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How Lynn Calder took Ineos from tough beginnings to success

Lynn Calder lead
Lynn Calder lead

Designing and engineering a car is one thing. Manufacturing and selling it is quite another.

Cars are extremely costly and complicated things to produce – not least because the process relies on hugely complex supply chains and the vehicles themselves must be built to meet all sorts of legislative requirements that are often different in every market.

Tesla is the only real modern example of a car maker that has been created from scratch and gone on to make a success of itself at any kind of meaningful scale.

Until now. Ineos Automotive was created over a pint in a London pub by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who lamented the demise of the old Land Rover Defender and the absence in the market of anything like it. That was in 2016. Seven years later, the first Grenadiers left the production line.

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Running the company since December 2022 has been Lynn Calder, who was brought in from elsewhere in the Ineos empire to get the Grenadier over the line and into mass production. For someone who had never worked in a car company before and who was arriving at the most crucial stage of all, it was quite the baptism of fire.

Calder recalls she was quite surprised to receive the job offer in the first place. “I couldn’t quite believe it,” she says. Yet while her appointment outwardly seemed to come from left field, Ineos isn’t a company to follow the traditional route. Calder herself also says she has had “left turns” in her career before and always had a family connection to cars.

When she was growing up, first in Fife near Edinburgh and then in Aberdeen, cars were constantly around her. She recalls her mechanic father “spending all his money on cars… He just wanted to try new things all the time so you’d come home one day and find the Volvo estate had turned into a Nissan Primera”. Her first car was an A-reg Ford Fiesta that brought “freedom” in her rural location.

Calder has an economics degree and started her career in the oil and gas industry (“I like manufacturing, and scientific and technical topics, so understanding extraction methods made it all quite exciting to me”) before the first left turn took her into a US-based private equity company.

There, Calder learned “about business properly, the absolute nuts and bolts of them and how to run them efficiently”, as well as a realisation that surprised her. “I went into private equity thinking it was about numbers but came out almost 10 years later realising it’s all about people. The people you work with drive businesses forward and know what needs to be done,” she says.

The next move took her to the Ineos Group, back into oil and gas and then into chemicals, including stints as CEO of some of its businesses. The job of running Ineos Automotive didn’t appear on the company’s careers website but instead came from a tap on the shoulder “that was not expected at all”.

Calder initially thought the role would be best suited to someone with automotive experience but actually what was needed was for it “to be run as an Ineos business”, she says. “They’re all different but there are common threads in cultures and the way businesses are run.”

Calder was already at Ineos when Ratcliffe’s plans to launch an off-roader to fill the gap left by the original Defender were first revealed – a decision she regarded as “audacious and bold” yet still not an unexpectedly huge diversion for the company.

By then, Ineos had already started to move beyond its petrochemicals background and into sports team ownerships and sponsorships.

Among them now are the cycling team formerly known as Team Sky, one-third of the Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 team and the football operations side of Manchester United. Still, it was a daunting job, taken at the time when most start-up car companies struggle the most: getting a car into production and then into customers’ hands.

The Dyson car project was announced at a similar time to Ineos’s yet Dyson decided against industrialising it. Calder notes that producing a car is “very different to designing and engineering one”, which Ineos had spent four years doing before her arrival. Compared with other sectors she had worked in, Calder was immediately struck by the complexity of the automotive industry.

“You’ve got 2500 components in a car from 200 suppliers and 400 different sites supplying them, all coming into one factory. If any one of those on any given day is not working like a well-oiled machine, it is going to have an impact, often quite a substantial one. In gas or petrochemicals, the level of complexity sits in the process, not in the supply chain,” she says.

Calder admits that getting manufacturing up to scale was “when we really started to struggle as well” and she can see why so many start-ups fail at this stage, however unique and well engineered their vehicle might be. She says: “Our funding helped us, for sure. If you haven’t got that backing that we’ve had, it can really start to trip you up.”

It was also fortuitous for Ineos to be presented with an opportunity to move into an advanced and fully operational car plant by taking Mercedes’ Smart factory in Hambach, France.

“If that hadn’t happened, I think we’d probably have really struggled, to be quite honest,” says Calder.

“I still think we’d have had the grit and determination to carry it through, but we would probably not have cars on the road right now because we’d have been clearing fields during Covid [Ineos originally planned to assemble the cars at a new site in Bridgend], which would have come with all sorts of additional complexities that we would have struggled to deal with and it would have ended up costing more. We’ve had some bits of luck, but also real grit, not saying no, finding a way. We’re a stubborn lot really.”

The company has now delivered around 15,000 Grenadiers and expects that to rise at about 30,000 by the end of this year, the 4x4 being joined by a pick-up called the Quartermaster. A serious car company has emerged and questions over it being a rip-off of the old Defender or a billionaire’s pet project have largely gone away.

“We’re way beyond that point right now,” says Calder about the notion of Ineos Automotive being a passion project. “I don’t think it ever was. The passion was in adventuring, off-roading and cars. But actually it was also just a gap in the market. It was always a business.”

Calder believes there is no other car like the Grenadier available and the firm has found a niche, creating “a quality vehicle that people really respect” and one that’s far more sophisticated than a Defender ever was.

After a year of largely selling cars to converted 4x4 enthusiasts, Ineos is now tapping into more of a lifestyle market and will soon launch in China after setting up already in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Longer term, when the brand is established with a planned four product lines and variants, the goal is around 250,000-300,000 units per year.

Ineos has had its eyes opened by the sheer depth and scale of legislation in the automotive sector, and the cost and complexity that brings. Calder says: “We’re no strangers to heavily regulated industries – running highly complex chemical processing plants is as heavily regulated as you would imagine – yet you can’t stand still in automotive for a split second. We sell cars in 45 countries and need to be compliant.

Each of these countries has different requirements. You’ve got emissions, safety, cybersecurity and being unhackable. We’re on top of it – we have no choice – but it’s extremely complex, expensive and also important. As a new player coming in, it’s a big challenge.”

Ineos has been vocal in its criticism of the subset of legislators who have backed battery-electric as the sole power source of the future. It believes EVs can never be right for every scenario and thinks their decision will stifle innovation in other areas. This move has made it hard to run a business and plan accordingly.

“There is a lack of certainty in the sector at the moment. There is not a minute it stands still from a regulatory perspective,” says Calder. “With everything that’s gone on for the last five or so years, everybody has completely lost sight of the driver, whether that be the government or indeed even the automotive industry.

“The automotive industry has just been running to stay on the hamster wheel to keep up with what governments are regulating so that we can still sell cars. At no point has someone said: what are people using the cars for? What are their mobility needs? Instead of just saying: here’s one technology; let’s think actually about what the driver needs. Drivers are voters and they’re voting with their feet right now. We’re prepared to adopt electric cars to a point because there are things we can use them for, but now we’re saturated and we need something else. There’s a gap, so if you’re going to take away combustion engines, what is going to fill that gap?”

Ineos’s own EV, the Fusilier, will go into production in 2027 as its third model line and it will spawn a range-extender version with a small petrol engine and smaller battery – a solution that would from 2035 be banned by the government as part of current legislation around hybrids despite its 80% reduction in CO2 emissions compared with an equivalent petrol model. It’s decisions like this that Calder believes are nonsensical.

Aside from continuing to bang the drum on that issue, building Ineos’s brand awareness is high on Calder’s to-do list: “I still go to some automotive events where people don’t know who we are. We’ve got a real job to do with the general public but also for the automotive sector. I feel like we’re really failing on brand awareness.”

Still, that’s one of the nicer problems to have: unlike almost every other start-up before it in recent times, at least Ineos has cars to sell in the first place – and very good ones at that.

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