Commendable Foresight

Nick Scheele, president of Ford Europe, also chairs the Foresight 2020 panel. He tells David Fowler that its preliminary report, due out next month, is a call to arms for manufacturers

Nick Scheele became chairman and chief executive of Jaguar in 1992. The struggling company had just been bought by Ford and everyone in the industry was convinced the deal was an expensive mistake.

But by the time Scheele was promoted earlier this year to president of Ford Europe, Jaguar was making record profits from record sales, and had introduced a range of highly regarded new models.

Scheele perhaps saw a parallel when he was asked to chair the Foresight Manufacturing 2020 panel. The panel has the job of bringing together people from industry, academia and elsewhere to identify the issues manufacturing needs to address to survive and prosper.

`I believe in manufacturing industry – I’ve been in it all my professional life – and I thought it was potentially very rewarding to look at manufacturing’s future in a country where a lot of people write it off,’ he says.

The Foresight Manufacturing 2020 panel will produce a final report next year, taking into account feedback from a preliminary report, which will be published in full next month.

The preliminary report’s findings were unveiled last week and, says Scheele, it has three key messages.

`First, the web. Forget about Amazon.com – that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The web will transform all aspects of manufacturing. Second, people are going to have to be better trained, better skilled and continually reskilled; and third, manufacturers need to get involved in the educational process and the legislative process – the whole debate about our future direction.’

Compared with the US, he says, British manufacturing is too passive. It is not enough, he argues, to leave campaigning to bodies like the CBI.

`There are local issues as well. Where are our recruits going to come from? We should involve ourselves in the schools around our factories. Let’s get our people involved in education and get the kind of curriculum changes we want.

Critics of previous Foresight reports have complained that they failed to reach a wide audience. Scheele has tried to avoid this happening again: `You will notice that ours was a very different report than previous ones. We believe we’ve got to energise manufacturing, to put something out that can be debated.’

One of the most obvious debating points is the panel’s view on transport. Scheele sees little hope of rail transport easing the burden on congested roads. He accepts that the option of trying to solve the problem by building new roads is dead, too. `I believe it can be done by technology to a large extent, and by social engineering. How about delivery of goods to inner cities only at night? Why allow trucks to use commuter roads and park in inner cities? We know it’s going to cause blockages.

`There is technology available today which gives us control of high-density roads by computer. You could introduce access pricing for inner cities but say any car with three or more people in doesn’t pay. There are lots of areas where simple solutions may not deal with the root cause, but will do an awful lot to move us on.’

Another factor which sets this Foresight report apart from its predecessors is its strong US influence. Scheele cites the US’s General Electric as a model for the future of manufacturing companies – offering a package of services around a manufactured product rather than just selling that product. And he cites the US as showing the way with the internet. `The US is clearly leading in web-based technology and in the approach that says business is about more than just manufacturing, it’s about total service provision.’

This influence is perhaps not surprising, as Scheele has spent 10 years of his Ford career in the US. He completed this stint by running Ford’s North American body and assembly purchasing. He became president of Ford of Mexico in 1988 before taking on Jaguar.

Scheele says he has found all of his Ford roles rewarding, but admits that leaving Jaguar was a wrench. `When I started at Jaguar everybody had written it off. We were at the bottom of everybody’s list. I think now we are close to the top of everybody’s list both in terms of desirability of product and the company itself.

`So that was a tremendous experience, a privilege, and…’ (he pauses for a second) `…I hope never to do it again, I should say.’

Nick Scheele at a glance:

Age: 55

First job: graduate trainee, Ford, 1966

Education: Brentwood School, Essex; Durham University, reading languages

Key appointments: president of Ford of Mexico, 1988-91; chairman and chief executive, Jaguar, 1992-99.

Current Job: president, Ford of Europe

Interests: Music, reading, theatre, sport