Dr Andy Palmer CMG (Manufacturing Systems Engineering [IGDS], 1990), is an alumnus of WMG and one of the leading and most respected figures in the UK automotive sector. He has had a glittering career at the top of some of the world’s biggest and best-known automobile manufacturers, including Nissan and Aston Martin.
As Andy enters a new phase of his career with the founding of both Palmer Automotive Ltd and the Palmer Foundation, find out what Andy had to say about his time at Warwick, his career and his ambitions for the future.At what point did you first realise that you wanted to work in the automotive industry?
At the age of 14, my father bought me a written-off A-series engine to work on. I would regularly build it and take it apart again. I began to understand the role of engineering and developed a passion for the automotive industry. I didn’t enjoy my time at school. I made the decision to leave at 15 before beginning a technical apprenticeship at 16, working for UK Automotive Products Ltd. At the time it was the most direct route into the sector.
What made you choose Warwick as a place to study?
During my apprenticeship I began to enjoy the more theoretical aspects of learning. I developed ambitions to become a manager and CEO in the sector. I studied for a degree in Management at Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) and after graduating began working as an Engineer at Austin Rover. Through a partnership between Austin Rover and the University of Warwick, my manager, mentor, and good friend Clive Hickman provided me with a fantastic opportunity to begin my Masters in Manufacturing Systems Engineering [IGDS] in 1986, under the leadership of the late Professor Lord Bhattacharyya. The structure of the course and knowledge I gained was transformational. It was both relevant to my learning and career progression, whilst also being beneficial for my employer.
It wasn’t always a person that supported and influenced my career. There was a book called The Machine That Changed the World, which was pivotal in provoking my move from Austin Rover to Nissan in 1991. I do, however, owe a debt of gratitude to my early bosses at Nissan, who made a brave decision to take me on as a manager at the age of 28, in a Japanese culture where it was not normal to move into such positions until your mid-thirties. Slightly later in my career at Nissan, then CEO Carlos Ghosn was also influential for both positive and negative reasons. I learnt an immense amount from him, and he had a lot of faith in me.
What is your favourite memory of your time at Warwick?
[With a particularly big smile on his face and a slight chuckle] “Alligator!”. There was a restaurant on campus, I can’t remember the exact name, but the food was always fantastic. I first tried an alligator steak there and will never forget that moment. I also remember fondly the camaraderie with fellow students on my course and being able to make the link between my course modules and what I was doing everyday at work. It was such a fun time in my life and was ultimately the place that I truly discovered my love for academia and the power of ‘learning and doing’ at the same time.
What inspired you to set up Palmer Automotive Ltd?
Last year I had a decision to make about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career after being moved on from Aston Martin. I’d developed the Leaf and the e-NV200 at Nissan roughly fifteen years ago and that really initiated the electric vehicle revolution. I’d also learnt so much about aerodynamics and light-weight structures at Aston Martin, both of which will contribute towards net-zero emissions in the future. I want this stage of my career to be dedicated to the transition to net-zero emissions and eradicating the environmental impacts of the automotive industry on our planet. I feel that I can be a voice in that charge and that is ultimately why I set up Palmer Automotive Ltd.
You’ve mentioned that you are passionate about sustainability. Can you tell us about how you are incorporating sustainability in your work?
Alongside my work with Palmer Automotive, I’ve taken on a number of new roles focussed on sustainability. I very recently became CEO at Switch Mobility, a new global company which combines the electric commercial vehicle operations of Ashok Leyland and the former bus manufacturer Optare. I am Vice-Chairman of InoBat Auto based in Slovakia, a startup battery company focussing on using Artificial Intelligence to develop bespoke electric vehicle batteries. Thirdly, as Chairman of Hilo, a UK-based e-scooter company I am looking to develop more sustainable ways of traversing the urban environment. Finally, I’ve undertaken consulting with a company promoting hot hydrogen as a potentially alternative solution to achieving net-zero emissions and have been a government influencer and commentator, advising politicians on how we might create a cleaner automotive industry.
Can you comment on the benefits of Warwick Manufacturing Group’s renewable battery research on the regional economy?
While factories where vehicles are assembled can move and close over time, strong Research and Development capabilities like those found at Warwick are particularly ‘sticky’- they are difficult to move and need to be close to a ‘mother plant’ due to the necessity of interaction between the two. Centres like WMG ultimately preserve the longevity of manufacturing in the region as a result.
Furthermore, Warwick’s reputation as a leader in battery research and the relationship with the Faraday Institution makes both the region and wider-UK an attractive place for companies looking to set up gigafactories (factories that produce batteries for electric vehicles on a mass scale).
Prior to setting up Palmer Automotive, you were CEO of Aston Martin. What was the most valuable experience or piece of knowledge that you gained during your time there?
When compared to my experiences with a global, mass-producer in Nissan, working at Aston Martin with significantly smaller budgets but a great brand re-scaled my view of how much less a vehicle truly costs to produce. At times at Aston Martin, I found it remarkable what could be achieved with very little money. The experience also opened my eyes to how much advantage could be gained and what opportunities might be grasped through marketing without having to spend money, due to the incredible power of the Aston Martin brand. If I had some of this knowledge whilst at Nissan, I would have done things differently.
You recently established The Palmer Foundation to improve access into automotive engineering for young people from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. What motivated you to set this up?
I was fortunate enough to build the foundations of my career by completing an apprenticeship, but I realise that not everybody has the opportunity to achieve that, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I want to help some young people have the same early career and learning opportunities that I had.
What piece of advice would you give to any of our graduating cohort that might want to work in the automotive industry?
“Work, work, work”… getting your degree marks the start of your career. Having a great work ethic, dedication to your role and a positive mindset, can help you stand out from the crowd and demonstrate the value that you bring to your employer, especially in those first few years.