Driving growth, from Le Mans to Shanghai22nd May '16
Hazel Davis meets the CEO using personal relationships to put slick, hand-built sportscars on China’s roads
Company: Westfield Sportscars Trading in: China, Thailand, Australia, Japan Sector: Automotive
“If we can export a car with 3,500 parts in it, then any company should be able to export”
For Westfield Sportscars, the road to China started with the famous Lotus XI driven by Stirling Moss at Le Mans in 1956. That inspired Chris Smith, a British driver who raced historic grand prix cars, to design a similar vehicle and in 1982 Westfield hit the road.
The Westfield Eleven was a big success and the company has grown steadily since, developing cars for the road and the track. Based in Kingswinford, Dudley, in the West Midlands, it has now manufactured more than 20,000 hand-built vehicles (with a capacity for 600 cars a year) and is on course for a £4.5m turnover in 2017.
Chief executive Julian Turner – whose first job was in Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific – arrived at Westfield in 2006 after various roles in aviation, marine, project management and engineering. His models include the Sport, the lightweight two-seater XTR (Extreme Track and Road) and a new generation of sleek, minimalist, road-legal ultra-modern sportscars that come ready-built or in kit form.
The company has also now moved into the brave new world of driverless vehicles and its success can be seen in the development of the Westfield POD – a fully-autonomous vehicle based on the platform that has been running at London’s Heathrow Airport, carrying more than 3.5m commercial passengers and completing over five million km without incident.
The Westfield POD is being developed further by Westfield to take goods, provide autonomous road-sweeping technology and full airside equipment using the same platform. The company has also taken the GTM Vehicle into its portfolio, working on making it fully-autonomous with a virtual concierge system that will enable passengers to check in on their way to the airport and place duty-free orders. The vehicle can operate in both manual and fully-autonomous modes – and, interestingly, there’s no need to buy the vehicle outright. Customers can simply hire one for a single journey and still enjoy a small part of the thrill of ownership.
In 2014, after an overseas market identification service (OMIS) with the government’s UK Trade & Investment department, Westfield struck up a relationship with Peter Jiang, president of a Shanghai company, GD Aero Technology (GDAT). “That has opened a lot of doors for us,” says Turner.
“GDAT came to visit us at the factory and I have been to China to visit them monthly ever since.”
Westfield has now signed a distribution deal with the company, winning an initial contract for more than 100 British-designed and engineered, hand-built Westfield vehicles to be distributed across Asia.
The deal was signed at a ceremony in Shanghai in 2015. “Peter Jiang and I have a very similar background and the same values, so it was only natural that we enjoyed working together,” says Turner. “We have developed a great relationship, founded on strong personal values.”
Turner says both companies are passionate about Westfield products: “There is genuine technological and advanced manufacturing crossover between the aerospace and sportscar sectors and both Westfield and GDAT have a fantastic reputation in their local markets.”
Westfield is also taking part in trials for “autonomous” cars in London as part of the GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) driverless-car project currently under way in the London borough.
“We have designed and are building the first autonomous vehicle that can be used by partially sighted people, and is disabled compliant,” says Turner. The vehicles are fitted with advanced sensors and control systems that improve urban accessibility.
Late last year the Chinese internet giant Baidu announced the country’s first fully self-driving car had successfully navigated through Beijing, so the potential in China is enormous, says Turner. “The technology we bring to the Chinese is something they have never experienced before, whether it’s with our sportscars or autonomous vehicles.”
There have been a few potholes along the way – mainly involving legislation and language. “We worked with Connect China, who have helped us in the language area and made the legislation easier,” says Turner. But the challenges can be overcome: “If we can export a car with 3,500 parts in it, then any company should be able to export.”
Westfield’s 34 staff are all based in the UK, although it employs overseas contractors when necessary, mainly for its work on driverless vehicles and battery technology. It also has a network of 24 dealers throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australasia, the Americas and Asia Pacific.
Now there are plans to set up companies in China with Chinese staff. Westfield is also planning to set up grassroots “entry-level” motor racing in China, which, Turner hopes will expand dramatically. “We are working with Chinese companies on recyclable lithium batteries and autonomous vehicles.” The company is also forging connections with Chinese universities for collaborative R&D projects and student exchanges, and has successfully bid to develop autonomous vehicle work with RIOH, ZTEV and BUAA
Nonetheless, it remains crucial for Westfield products to remain British-made. Turner says 99.9 per cent of its vehicle materials are sourced in the UK, with 70 per cent from within the Midlands.
“This is why people buy our products,” he adds, “We are in the centre of the British automotive industry. The Chinese love the fact that we’re British.”