When Andy Palmer left school at 15 to become an apprentice draftsman – helping to design car gearboxes – he quickly caught the car bug.
“At the age of 21, when I came out of my apprenticeship, I wanted to be the CEO of a car company, which was extraordinarily arrogant,” he recalls as we chat in a London hotel restaurant. Four decades later, he did, taking over as CEO of one of Britain’s best-known brands in the world in 2014: Aston Martin, maker of James Bond sports cars.
What happened next was probably not part of Palmer’s dream: After organizing a successful turnaround plan, he led the company through an IPO that quickly turned sour, pushing the automaker to the edge of its eighth bankruptcy in 105 years, even as it boldly launched a new SUV. He was unceremoniously deported in May 2020 following a bailout led by fashion billionaire Lawrence Stroll.
Palmer could have lay low and licked his wounds, using the pandemic as cover. Instead, he used the time to do something quite surprising: take over a little-known Yorkshire bus manufacturer and quietly turn it into a $1.6 billion (1.2 billion pounds sterling). Switch Mobility, formerly known as Optare, says it now aims to be the “Tesla of buses and vans”.
Palmer grew up in the West Midlands, the traditional heartland of UK motoring, and says his interest in car building was piqued when his father, a manufacturing engineer, gave his son an old Mini engine broken to disassemble. After his apprenticeship he moved to British Leyland, from where he was recruited by Nissan UK.
He thought he would stay there for a few years and return to work in a British company, but after the break-up of British Leyland there was no home industry to return to.
He eventually spent 23 years at Nissan – the last 13 in Japan – and played a key role in making the Nissan Leaf the first mainstream electric car to be built in Europe (in Sunderland, to be precise). He eventually became a “samurai” under former chief executive and chairman Carlos Ghosn, who later rose to prominence with the business world’s most famous leak.
Palmer acknowledges his former boss as a huge influence and says he was a genius at simplifying issues. Yet as Ghosn grew in power through an alliance with Frenchman Renault, Palmer found himself covering more and more of the “naked emperor” at the top. “What I saw was a guy who started disconnecting from reality,” Palmer says, pointing to Ghosn’s regular use of a Gulfstream G550 private jet and his inability to get to Japan quickly. after the devastating 2011 tsunami – although he claims there were no clues to the supposedly hidden income.
In his next job in the auto industry, Palmer learned a lesson about the importance of storytelling, especially for a public company. When he took over Aston Martin in 2014, he says, it was unprofitable, three months from bankruptcy and was valued at just £420m. When he left in 2020 he was valued at £2billion – but floated at £4.3billion.
“If you tell the story of going from £420m to £2bn, it’s an incredible turnaround,” he says. “If you took it from £4.3bn to £2bn, that’s a whole different story.”
Palmer raises his hand when asked about the endgame at Aston – much of which is covered by a nondisclosure agreement. Still, it seems clear he thinks the then owner, Italian private equity firm Investindustrial, has some questions to answer. He wanted to cash in and wouldn’t wait, which left Palmer with a dilemma.
“Am I quitting or am I trying to do something about it?” he says. “This question still exists in my mind: what was the right thing to do?”
The initial public offering did not provide cash to the company, so when costs were higher than expected it was exposed, and the splinter of the public markets meant there was no room for the error.
“I will never put myself in the position I was in at Aston,” he says. “My goal now is to always work where there is cash available – and to work for the people I love. Life is too short otherwise.
Family Has a daughter with his wife Hitomi, whom he met at Nissan in the UK, and two other daughters and a son from his first marriage.
Education Kineton School, near Gaydon (“I’ve barely been there”) followed by an apprenticeship at 16. Returned to school at 21, earning a degree in industrial management in the evenings and weekends at Lanchester Polytechnic, now Coventry University. At Rover he earned an MSc and at Nissan he earned an MBA and part-time PhD from Cranfield University.
Pay “My Aston salary was on record so I was on £1.2m and bonuses and so on. I earn more now than I did then.
Last holidays Two and a half years ago (pre-pandemic) in the Maldives.
Best advice ever given “Listen” – the quietest people in meetings can have the best ideas.
Word he abuses “Not one you can print out… but ‘work, work, work’ according to my kids.”
how he relaxes Sitting in his workshop working on clocks and a motorcycle, listening to punk and rock music: the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Bob Geldof, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Jam.
SWitch mobility is a different proposition. In a happy coincidence, it is majority owned by Ashok Leyland, the Indian conglomerate that absorbed (via a circuitous route) parts of the British Leyland empire. Palmer was approached to start consulting work there a day after leaving Aston Martin, and took over as chief executive in June 2021.
While the past 18 months have been better for Palmer, the same cannot be said for his former company. Aston Martin Lagonda languishes at a valuation of £1.3bn, or $1.8bn, just $200m more than Switch, which is in the process of raising £200m. So it’s not inconceivable that a rise in his valuation or a stumble from Aston Martin could see Palmer’s new employer overtake his old one.
“I won’t say I didn’t think about that moment,” Palmer says.
Switch took the former Optare bus company and combined it with a failing Ashok Leyland electric vehicle division. “If it had been Optare on its own,” Palmer says, “it would probably be dead, but we were able to stabilize Optare because now India is really starting to bubble.” The firm has just taken a large order for electric buses from Bangalore.
From nine engineers in the UK when it arrived, Switch now has 100, including 300 in India. A plant in Spain will eventually employ 2,000 people, although the 300 workers at the Leeds plant will still make buses and, possibly, vans.
Switch buses and vans will initially use batteries made by Austrian company Kreisel, but Palmer has held talks with Envision, now owner of the Sunderland battery factory he set up, and Britishvolt, the startup building a gigafactory in Northumberland.
Palmer became an electric vehicle evangelist, meeting with council leaders and trying to sell them electric buses. Switch vehicles are more expensive than those from Chinese rivals such as BYD, but, crucially, it claims its buses have net-zero emissions over their lifetime, including production – although for now that requires the purchase of carbon offsets.
He sees a chance for the UK to undo some of the devastation suffered by the car industry. “This is your one chance in many lifetimes to rebuild an industry that was once number two in the world and is now number 15,” he says. “How stupid would we be to give all this to the Chinese?”