For 37 years after taking over the F1 motor racing team in 1980, Ron Dennis moulded McLaren into one of the most successful and richest in the sport, valued at £850 million a year (S$1.4 billion). McLaren Automotive, the company he later founded in 2010, is today among the world’s top supercar makers. Then, last November, he relinquished his role as chairman and CEO after a boardroom battle with key shareholders. So, now what?
Sitting in the lounge of the Fullerton Bay Hotel on the second day of the Singapore Grand Prix in September, Mike Flewitt, the CEO of McLaren Automotive, says with a smile: “Without a doubt, Ron is the most influential person in our history, but from an automotive point of view, it has not been a sudden change because from January 2013, he stood back and became non-executive chairman.”
Dennis hired Flewitt in 2012 as chief operating officer and then appointed the Liverpool native to take his place as CEO the following year. It was a master stroke. While the McLaren Automotive road car project was Dennis’ baby, his pedigree was in motor sports and the company needed a man schooled in the business of selling cars.
With almost three decades in the car industry – holding senior posts at Ford, Rolls-Royce and Bentley – Flewitt was tailor-made for the job. Under his watch, McLaren spread its wings, selling in 30 markets through 84 dealerships worldwide. Last year, it sold about 3,300 cars, twice as many as in 2015. Not bad for a seven-year-old upstart when Lamborghini, after 54 years in the trade, posted a peak of 3,457 units in the same year. Ferrari, which rolled out its first road cars in 1947, also broke new ground, with a total of 8,014 sold.
The McLaren cars come with a hefty price tag of $746,000 and up in Singapore, but Flewitt insists it’s value for money because much of its F1 technology flows in the veins of its road beasts. “Things like aerodynamics, software controls, energy recovery with hybrid systems and the big one, the composite carbon fibre structure, are in the cars.”
The company has since launched 12 models and sold over 13,000 cars, but only around 120 have been snapped up in Singapore. Yet it has chosen the city-state as its Asia-Pacific base, ahead of far bigger markets such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
“A good year in Singapore, we sell 20 cars,” says Flewitt. “But it is a very influential market and many countries in Asia look to Singapore as a leader in many ways. One, it is a financial centre for the region and it also has a good understanding of the luxury market, which appeals to the type of customers that we have.”
He gives a hint that the future is certainly bright for the post-Dennis era of McLaren, which counts Singapore tycoon Peter Lim among its shareholders. “In seven years, we’ve come from nothing to constructing a factory, and have been profitable for four years running. We are building a successful business in its own right. The two cars we announced this year – the 720S and 570S Spider – are both sold out until next year.”