The Williams Martini Racing Formula 1 team has been home to some of the world’s fastest racing drivers since 1977: Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve are among the most exciting drivers of their generations. However, it’s the Williams name itself which stands out as the mark of automotive excellence.
As Williams launched its FW40 car for the 2017 season, Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams talked about working in the business started by her father Frank. She admits it hasn’t always been an easy ride.
Did you always want to work for the family firm?
I never really grew up aiming to forge a career in Formula One because my father told us he didn’t want us working at Williams. He rightly wanted us to make our own way in the world and didn’t want to be accused of nepotism. Nevertheless, I had a passion for the sport as I was exposed to it from an early age. My first job after graduating from university (Claire studied politics) was as a press officer at the Silverstone Circuit. I loved my time there, and after two happy years, Williams’ then head of marketing, Jim Wright, approached me about joining the communications team. My father had no idea, as Jim knew he would be against it, but the role interested me. Jim lobbied Frank hard to hire me, and eventually, in 2002, he relented.
What was it like when you began working for Williams?
My first feeling was of pride. I was finally being paid to work at the team I love. I suppose I was also a little bit awestruck that I’d been given the opportunity. But most importantly I felt I had to quickly get on and prove myself. I was a girl in a man’s world and the boss’s daughter. I needed to show everyone I could do the job and that I deserved the job.”
Did you ever consider becoming a racing driver yourself?
My passion for Formula One never extended to wanting to become a racing driver. I’m extremely competitive but I didn’t have the talent to win so left it to the professionals
What are your best memories of growing up in the industry?
It’s difficult to pinpoint one memory. My happiest is probably of Nigel Mansell winning the 1992 Championship in Hungary. It was one of the first races Dad took me to by myself, rather than going to the British Grand Prix as a family.
I still picture Nigel at the end of the race with journalists and fans swarming around him. I remember the music being played in the garage at the end of the race: ‘The Final Countdown’.
It felt a privilege to be part of it.
What were your biggest issues as Deputy Team Principal in 2013?
2013 was a challenging season to say the least, finishing ninth in the Constructors’ Championship. Turning the team around seemed an almost impossible task. So finishing third in the 2014 Championship was phenomenal. It was the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people who wanted Williams back on track. We left no stone unturned, we analysed our weaknesses and put a plan in place to rectify areas of concern. If you want to change something you have to roll your sleeves up, take a deep breath and get stuck in. It was a real exoneration for me personally, but also for the team and everything it means to our family.
What do you most enjoy about being at Williams?
Everything. But if I had to pick one thing it would be the sound of engines firing up after a long winter filled with withdrawal symptoms. I love the sounds and smells of the cars. To me, and my Dad, the cars aren’t inanimate objects; they are almost part of the family.
What are you most looking forward to in 2017?
The 2017 season marks our 40th anniversary - a phenomenal achievement. So that’s definitely something to look forward to. I’m also hoping it can be a successful year, but it’s going to be difficult. With the new regulations there’s an opportunity, but we’re a team that always pushes and always fights.
What keeps you awake at night?
The biggest focus every year is ensuring we have the budget to compete. This is a priority and something that I work really hard to oversee. I’m lucky to work with some of the best people in the business at Williams, which makes my extremely varied job a little easier.
Talk us through the innovation going on at Williams’ Grove HQ
We first dipped our toe in the commercial world by creating a business called Williams Hybrid Power to take the flywheel technology developed for our F1 car into other industries such as public transport.
Motorsport can bridge the gap between research and production, acting as an enabler for technologies that may have struggled or at best been delayed for years. Williams Advanced Engineering assists industry with this.
The focus is on transferring technology from the pinnacle of motor racing, Formula One, to applications in the automotive, motorsport, defence and life sciences sectors, including green tech, a key growth area globally.
We harness know-how and expertise learnt in Formula One, such as aerodynamics, advanced lightweight materials, electrification, simulation and training, and apply them to applications outside motorsport to support and promote UK innovation.
How is Williams celebrating its 40th anniversary?
We have a series of exciting events and special Williams 40 content planned for our fans, partners, media and our many friends in the paddock. We kicked off our Williams 40 celebrations at this year’s Autosport International show in Birmingham, with an immersive experience allowing fans to look back on our 40 years of history in Formula One, and we have a lot more exciting events coming up, which we’re looking forward to sharing with our fans.”
Head Office: Grove, Oxon
Group Revenue: £80 million
Williams Grand Prix Holdings Ltd comprises a Formula One racing team and an advanced engineering business. It is based at Grove, Oxfordshire on a 33-hectare site which is a hub for the Group’s research, design, manufacturing and commercial activity.
The racing team has secured nine FIA Formula One Constructors’ Championship titles and seven Drivers’ Championship titles, making it the third most successful team in the sport’s history
Williams Advanced Engineering provides world class technical innovation, engineering, testing and manufacturing services to customers across the automotive, aerospace, defence and energy sectors
4 Facts on Claire Williams
1. Her favourite car is her Audi RS6. “It’s a monster”
2. If she wasn’t in motorsport, she’d pick a career in politics
3. Paws for thought: Time out from F1 is time walking her two labradors
4. While men are in the majority in motorsport, she considers gender irrelevant in F1. “There isn’t scope to carry someone who isn’t performing simply because of their gender. The sport is a meritocracy.”
From Kazakhstan to Korea, clever chemistry developed and engineered by Gloucester-based Advanced Insulation is being applied to new products which are keeping oil and gas pipelines, ships and oilrigs protected from the heat, cold — and attack by sledgehammer (of which more later).
Nothing can stop a new business thriving if it hits the market at the right time, with the right products driven by decisive leadership, even during a global recession.
The men who’ve steered Advanced Insulation from zero to superhero in less than ten years (annual turnover is now £58 million), are managing director Andrew Bennion and technical director, Simon Shepherd. Andrew and Simon met at Alderley Plc, another globally successful Gloucestershire company in the oil and gas sector headed up by Simon’s father Tony.
I met Andrew at Advanced Insulation’s factory at Quedgeley, Gloucester to find out more about the man behind the business.
Andrew graduated from Birmingham University as a chemical engineer. He took his first job at Monsanto’s Aspirin plant, North Wales so he could slalom canoe on the River Dee in his spare time. A move to the Laporte chemical company in Widnes saw him running several of the company’s sulphuric acid and effluent treatment plants. This sounds unenviable, but I clearly don’t appreciate the scientific achievements behind the processes. He also ran its power distribution plant and worked on processing edible oils and copier paper.
He moved to Alderley Plc and into general management. Here he completed an MBA at Henley Business School and became Alderley’s group finance director. In 2008 he and Simon completed a management buyout of the company subsidiary Alderley Materials and named the new company Advanced Insulation.
Investing to grow
The new company’s growth strategy was based on a commitment to research and development. “We’ve always invested around 10% of turnover in R&D,” explains Andrew. That’s a lot, and unusual for an industrial company where annual R&D investment usually averages around 2-3% of turnover.
Advanced Insulation’s core products are based on phenolic chemical compounds. A breakthrough in the company’s development came through collaboration with multinational energy company Statoil. Advanced Insulation adapted its formula for application on subsea structures at the oil producer’s North Sea Kristin plant. This opened up a rich new seam of business.
New grades of phenolic products were developed to meet the increasingly technical demands of the oil and gas sectors. Advanced Insulation then developed a new range of industrial insulation and protection jackets for large and complicated-shaped equipment such as valves. These removable fire protection covers are as efficient as bonded insulation materials.
Manufacturing across the globe
While the design and engineering of compounds and products is done largely at Advanced Insulation’s factory in Gloucester, the application of insulating material happens at the client’s site, and takes a great deal of skill.
“We do a lot of training because every skilled engineer must perform at their best in front of the client,” explains Andrew.
The manufacture of fire protection covers is also best done close to the end user, so the company established a manufacturing facility in Dubai. The facility now has around 75 employees and Advanced Insulation has since opened jacket manufacturing facilities in Kazakhstan, Korea, Brazil and closer to home, Nottingham (which supplies the company’s North Sea business).
Technology drives oil and gas development
It’s no secret that the oil and gas industry is having a tough time, so can Advanced Insulation’s success continue? “We believe the oil and gas market will come back,” says Andrew.
“Traditionally we focussed on upstream oil and gas because there were so many opportunities. Now we are diversifying into other areas such as sustainable energy, where our technology can be adapted to fit.”
And don’t write off the oil and gas industry yet, he warns. “There is less capital expenditure in oil and gas at the moment but we’ve lived through a number of cycles, though this is the longest. As technology evolves, oil fields can be developed in more hostile environments. Many of these fields are operating in extreme temperatures: hotter or sub-zero, so our new product innovations are ideal.”
Advanced Insulation’s MS400 innovation has won many awards. Half the weight of other insulation products, it can be applied to the underdeck of an oilrig. “Weight is a massive issue on oilrigs and MS400 is much more robust than a standard system of fibrous insulation held on by a stainless steel shell,” says Andrew. “Our product is bonded using the same glue used on A380 wings.”
Advanced Insulation’s MS400 innovation was so radical that one client, not believing its properties, took a sledgehammer to it.
That didn’t work. He had to resort to a hammer and chisel on the bonded product before he could chip anything off.
Where there’s a need, there’s a solution
Advanced Insulation’s growth through innovation is complemented by strategic acquisitions. In 2014 the company acquired Plymouth-based Manuplas, which develops polymers for the marine, offshore, renewable and leisure markets.
The following year the company purchased Nottingham-based Covertherm to manufacture insulating jackets for use in the North Sea.
From £3 million turnover in 2009 to £58 million in 2017, what continues to motivate him? “I get huge satisfaction when a decision goes well. When I see our success, I see the individuals involved and how they’ve developed and taken ownership of projects.”
Andrew has an unshakeable belief that if his sales team can identify a need, Advanced Insulation can provide the solution. “We are best at adapting core chemistries to solve new and existing problems.”
Advanced Insulation is going to need a bigger awards cabinet. Added to its Queen’s Awards for Innovation and International Trade, it’s won many awards from respected engineering and manufacturing support organisations and was ranked 30th in the seventh annual Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200. Track 200 ranks Britain’s mid-market private companies with the fastest-growing international sales.
Quick Facts on Advanced Insulation
Advanced Insulation is one of the region’s fastest growing companies. It designs and engineers insulation and fire protection products and systems. The company has worked primarily in the offshore oil and gas subsea sector, but is expanding fast into sectors such as marine and wind energy. Operating globally, the company has recently secured its first contract in China.
Head Office: Gloucester
Group Revenue: £58 million
4 Facts on Andrew Bennion
1. Studied chemical engineering at university (little known fact: so did Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Bob Gore, the inventor of Gore-Tex)
2. Former slalom canoeist. Now a cyclist
3. Has competed in the world’s largest cycle race, the Argus Cycle Tour, in South Africa
4. Has no excuse for being late for work. He lives 10 minutes away from Advanced Insulation HQ, Gloucester