Most engineers jump at the chance to work in the automotive industry. It is an opportunity to push their skills to the limit, as today’s top-of-the-range cars use leading edge technology. This is particularly true in motor sports, where cars are required to perform at the highest level under extreme conditions.
Many of the best engineers end up in ‘Motorsport Valley’, a swathe of several hundred companies stretching from the south coast of England to East Anglia via the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit in Northamptonshire. About 40,000 people work in the valley, contributing £5bn a year to the UK economy, according to the Motorsport Industry Association.
One leading company in this sector is Prodrive, a motorsports management and automotive engineering firm, whose status is demonstrated by the huge surplus of applications it receives for each vacancy. But, despite this healthy response, its HR people need to be as fast and thorough as its pit crews to recruit the best people. Many jobs on offer are highly specialised and, in some areas, Prodrive must compete fiercely with other firms to secure people with the right skills and experience.
The company, founded in 1984, “lurched from one crisis to another” during its first 10 years, according to founder David Richards, a former world rally champion. But in 1994 it was named UK Motorsport Business of the Year by Andersen Consulting and received £20,000 worth of consultancy time as a prize. This led to the creation of a proper business plan and an HR manager was appointed the following year.
Sue Scarf previously worked in retail, running a change management programme for Texas Homecare. She arrived at Prodrive relishing the challenge offered by a company which, at the time, had 90 staff but no HR function, no IT department and no formal procedures for maintaining health and safety compliance.
“It was a blank sheet of paper,” Richards says. “Its core business was very good, but from an HR point of view it was not advanced at all.”
Scarf, now HR director at Prodrive, quickly established basic HR policies and introduced a training framework. Then, as the company began to grow rapidly, so did the importance of formalising recruitment procedures.
Recruitment within the tight-knit motorsport community was often on the basis of “knowing someone who knows someone”, Scarf says. “But today we have skills shortages in certain areas,” she adds.
Currently, the skills most in demand are composite engineers and technicians, experienced ‘event engineers’ who support the cars at races or rallies, and experts in on-board diagnostics.
But it is not enough for applicants to simply demonstrate the right level of technical expertise. “Their fit with our culture is equally important. Motorsport demands a certain type of attitude,” she says.
This is why each of Prodrive’s major sites has its own assessment centre. Applicants undergo team-based and role-playing exercises, psychometric testing and at least two criteria-based interviews, alongside a detailed assessment of their technical abilities.
Salaries at Prodrive are, according to Scarf, near the top end of the scale, but range widely depending on specialist areas. “We do not get hung up on grading systems, because we need flexibility,” she says.
And while the company is willing to pay a premium for essential expertise, increasingly the emphasis is on growing talent internally, rather than buying it in from outside.
In a bid to stem the flood of CVs she receives and to help other companies in Motorsport Valley do the same, Scarf recently helped to set up the Motorsport Academy. The new organisation will work with the government, the Motorsport Industry Association and companies to provide a national centre for education and training in the sector, to help keep the UK motorsport industry in pole position.
“We are trying to direct all applicants through the centre, so it will become a pool for CVs,” she says. “The academy will also soon be able to accredit certain types of training within the industry.”
While recruitment is an ongoing issue, the retention of valuable staff is also a huge challenge for Prodrive. In this area, Richards’ watchword is recognition. “In a motor racing team of 100 people, only one is going to be spraying champagne from the podium, so I try to give recognition to all the parts of the business that have played a role,” he says.
This is achieved by having successful drivers visit the Prodrive offices to thank support staff in person, while some of that champagne is saved for company-wide toasts when a Prodrive-backed team wins a rally or race.
More conventional forms of support for workers include helping them to acquire new skills or advising on personal finances. Depending on work commitments, Prodrive employees are allowed to spend time in one of the learning centres at each of its main sites where computers are available for e-learning.
“If people wish to take certificated courses, we will also fund them if it is job-relevant,” says Scarf. “For example, if a workshop machinist wishes to take an engineering degree then we would fund their tuition and give them one day per week to take that degree.”
Prodrive also has an ethos of allowing staff to pursue their own commercial ideas within the company. One recent success story saw dynamics expert Damian Harty given the “tools, freedom and space” to transfer a handling system, called Active Torque Dynamics, from rally to production cars. The system has already generated about £3m of new business for the company and is now installed in prototype cars at several major car manufacturers, where it should lead to further licensing deals.
The cross-pollination of such ideas is made possible by Prodrive’s collegiate structure. “We have distinct teams within teams,” says Scarf. “The Subaru race team is very different from the Aston Martin race team, for example.”
Some of the big management contracts, such as the one with BAR, even required Prodrive to set up satellite HR functions. These operate with almost complete autonomy, but there is a Prodrive umbrella making sure that all the teams share a few common values.
“It is about making sure HR is integral to every part of the business and not some remote centre of excellence,” says Scarf.
Founder David Richards expects the HR department, like any other department in Prodrive, to have a clear strategy, communicated throughout the relevant parts of the company on a regular basis. A monthly team briefing, quarterly reviews with the directors and a full business review once a year make sure this happens.
“In return for such rigour, he gives people a lot of autonomy to go and make things happen,” Scarf says.
Sue Scarf read business studies at Manchester Polytechnic before joining Whitbread as assistant to the head of its Youth Training Scheme pilot.
“Whitbread was one of the pioneers of YTS,” she says. “That first job was a baptism of fire for me – if you are faced with 40 17-year-olds, many from difficult backgrounds, then you learn pretty quickly.”
For the next four years, Scarf helped to run similar schemes for Whitbread in Liverpool and Luton.
After travelling for a year, she joined Group 4, where she stayed for four years as an HR manager, helping to reduce staff turnover by overhauling the training regime, and introducing various staff support schemes such as ‘buddy’ systems and formal inductions.
She then worked for Texas Homecare for four years, moving from a regional HR management position to head office, where she ran a change management programme.
She joined Prodrive in 1994 as HR manager, and is now the HR director.
Prodrive was founded in 1984 to manage the Rothmans Porsche Rally Team and today performs a similar role for marques such as Aston Martin and Subaru.
It also ran the BAR Formula One team until November last year. Half of its £110m turnover, however, comes from designing, testing and marketing high-performance parts and systems for car manufacturers.
Of the 1,000 staff employed worldwide, almost 600 are based in the UK at its headquarters in Banbury, workshops in Brackley and Milton Keynes and testing facilities near Warwick.
Prodrive also has a presence overseas. In 2001, it acquired rival engineering firm Tickford and with it production facilities in Melbourne and Detroit.
In the same year, it opened an office in Bangkok, where the original staff of 12 has now grown to around 50.