Hewland Engineering's William Hewland On Modernising An Engineering Giant

'At 24 I thought: 'I'm Too Young To Be In Charge' (INTERVIEW)

William Hewland took over the running of Hewland Engineering, the company which invented the first commercially available racing car gearbox, in 1989. Since then, he's steered the company through two economic downturns, modernised the production process and seen his company make a triumphant return to Formula One engineering.

Here he discusses the challenges of taking over a company at a young age, the importance of really knowing your market, and why getting a good financial director is crucial.

How did you get involved in making gear boxes?

My father started the business in 1957, he basically invented the commercially available gear box for racing cars – everything from Formula 1 to Indy car racing to Le Mans cars used them.

When I came to school-leaving age I had an interest in engineering. I was already racing and karting, so I already had a bias towards my father's business. It would've been madness if I didn't at least give his business a look, as it was a great start to someone's career.

I went to engineering college and then joined the business as a junior designer – I'd actually lied to get into college and said I'd done design drawing at school!

Then in 1982 I joined the company at the age of 17 – that's when my learning really started.

What was your job?

There was only five or six people working at the time, and soon I became the person who handled all the technical enquiries – mainly because I was keen and willing to talk to people about them!

I began rallying myself in 1990, which gave me a great insight into what was needed in the products.

Rather than throw myself further into the design world, my father had decided he'd seen too much change and wanted out of the business. He wasn't identifying with the industry much and more and wanted to retire.

So the business was offered to you straight away?

The business was foisted on me pretty much, he said to me 'do we sell it, or do you take it over?' and at 24 I thought 'I'm too young to be in charge, but if they're my only choices I'll have to take it on'.

I was fearful of seeing it being sold, but I was wise enough to know what I didn't know, so I sought out a 50-year-old guy who understood the gear cutting industry to ensure there was some industry knowledge on board.

I'd seen the frustrations of our customers in that we weren't responding to the market changes quick enough – I knew already that it wasn't going to be the case that I'd be there just turning the handle for 25 years.

The Hewland Engineering HQ

How did the industry change?

What started to happen in the 1980s was more money came into the sport as a whole because of sponsorship – suddenly customers wanted tailor-made services and wanted to be really listened to, rather than buy a product off the shelf.

I had to adopt an attitude that catered for that era, which involved using my eyes, ears and mouth in the ratio they were given in!

What mistakes did you make along the way?

I honestly can't think of any real clangers because my takeover was more of an evolution than a revolution. I'd seen so man mistakes happen before that I was really cautious about not making any more of them.

I'd witnessed discomfort from clients about us being out of date, which made me more humble when I was in charge. I can see how it happened, we were a factory full of people making gear boxes who didn’t really understand how they were used.

Did you notice any impact from the two economic downturns you've seen since being in charge of Hewland Engineering?

The impact hit us quite a long time after everyone else – in the most recent one, we saw the money move away from our sector in 209/2010, a year or so after the crisis initially hit.

I liken it to a rollercoaster – in 2009 and 2010 we saw a real downturn in sales but in 2011 and 2012 it bounced back. Our business is seasonal, so we had little warning either for the downturns or the bounce backs; 2011 and 2012’s figures were a weirdly fast return to normality.

There was a massive nervousness in 2008 and 2009, we normally see orders come in the Christmas before the March start of the racing season and in 2009 the world just seemed not to want to get going. Lots of customers chose to find economies by keeping the same car for another year or racing less often.

Then in 2011, without any warning, everyone seemed to say 'we've had enough of that' and started to go racing again. I think it's an emotional decision more than anything else for them.

We’re hoping 2013 will be a bit calmer, more predictable; for the past few year's it' looked like a heart rate monitor when someone’s had a defibrillator put on them – flat, then enormous spikes.

One of the iconic gearboxes

Where there any 'throw the towel in' moments?

There was a point in the late 1990s where I felt it was all so difficult and there was too much to be done. We'd cured most of the market criticism but we still ran up against customer perceptions about how we used to be – it's really hard to overcome.

I remember hearing about a Jaguar director speaking in North America who said Jaguar had gone from being the 50th most reliable car manufacturer to being the third, but it took another five years before people started referring to Jags as being reliable.

We did have discussions with competitors about getting one of them to buy us out, but then we had two contracts come through at just the right time that kept us in it. If we'd had to wait another year, I’m not sure we'd be here.

What do you count as your biggest success?

Our initial turnaround in the 1990s. I'm proud of the condition the company's in now – the 1990s and early 2000s were when we got our prowess back and started to get involved in major projects again.

I thought the turn around would take a couple of years, but in reality it was more like eight or nine.

It was also gratifying to work with Formula One teams again, having been pushed out in the 1990s. We returned in 2011, and it was really emotional. When I saw the car which we'd helped with cross the finish line in first place I honestly shed a tear. I can't tell you who it was we worked for though. Working with Formula One teams is something else, they make aircraft engineering look like junk.

Any advice for would-be entrepreneurs?

The recent recession has made customers much more savvy and fussy – they also want more deals to be done so you have to be honest with yourself about the economies of your business. Get a good financial director.

I would tell myself to get better financial advice earlier if I went back in time. It might appear boring but it leads to good business values, especially when you realise you can't ride roughshod over any cracks.

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