McLaren Masterclass

Santander’s latest Masterclass saw delegates drawing inspiration from Formula 1 and high-technology company the McLaren Group, who explained their approach to maintaining excellence and diversification.

Thanks to the popularity of Formula 1 motor-racing, the McLaren Group is not only a British success story but also a global brand. Founded by Executive Chairman Ron Dennis in 1963, the Surrey-based company is best known for its F1 racing team, but its high-technology businesses range from Automotive and Applied Technology to Electronics. It’s a compact yet diverse conglomerate with various divisions orbiting a single iconic brand.

In February this year, McLaren welcomed entrepreneurs from all over Britain as it hosted the latest Breakthrough Masterclass. Just one of the Breakthrough programme’s many support initiatives, Masterclasses aim to inspire and inform fast-growing entrepreneurial businesses by connecting their owners to companies that have already made the journey from ambitious start-up to market-leading brand. Rapid growth can pose significant challenges for any business, but Masterclasses provide first-hand insight on how to overcome common obstacles to growth. Previous Breakthrough Masterclass have been hosted by Innocent Drinks, Saatchi & Saatchi, and LOVEFiLM.

Business in the fast lane

For many delegates, the appeal of a day spent at the headquarters of an illustrious F1 competitor went beyond the opportunity to learn from a business with revenues in excess of £2 billion, as Ed Brown, owner of healthy fast-food chain Friska Ltd, confesses. “I’m a massive F1 fan,” he says. “So I really didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit the company.” Ed was among 18 Masterclass delegates representing a diverse cross-section of UK business, as Santander Head of Masterclasses Mel Powell explains. “We had businesses from a whole range of sectors – from marine salvage and oil and gas to restaurants,” she says. “The common factor was that they were growing fast and could learn from the experience of McLaren. It really was a rare opportunity to learn from this company.”

Key themes

Throughout the Masterclass itself, McLaren's management focused on two key themes: performance and diversification. McLaren’s Sporting Director Sam Michael opened with a presentation that outlined the company’s approach to achieving and maintaining high performance, not only on the racetrack but also in business. Geoff McGrath, Managing Director of McLaren Applied Technologies, gave the second presentation, which focused on the lessons the company had learned from its success in diversification. Geoff’s division sells McLaren’s research, development and manufacturing expertise into other sectors. This can be a complex strategy to implement, but Geoff offered a detailed lesson in how to leverage branded technologies into new markets.

Cutting-edge performance

McLaren’s ability to get the best out of its staff proved particularly inspiring to Ed Brown. “It’s a company that has to get the highest level of performance out of its team and because of the business they’re in, they are always working to very, very narrow tolerances.” McLaren operates at the cutting-edge of engineering, where even the tiniest margins of performance can lead to success or failure for both cars and drivers. Success is not only measured by the bottom line, but also by the company’s position in the drivers’ and constructors’ tables. This is not an environment with which many businesses will be familiar, but McLaren’s presentation on maintaining and improving performance resonated with all the delegates, as Breakthrough’s Mel Powell explains. “All companies want to get the best out of their workforce,” she says. “In that respect, SMEs have the same drive and passion as McLaren.”

Developing staff

The delegates also learned much about McLaren’s approach to developing staff. “The company has seriously good people working for it,” says Mel. “That is underpinned not only by on-the-job learning, but also by the culture within the company, which is all about aspiring to be the best. For instance, the mechanics working for the company aspire to become mechanics on the F1 cars.”

This culture of excellence impressed Ed Brown. “It was the cultural thing that I really took away with me,” he says. “It made me think about how I could apply that to my own business.” Ed acknowledges that running a restaurant is very different to managing a high-technology company. Nevertheless, as his business grows (he now employs 32 people across four restaurants), his priority will be to maintain the same standards of service established when the first restaurant opened with just a handful of committed staff. “What I could take away were lessons such as recruiting to fit the culture, and a training programme designed to encourage people to work to a really high level at all times,” he says.

Lessons learned

In addition to McLaren’s presentations, delegates had a chance to learn from each other during informal brainstorming sessions. Ed exchanged ideas with another restaurant-owner from Bristol about recruitment and how to maintain consistent branding and culture when opening new outlets.

Breakthrough Masterclasses are designed to provide both inspiration and practical advice, the kind of information necessary for any fast-growth business hoping to cross the finish line.

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