.

He inherited a bankrupt company but under his leadership sales nearly tripled, with 4.8million cars sold. More than 17,000 new jobs were created in his first five years and during his reign JLR went from employing 16,000 to over 40,000.

But then Brexit, a slump in the key Chinese market and Dieselgate resulted in 4,500 jobs being axed and 1,000 more have gone this year because of Covid — all factors out of his control.

Speth addressed the global slump in 2018 by launching “Charge and Accelerate” to bring in cost savings. The scheme delivered £2.9billion of savings — exceeding the £2.5billion target — to transform the business for a second time before Covid hit.

You can see the frustration in Speth when he explains: “We had turned the company around, we were very successful and on track to achieve good profitability in 2020. Then Covid arrived and changed everything.

“It’s a perfect storm at the moment and we are addressing all the issues. Overall, I am optimistic the future is even brighter for Jaguar Land Rover.

“We have a very young, powerful product portfolio and exciting new models on the way.”

They include the first all-electric Land Rover, of which Speth says: “People will be very positively surprised by this model, by its design, technology and capabilities. It’ll be a new kind of Land Rover.”

And despite poor sales last year, he is confident about Jaguar — based around new electrified models together with turning its Castle Bromwich factory to an electrified future. He says: “Jaguar has a very good future and we have a very clear plan based on three pillars. Saloons, crossovers and sports cars. Jaguar needs a halo car and it will be a sports car.”

And nothing can detract from Speth’s considerable achievements, especially masterminding the transformation of JLR into a truly global business building new factories abroad for the first time in China, India, Slovakia, Brazil and Austria. Speth was always determined to build upon the firm’s UK base, investing heavily at its factories at Solihull, Castle Bromwich and Halewood, along with a new engine factory in Wolverhampton and investment at its Gaydon design and engineering centre.

Speth has signed off some of the most groundbreaking Jaguar and Land Rover models in their long histories. One of the first new models delivered by him was the radical Range Rover Evoque that became its fastest-selling model, along with another big seller in the Discovery Sport, while successfully evolving the Range Rover, Range Sport and a new Velar, as Land Rover hit record sales.

At Jaguar, he brought back a pure sports car in the stunning shape of the F-Type — one of Speth’s favourite cars — then Jag’s first-ever SUV, the F-Pace.

But his biggest legacy will be another first, the all-electric I-Pace. Not only did it win World and European Car of the Year, it also won the Car of the Year in his native Germany, beating rivals from top domestic brands to market.

“I-Pace was a special magic,” he says. “It was a great feeling to lead the world with this car.”

Speth’s final legacy has been bringing back the new Defender to replace one of the motoring world’s greatest icons — and a personal favourite, as he owns three of the original. He says: “It took time with the new Defender because we had to make a viable business plan for it. We have created a family of Defender models that will be a cornerstone of our business.”

But running Britain’s biggest car firm came with constant pressure. He says: “We were on the edge several times. You feel pressure but learn to live with it. It can be lonely at the top, you can’t please everyone.”

The lowest point for Speth was on the two occasions he was forced to cut thousands of jobs.

He says “We had to lose people to save the core of the business but I felt ashamed. It feels very personal.”

His pain was underlined by colleagues, one of whom told me: “He is very demanding but he cares about people passionately.”

As he prepared for his final week, I asked Sir Ralf what he would miss most: “I will miss the people of JLR, their passion, dedication and their creativity.

“I’d like to thank them all. We turned a small, niche British firm into an international company.”

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