The future of Williams: Exclusive interview with Adam Parr 08 Aug 2008
Being CEO of a Formula One team run by racing icons such as Frank Williams and Patrick Head might not look like the easiest job in the world, but Cambridge-educated Adam Parr, who joined Williams in 2006, has proved more than a match for the task. With a background in law, banking and mining, Formula One racing was never really part of Parrs career plan, but after two years in the fast lane he wouldnt change it for anything - and the chances are now good that he - and his senior management colleagues - will evolve as the future of the Williams team
Q: Your background is a world away from motorsport and to outsiders it probably seems that you simply showed up one day and became the CEO of a Formula One team. Tell us how this worked in reality - gaining Williams acceptance, getting to know who was who, earning respect for your opinions etc
Adam Parr: Well, my first role was to get to know the people in the team because we have a big team - all in all 530 people. Walking a bit around in the factory every morning and the same here with the race team, that is the first challenge. The second challenge obviously is to get to know the people in the paddock. Ive done that through my presence at the team principals meetings, but its a slow process. You meet them, you know them, but whether they know you is a different matter. And finally acceptance - I think Ive got a little way to go yet before we achieve that. My background might sound strange to the petrol-head faction, but then again not. I worked in industry for most of my career - 11 years in a mining company, but I am also a qualified barrister and I practised law for a certain period as well.
Q: What skills that you learned in the City have stood you in good stead in the motorsport world?
AP: I think I was chosen to do this job because Frank (Williams) and Patrick (Head) were looking for somebody with experience in management and running a business - and obviously for somebody who is very passionate about what we do. And those things are achievable even if youre not a petrol head. And coming to skills, first of all its the expertise of having run a business or operations with lots of people involved - and learning the hard way how you go about doing that. It is very easy to come into an organization thinking that youre going to change everything, you going to impose your will, that you can solve every problem. And that is not true - I have learned that painfully over many years. So the leadership/management skills are very important. The second thing is the legal structures. We work in a quite legally structured world, whether its our relationships with FOM/FIA, or with our partners. Whatever personal friendships, whatever commercial relationships you develop, whatever alliances in the paddock, underneath it all is a very solid foundation of legal structures - and I am a big believer that you must get those right. Our world is very complex, there is a lot of tension and pressure, so you need to have that legal basis, otherwise you dont have a sound foundation. So I think to be a legally trained person helps.
Q: You have kept a pretty low public profile. Was that intentional?
AP: Yes. My approach has been to work in the background. Our team is very lucky to have two larger-than-life characters - Frank and Patrick are the face of the Williams team. They are iconic figures, theyve won 16 world championships. Those are the people that the public wants to see, that the people identify with our team. And its not my job to stick my nose in the middle and stick my head out there and say, hey, look at me. Thats not part of the job.
Q: Williams is indeed an iconic team - as you say, not least because of Frank and Patricks partnership. Is there room for a third wheel?
AP: I think that Sam (Michael), Alex Burns, Jane Moffat and myself form the senior management team within Williams. We have to earn our stripes over time. And if we do that then I think that we could ultimately be accepted as the future of the team. But right now the score is Frank and Patrick: 16, us: nil. And thats where it stops!
Q: Obviously general management situations can be dealt with using skills you acquired in previous positions, but Formula One? The politics, the button pushing, the subtle nuances... how do you deal with them?
AP: I try not to push the buttons - on the technical side I have very little that I can offer. I believe an intelligent, enquiring mind can often assist in good decision making, but I dont really play a significant role in that side of the team - and its probably better that I dont.
Q: Williams parting company with BMW a few years back was almost like going from a manufacturer to a privateer team. Is the team now over that change, and what were the key problems?
AP: Well, I would never say that we have ever been a manufacturer team - we had a very strong engine partner. Life as an independent team is just fundamentally different to life as a manufacturer team. We have to go out to raise money before we can go racing. And that is the only thing we exist for. We are not here to market a product. That makes life very simple, but it means compared to some of our competitors that we are always on the edge, we are always fighting. Maybe they see us as being a bit punchy sometimes, but we have to look after ourselves.
Q: Williams has an impressive line-up of blue-chip sponsors, even in a time when success on the track is not overwhelming. What is it that attracts them to join?
AP: I think the truth is that a lot of people want to be with a team that is independent. They like the spirit. And I think that we look after our partners very well - because we have to. We really have that spirit of looking after people, which really comes from Frank. So there are people who want to be with an independent team - but on the other hand they dont want to be with a weak team, they want to be with someone who can be competitive. We had our ups and downs, but I think we are still a leading team in Formula One. We just need to demonstrate that a little better.
Q: Will the new regulations for 2009 be burning deep holes in the pockets of Williams and other private teams?
AP: I dont entirely agree that its the regulations for 09 - the only change in 09 that effects the costing is KERS and I dont mind saying that our budget for KERS is ten percent of our budget for aerodynamics and composite parts, so its not a huge amount of money and we see it as a fantastic investment into the future of the sport. And looking at it from a competitive side, I dont see it as a potential performance differentiator. Overall we think it is the kind of thing we should be doing in Formula One, as it maybe has a wider significance than only in Formula One.
Q: Was being in Formula One racing something that you always aspired to?
AP: Not at all. Well, I got interested in Formula One when I was running an extraordinary operation in the middle of the coast of West Australia. I had around 600 people spread over an area of the size of Germany. The biggest challenge was how to get performance improvement day in, day out in that environment. I looked at Formula One and said, why is it that they can constantly improve their performance? That is how I met Frank - and two years later he asked whether I would come and work for him. And so far Ive never regretted for one second that I joined Formula One. It is very tough, very challenging - but it is worth every effort!