Geoff Polites: Jaguar Land Rover chief executive
Wednesday 23 April 2008
Two of the most esteemed names in British carmaking – Jaguar and Land Rover – are embarking on a drive into uncharted territory. After Ford agreed to sell the companies to the conglomerate Tata for $2.3bn, the venerable marques – the first Land Rover appeared in 1947, while Jaguar was founded (as SS Cars) in 1931 – will shortly become the first Western carmakers to enter Indian ownership. The man who steered them into this position will not, now, be accompanying them – as, in his position of chief executive, he had intended to.
Geoff Polites always made an intriguing industry figure. Although he joined the automotive industry conventionally enough, starting work at Ford in 1970 as a product planner after securing a first class degree in economics at Monash University in Melbourne, it was his unusual mid-career swerve that set him apart.
In 1988, he quit Ford itself to run a large dealership chain in central Sydney. After a working life helping to create Ford cars and trucks for the ruthless Australian market, he then spent 11 years at the sharp end – selling the actual products to customers against stiff opposition from Japanese imports.
He was named Ford Australia's Dealer of the Year three times, and was elected chairman of the country's Ford National Dealer Council in 1998. There was nothing Polites didn't know about shifting metal off forecourts, and the staunchly traditional nature of Australian car-buyers, with their love of big, tough saloons and pick-ups.
He sold up in 1999, returning to Ford Australia where he shook things up, taking the company into motor sport, introducing belatedly a sport-utility vehicle, the Territory, and revamping the best-selling Falcon range. His relentless work won praise from Detroit bosses, who parachuted him into Ford of Europe in 2004 to rouse its complacent salespeople into pushing the Focus and Mondeo against tough opposition from Peugeot and Volkswagen.
His switch to Jaguar Land Rover came a year later, and would become a delicate leadership task. He described his appointment as "a complete shock".
He was in charge of prising the two companies from Ford's Premier Automotive Group division, integrating their British manufacturing operations, and ultimately leading the ongoing negotiations to sell the businesses to Tata Motors. Both Jaguar and Land Rover, acquired by Ford in 1988 and 2000 respectively, had proven stubbornly unprofitable and Ford, heavily indebted itself, was anxious to offload them while keeping their luxury-rich image intact.
During Polites' tenure, the emphasis switched away from mainstream models like the Jaguar X-type to the upmarket XK sports car, the Land Rover Discovery 3 and Range Rover Sport, and recently the XF executive saloon.
These gleaming new machines took close account of the aspirations of the monied customers Jaguar Land Rover now intended to woo. In contrast, however, was Polites' own down-to-earth ethos. In a 1985 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he castigated industry leaders. "How can our executives know what it's like to live with a car if they're not even putting petrol in it themselves?"
He had scrapped executive perks such as a car washing and refuelling service, as well as boardroom lunches, forcing senior managers to queue at the canteen with assembly line employees . . . workers whom Polites regularly consulted on the factory floor.
Lewis Booth, executive vice-president of Ford's European businesses, said: "The resolve he showed since taking over as CEO of Jaguar Land Rover in 2005 was something very special."
But there was a sentimental side to Polites too. On what turned out to be his final visit to Australia, he had flown the thousands of miles from his adopted home in the West Midlands expressly to meet his first grandchild – although the sudden deterioration in his health prevented that.
Geoffrey Paul Polites, car industry executive: born Melbourne, Victoria 5 November 1947; staff, Ford Motor Co 1970-2008, president, Ford Motor Co of Australia 1999-2004, vice-president, marketing, sales and service, Ford of Europe 2004-05, chief executive officer, Jaguar Land Rover 2005-08; dealer principal, City Ford, Sydney 1988-99; married (two sons); died Melbourne 20 April 2008.
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