The walls of the spacious office of Nick Rogers, boss of engineering at Jaguar Land Rover, are cluttered. Along one there’s a cabinet with models of car bodies and other mementoes of his three decades with the business. Another has a flatscreen television, which he’s just used to show an inspirational film sketching out where the company is going.
Along the window – through which the company’s test track and the British Motor Museum can be seen – are an assortment of car components.
Above the sofa and coffee table loaded with car magazines, books and, intriguingly, a copy of Debretts, the walls are covered with printouts of things Rogers finds inspirational.
In one of the most prominent spots is a picture of former Nokia chief executive, Stephen Elop, along with his famous quote: “We didn’t do anything wrong but we still lost.”
This resonates with Rogers. “It’s a way of saying, if you take things for granted, then that’s the beginning of the end,” he says.
Rogers is fizzing with passion as he talks about the company which he joined in 1984 straight out of school as a 16-year-old apprentice back when it was British Leyland. Such a long career with one employer – though it has gone through plenty of incarnations and owners to become what it is now – has given him an appreciation of what could have happened to the business.
“It’s been night and day over the past 10 years,” he says. “We’ve done more here in five years than in the last three decades.”
In 2007, the company was on its knees. Then owner Ford couldn’t make money out of the Jaguar side of the business and Land Rover was propping it up. The financial crisis sent shock waves through the industry and Ford wanted out. Then India’s Tata arrived on the scene, paying a bargain £1.3bn for the business which had 13,000 UK staff turning out about 250,000 cars.
“There were some tough moments, moments of survival, no doubt about it,” says Rogers. “There were times, as things moved around, [when] it felt like the sea was coming in and you were on an island.”
One of his first jobs under Tata’s ownership was to present new product plans to management. “I was first up and had to tell Ratan Tata [chairman of Tata] we wanted to make everything out of aluminium,” recalls Rogers. “Can you imagine what it was like to tell the head of one of the world’s biggest steel companies that?” Thankfully, he took it well: JLR is now a world leader in making lightweight cars using aluminium.
Making difficult presentations is something Rogers has experience of: “When Ford owned us I was sent to Dearborn, Michigan, to explain why they couldn’t do a nip and tuck and turn a Ford Explorer into a Land Rover. What an honour. It took a while. I had to be careful.”
Under Tata’s ownership JLR has grown exponentially, now employing more than 40,000 UK staff, almost a quarter of whom are engineers, and last year it sold 604,000 cars.
But such success was never guaranteed, says Rogers. “Back when things were getting close, I remember Ratan coming into the design studio and spending days talking about what our plans for cars were.
“He was sitting in reviews talking about new Range Rovers during the day and must have left in the evening trying to raise the cash for them.”
Having seen Britain’s car industry collapsing around him during the earlier part of his career as a lack of support, interest, quality issues and industrial action took their toll, the new owner’s approach left a huge impression on Rogers, especially as some sources say JLR was at times days and even hours away from financial collapse.
“The fact that he prioritised to sit with us all day rather than say ‘I’ve not got time for this’ was such a lesson in thinking about the future, about not cutting corners,” says Rogers. “It was awesome. He was genuinely strategic.”
That long-term approach has paid off. Last year, the company had sales of £24.3bn and a pre-tax profit of £1.6bn – despite investing £3.4bn into R&D and new facilities.
JLR is now identified as one the world’s coolest brands. A suggestion that JLR has got “swagger” as it enjoys its success doesn’t sit well with Rogers. “I prefer we got our mojo back,” he says.
That “mojo” can traced back to the Forties and Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons, who Rogers describes as a hero.
“Look back to 1946, Britain was coming out of the war, it was horrendous, and you’ve got Sir William Lyons sat there, saying ‘I’ve got an idea, I’m going to make a two-seater car that will do 120mph’,” says Rogers. “He just sat there and decided to do it. Can you imagine? His single goal was trying to make something that would be exported to bring revenue into the country.
“He created this awesome product that did 120mph in 1948 and in two years it was doing 140mph. Most of them were exported, Clark Gable bought one. It appealed to Americans who had loads of money, and brought so much money into the country. It was the coolest thing on the planet.”
That mojo was also evident in the Wilks brother who about the same time conceived the Land Rover with its go anywhere capability, Rogers adds. While he is only too aware of the past, Rogers’ focus is now on the future. “We’ve got that pioneering DNA and we have to constantly be creating and innovating,” he says.
The billions of investment is on show as Rogers leads a tour of the buzzing “GDEC” – Gaydon Design and Engineering Centre, home to thousands of staff developing cars. Looking out the window Rogers points to construction taking place next door, noting it was evident the current massive building holding thousands of engineers was not going to be sufficient before it was even finished.
“We’ve been extremely lucky,” he adds, saying he worked at the former British Leyland and later Rover plants at Canley and Longbridge which are now shuttered. “What’s there now? A Sainsbury’s? I’m determined I don’t want to walk my grandchildren around the heritage motor museum and say, ‘This is what this used to be’. I want to tell them about the cool stuff we made, the exciting things we got up to and are still going on here. I want it to be, ‘We created jobs, livelihoods and we really made a difference’.”
The tour leads past the design studio where The Daily Telegraph is quickly ushered away. “We might be designing a car in there whose name starts with a D,” smiles Rogers, referring to the widely expected replacement for the Land Rover Defender, whose production ended in 2016.
Electric cars are also being shaped in the studio, and test versions of the i-Pace electric car revealed last year are driving around the Gaydon track, some with wires leading from under the bonnet into the cabin, where engineers stare intently at laptops. “Engineers will create the future, they have a duty to create the future,” says Rogers, saying the two key parts of his job are to look after his people so they can do their jobs better, and to look after customers by creating the best cars possible.
Posing for photos on the edge of the test track, an F-Type sports car roars past, and Rogers describes its exhaust bark as “authentic”. Questioned on his repeated use of the word, he describes it as being key to his job and creating the cars customers want.
“If we’re selling something – a car – to customers, it’s got to be what we say it is,” he says, citing a Land Rover’s ability to take on all terrain. Failure for him would be what he describes as “fur coat” cars: they might look good but aren’t practical.
Explaining new seat controls in a Range Rover and how they have been designed to make them easier to use by relocating them to the door, Rogers doesn’t hesitate when asked if his executive role leading thousands of engineers means it’s been a while since he did some hands-on engineering himself.
Not so, he says brandishing his thumb and the splinter in it. “I got that at the weekend,” he smiles. “I fixed the electrics on my boiler.”
Back in his office, the talk turns to the future, not just of cars, but for the company, and himself. He’s passionate about engineering, especially apprenticeships, but is glad they have evolved since he was a junior employee. “I’ve seen all the jokes, I was sent to stores for a ‘long wait’,” he says. “If you had the personality to weave your way through it you could survive but if you didn’t … well. Looking back, you realise it was beyond inappropriate, and I’m determined never to again witness it.”
JLR has one of the most sought after apprenticeship schemes in the country, taking on 500 apprentices and graduates this year, 75 of them women. They will help shape the company as cars become increasingly digital in the connected and electrified world Rogers foresees.
Rogers’ rise is evidence of where an apprenticeship can lead but, as for his own future, he swerves questions about him referred to by some as a potential JLR chief executive, saying never in his “wildest dreams” did he imagine he’d climb so high.
“I’ve no career plan,” he says. “You’ve got to have a strong ‘so what?’ gene and just get on with it.”
Summing up his role, he doesn’t see himself as an engineer first, executive second, though he emphasises that without his background, he could never do the job. Instead, he takes a more philosophical view, one that covers the whole of JLR. “I always describe what we do as a fantastic redistribution of wealth,” Rogers says. “We create products that people desire and spend a lot of money on. We bring that money in and we pay for all our employees’ livelihoods. We invest billions in R&D pushing boundaries of technology. All of that is harvested from creating that desire. We are creating a complete ecosystem.”
He adds: “That’s why I talk about this duty to our people. I really see the job as a moral honour. To drive that machine, well, it’s cool.”
Name: Nick Rogers
Job: Executive director of product engineering, Jaguar Land Rover
Career: Started as an engineering apprentice in 1984 with British Leyland, and has stayed with the business ever since as it went through various names and owners including Ford and BMW, before being acquired by Tata in 2008.
Family: Partner, Natasha, and daughter, 22, from a previous relationship.
Lives: Near Gaydon in a farmhouse he restored himself
Drives: XF Sportbrake, Range Rover, though “mostly they stay at office while I drive competitor and test cars”.
Hobbies: “Generally being curious.” This has spread to a collection of vehicles which he has restored or is in the process of doing so, including a 1946 Jaguar XK120, vintage Land Rovers, Jaguars and a Mini, as well as Massey Ferguson tractors and even a JCB Telehandler.
Favourite films: The Matrix: “It blows my mind”; The Adjustment Bureau: “It’s cool how you can influence lives”; Inception: “I love the idea of putting an idea in someone’s head because if you can do that then they are unstoppable.”