Pole Position

31 March 2009 Ron Dennis

When Lewis Hamilton became the youngest-ever Formula One world champion it was equally a victory for his mentor Ron Dennis CBE, the chairman, CEO and 15% owner of the McLaren Group. Dennis has since stepped down as team principal of McLaren, but as he told Michael Jones at Leaders in London, his hunger for success is undiminished.

On the day that Vodafone McLaren Mercedes launched its MP4-23 Formula One car at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, Lewis Hamilton, the British driver leading McLaren’s assault on the championship, was celebrating his 23rd birthday. Hamilton described the new car as "the coolest birthday present you can get". Ten months later that birthday present roared Hamilton to victory as world champion. Although McLaren was pipped to the constructors' title by arch rivals Ferrari, McLaren CEO and chairman Ron Dennis was rightly proud of the faith he had shown in Hamilton since the driver's early racing days.

Hamilton has been on the McLaren books since he was in his early teens, when he was literally a ‘boy racer’ on the karting circuit, which is reflective of the significance Dennis places on nurturing talent. "When it comes to young drivers, you are really trying to achieve two things," he says. "You are investing in the future but more importantly you are moulding the future. Every athlete requires training, guidance and motivation. The earlier that training starts, the earlier you have success. I saw in Lewis the core values that would form the foundations of a future winner."

Dennis is typically humble about the obvious influence that he and the team at McLaren have had in bringing Hamilton up through the ranks. "We guided and nurtured those values over a number of years. It was a bit of an experiment. Lewis was not the only driver that we developed but he is the epitome of what you can achieve if you have focus. He’s a young guy who is prepared to make sacrifices and he always listens to what the team has to tell him."

In the driving seat

Is there a danger that a huge, cash-led industry such as Formula One is more concerned with quick wins than taking the long view and investing in talent? "First of all I don’t think that we’re as driven by cash as people often imagine," Dennis says. "We are a business, and no business can survive if its expenditure constantly exceeds income. We are fiscally aware in every aspect."

Dennis created the McLaren International team in 1980 by merging his own company, Project Four, with Team McLaren Limited when it was considered an ailing also-ran. Within four years the team had won the drivers' and constructors' championships. In light of later successes, does he look back at this period as his biggest achievement? "It’s a hard question," he muses. "When I look back at my business career there have been so many moments that have given me great satisfaction. It’s understandable that people relate to the grand prix wins but I’m equally proud of producing what is considered the best sports car in the world for well over ten years."

While proud, Dennis is acutely aware of the teamwork this is responsible for any success in the sport and is keen to share the spoils. "With world championships, drivers tend to get shoved into the spotlight. In respect to our car programme, it’s inevitably the designers who receive the recognition, but actually the business model behind them was quite sophisticated and required tremendous entrepreneurial commitment. The most accurate assessment is to say that I just simply love entrepreneurship. I want to be remembered for being an entrepreneur and a successful businessman even more than I want to be remembered for my contribution to McLaren’s success."

Working between the pit lane and the boardroom, would he describe himself as a typical CEO of a Formula One company? "If I say no, it sounds egotistical, and I don’t particularly want to sound egotistical. Different people have different styles and it is inevitable that you get compartmentalised by those around you, be it other team owners or executives," he says.

"Some of my differences are considered as strengths and some are considered weaknesses,’ he adds. ‘In the early part of my career, I was pretty aggressive but as you mature in business you become more considered, more balanced. You draw on your experiences of trying and failing until you succeed."

How did Dennis take these experiences on board? "You build up different tools," he says. "I think the bigger your toolkit the more capable you are of differentiating yourself from your competitors and peers. I spent a lot of time seeking out the broadest range of experiences, expertise and competences. If that has helped me become different, it is because of the hard work, focus and commitment I have invested."

Road to success

With the management of Formula One often considered to be a rich man’s plaything, as someone that has risen through the ranks from his late teens, Dennis has a slightly different perspective. "I had a humble upbringing, although my parents gave me the opportunity to live without contributing to household costs," he says. "They put a roof over my head, clothed me and fed me and that gave me the opportunity to take risks as an entrepreneur. You weave into this the fact that I was an extreme workaholic. I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for a long time, especially during my twenties.

"Part of my success was because I out-worked people. It’s different when you own the company. You’re doing it for different reasons and it’s easier to find the justification for the sacrifices that you ultimately make in your life. Your private and social life suffer. A workaholic is just that."

The hard work has clearly paid off and Dennis has not relented in his efforts, spurred on by his passion for the job. "What drives me is my ambition. I don’t think that as you mature your ambition needs to fade."

With the racing season due to start at the end of March, Dennis sees no reason to cut his long hours. "I’ve got a phenomenal amount of ambition. There are still a lot of things I want to achieve in my life, only some of which are based around motor racing. If you are ambitious then you are inevitably motivated, and there are so many things that inspire me. These constitute the infectious things that you need to bring with you into management."

Where does the man – described by the Observer newspaper as ‘F1’s supreme operator’ find this motivation? "Any CEO in a company has to be passionate about what they are doing,’ he says. ‘They have to focus on the challenge that being a CEO offers. You really don’t have the luxury to wake up and feel like not going to work. I go to work and do what I do out of choice, not out of necessity."

Recent results from testing before the inaugural 2009 Grand Prix in Melbourne reveal that the McLaren team is struggling with the MP4-24’s rear wing. While Dennis and the team will no doubt throw themselves into the challenge of correcting this minor set back, it is unlikely that this problem will keep him awake at night.

"When it comes to sleeping, I’ve never had a huge problem," he says, "but when I had trouble, it was during the early parts of my career, on the rare occasions when I faced extreme financial pressure. Balancing risk against reward is what keeps you awake.

"An entrepreneur who is constantly climbing takes those gambles and that can keep you awake, but that hasn’t happened to me for years."