Sitting in his office surrounded by motoring memorabilia, Andy Palmer sounds a tad emotional.
Aston Martin, the iconic British sports car firm he runs, is racing towards a blockbuster £5 billion stock market float that would have been unthinkable when he took the controls of the troubled firm four years ago.
Palmer, a self-confessed petrolhead with a penchant for punk rock, now has the job of selling James Bond’s favourite car maker to City investors.
Patriotic: Andy Palmer is proud of Aston Martin’s heritage and will be producing the £2.5 million Valkyrie
‘This is one of the greatest institutions in the UK,’ he says. ‘Astons are almost as recognisable as red buses, red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace.’
His patriotic pitch feels very much like a rehearsal for an autumn charm offensive in London. There, however, he won’t have the luxury of posters on his wall showing Formula 1 legend Sir Stirling Moss racing the famous green 1956 Aston Martin DBR1.
Listing a company on the stock market can be a full throttle ride – so it’s lucky, really, that Palmer lives and breathes the motoring industry, and Aston Martin in particular.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, just down the road from Aston’s headquarters in Gaydon, Warwickshire, he owns two classic Astons – a 1980 V8 Vantage and a previous generation Vantage GT8 as well as a BMW motorbike (Aston doesn’t make them).
He’s been known to blast out the Sex Pistols on his drive home from work while testing one of Aston’s new cars.
‘I’m a product of the late 1970s. Your last few years of school and first few years of work is what defines you musically and that was the period of the Sex Pistols,’ the 55-year-old says in his slight West Midlands twang.
And just in case life gets a bit mundane, he also likes to race Astons round the track in his spare time, such as at the famous Le Mans circuit in France.
Since the stock market float was announced two weeks ago, the fanfare hasn’t stopped.
Last week, for instance, the company announced plans to appoint its first woman chair, former Coca-Cola executive Penny Hughes, and another five new non-executive directors.
It feels a long way from the ‘baptism of fire’ Palmer experienced when he joined Aston from Nissan in October 2014 – and is testimony to his hard work. In his first two years alone, Palmer had to sack nearly 300 staff to whip the company, currently controlled by Kuwaiti and Italian owners, into shape.
‘Everything I’d learnt about cars over the past 40 years went into those first two years. It was really, really painful because everyone had to come out of the old Aston Martin cottage industry type of mindset,’ Palmer explains. His repair job at Aston has allowed him to start hiring more apprentices, including 50 who started this month.
Palmer himself left school aged just 15 to be an apprentice at British car parts company Automotive Products Limited just down the road where he was ‘trained and set up for the rest of my career’.
‘What I’d like to think is what we’re creating here, albeit small, is the same infrastructure that can do that for other people,’ he says.
Palmer’s career – and life – since his own days as an apprentice have been shaped largely by 23 years at Nissan, 13 of which were in Japan, where he met his wife Hitomi.
After hectic Tokyo, it has taken a little time for the family to adjust to life in ‘a sleepy village in Northamptonshire’, he admits. He shows me photographs on his phone of an impressive treehouse he has spent six months building in his garden of their home near Silverstone for their young daughter.
Palmer also has three older children from his first marriage. Have any of them followed him into the car industry? ‘Sadly not,’ he says – but they haven’t escaped his influence. Every year he takes a road trip with his son Zack. This summer, the pair went on a long weekend in an Aston to Auschwitz via Berlin and Warsaw.
Selling the company to wealthy investors could prove harder than selling them the cars themselves, even if price tags start at £125,000.
Palmer has to convince people Aston Martin can avoid the speed bumps of its past, which include no fewer than seven bankruptcies. Some onlookers have raised eyebrows at the price tag of £5 billion.
Aston is being sold to investors as a luxury company rather than a car company as Ferrari was a few years ago on Wall Street.
Favourite: Andy Palmer is a big fan of the James Bond franchise
WHAT DRIVES THE BOSS OF JAMES BOND’S CAR MAKER
Marital status: Married with four children (three from his first marriage).
Day in the life: Has a 45-minute drive into the office in one of his Aston Martins or a new car he is testing out. He’ll listen to Absolute 80s radio. He is in the office until about 8pm (much later recently because of the stock market work) and often wines and dines celebrity clients in the evening.
Favourite book: Most influenced by The Machine That Changed The World, a 1991 book about the future of cars (Palmer reads a book a week).
Favourite film: ‘It sounds corny but the James Bond films,’ he says. Also Star Wars.
Hobbies: Likes to build things, most recently a treehouse for his daughter. He drives in endurance races such as at Le Mans when he gets the time. He likes to listen to punk rock to unwind – especially the Sex Pistols.
Cars: Drives a 1980 Aston Martin V8 Vantage and a Vantage GT8. Also owns a BMW K1600 GT motorbike, which he takes on trips with his son.
Music: The Sex Pistols
Movies: The Bond films
The luxury feel is evident at Aston’s headquarters where there is a small shop selling Aston-branded leather holdalls for £550. There’s even an option for a ‘Build Book’ – a collection of images of your Aston Martin through production that will set you back £450.
That said, the days of Astons being just a plaything for a few rich and famous people are long gone. Palmer has created a strong business whose products appeal to a wider audience and, crucially, which makes a profit.
He helped turn a £163 million pre-tax loss in 2016 into an £87 million profit last year and expects to make between 6,200 and 6,400 cars this year.
The company now plans to launch a new car, two special edition vehicles and a ‘heritage brand’ car every year. This year it is the DB5 from the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
Palmer’s biggest innovation is plans for the DBX, the company’s first SUV. The cars will be built at the company’s new factory in South Wales and will be the first Aston Martin aimed at attracting more women buyers. For those with even bigger wallets, there is the Valkyrie ‘hypercar’ – which will sell for £2.5 million each.
Having grown the workforce to nearly 3,000, Aston Martin is becoming the noisy neighbours to larger car maker Jaguar Land Rover next door in a pocket of the West Midlands which is a hub for the industry.
As a former Nissan executive, Palmer knows a thing or two about running a mass manufacturer. And while he claims Brexit will be a ‘distraction’ but nothing more for Aston Martin, he says he ‘wouldn’t be saying the same thing’ if he was still at Nissan. He says: ‘It’s a disaster for the industry on both sides of the Channel if you don’t have a negotiated exit.’
His own sights are firmly set on the float and he feels ‘proud about re-establishing the last independent British car company’. He may still be a long way from the finishing line, but Palmer has put Aston Martin firmly back on track.