How this boss plans to take Lotus cars into the fast lane again
PUBLISHED: 07:46 04 December 2019 | UPDATED: 07:46 04 December 2019
From driverless cars to Bond films, boss of Lotus Phil Popham spoke on how he’s accelerating the Norfolk firm into the fast lane.
Lotus CEO Phil Popham was just 12 when he tragically lost his father in a car accident.
His mother then went on to run the family plate hanger business to support Mr Popham and his older sister.
He said: "My mother was very supportive but it made me grow up very quickly. It had a big impact on the rest of my life, I focused on the future but became quite independent, I grew up quickly. Mum had a big challenge to bring up two children and we were supported by my grandparents."
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Hailing from Redditch in the Midlands, as a boy he had posters of his three favourite cars on his bedroom wall: a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and a Lotus Esprit.
He went on to study business at university. The man who now drives a Lotus Evora and Range Rover Sport actually learned to drive in a bright green VW Golf and can still remember the number plate. In 1988 he joined Land Rover, never realising he would spend 25 years there ending up in charge of various arms of the business, both home and abroad. Five years ago he left to run the Sunseeker luxury yacht firm.
"There weren't many companies I wanted to go and work for, but Sunseeker was a luxury British brand, I'd got the chance to run it. I'd sold them cars and it was a brand I respected and liked. One day I got a call from a headhunter and I thought that was the end of my automotive days."
But nearly two years ago came an even bigger call - from Lotus.
"With the acquisition from Geely, they were looking for someone who'd got experience in brand development and turnaround. I had turned Sunseeker from a loss-making organisation into a profit making one, I had got growth and Chinese culture experience, as Sunseeker was Chinese-owned, so I suppose I was an obvious choice for Geely."
Mr Popham, 54, may not be able to speak Chinese, admitting he can only say 'hello, goodbye and thank you' despite travelling there more than 40 times. But what he saw in Geely was a business willing to invest and re-invigorate Lotus, which had been losing money and sales - and he would boss the transformation.
"Lotus is unique, it's a famous brand with a proud heritage, everyone has heard of Lotus, people remember Colin Chapman, the Bond films, but not so many people know what we are doing today."
Mr Popham went to China before accepting the job and quizzed Geely himself.
"I actually asked them why they were buying Lotus," he said. "They were so enthusiastic, I came out of that meeting convinced Geely was here for the long term, and that I could step into an opportunity to rejuvenate one of the most famous brands in the world.
"I couldn't turn that down."
Over the past 15 months at Lotus, Mr Popham has put in place a business plan with 'Vision 80' being the firm's 10-year strategy taking Lotus to its 80th birthday. Part of this includes the building of the new electric hypercar, the Evija and then a more practical car, rumoured to be an SUV, while investing £100m into the Hethel facility. And he is adamant that Hethel will remain at the core of Lotus.
"There is no doubt that we will reach and exceed the capacity that Hethel has got so we will need to build outside Hethel but that doesn't mean instead of, but as well as. But the heart of the business is here.
"The key trends are electrification, connectivity and autonomy. The future is electrification, and we are already investing in it with our first toe in the water being the Evija. We will be introducing leading-edge technology, while continuing to invest in having a fun car that's based on aerodynamics, speed, agility, lightweighting, chassis dynamics, we will always have the most fun cars to drive.
"And then autonomy - do you need to sit behind the wheel in the future? It's sensors, cameras, processors, the car is assessing what is happening and reacting to the environment it is driving in and helping the driver have more fun and step in if the driver messes it all up.
"We will look at technology we are developing in the autonomous space and use it to enhance driver experience, not replacing the driver but having the expert deciding, which is actually the car." Married and with two children at university, Mr Popham is in Norfolk to stay - although he retains a family home in the Midlands he bought a house in Blofield. In a decade, he intends to take Lotus from a firm which he describes as "being in survival mode for a long time" to being a "world-leading business."
Oh, and it's an aim to get Lotus in the next James Bond film. Contrary to rumours, he confirmed there was no Lotus in the forthcoming movie No Time to Die - but it's on his wish-list.
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