Advanced Materials & Manufacturing
The James Bond car maker’s secret mission has led it to South Wales. After considering 20 locations worldwide to manufacture the new, sporty 4X4 – the DBX – Aston Martin’s latest model will start to roll off the production line in St Athan from 2019.
Simon Sproule and Andy Palmer grinned like schoolboys in a sweet shop as they looked around the huge former Ministry of Defence aircraft base at St Athan, near Cardiff.
It was early 2015 and Sproule, Chief Marketing Officer at Aston Martin, was on a scouting mission with Palmer, Chief Executive of the luxury sports car maker. The car manufacturer, favoured by the fictional spy James Bond, had just decided to expand its product line, by launching a sporty 4X4 – the DBX.
“SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) is a new and interesting market, which has become increasingly important,” Sproule says. “It’s what people want to drive and we decided this was a segment we want to be active in.”
Aston’s base at Gaydon in Warwickshire is planned for full capacity making sports cars and the site is hemmed in on all sides, making it difficult to extend. So, the management team started to look for a second manufacturing site.
“St Athan was one of the locations that was proposed early in the process,” he says. “In fact, St Athan was the first site that I visited and it was the first one visited by Andy Palmer. It’s very rare that the first house you see is the one you buy.”
Sproule and Palmer were impressed with what they saw. The 90-acre site has all the space the car manufacturer requires – there are three well-built and maintained aircraft hangars to house production; it has office buildings; and the infrastructure needed for manufacturing projects; and parking for more than 600 employees.
“As a location to make a fast start to do industrial style activities, the infrastructure is all there,” Sproule says. “There is also a pool of high quality labour in the south Wales area and a government that is actively involved in attracting inward investment.” The luxury brand examined 20 potential locations around the world, mainly in North America, Eastern Europe and the UK. From the start of the process, St Athan was one of the frontrunners. “It was very impressive,” Sproule says of the Welsh site. “It was a hard fight and eventually St Athan prevailed.”
The deal to bring Aston Martin to Wales was announced in February. It is a shot in the arm for the entire south Wales area, because when the first DBX rolls off the production line in the second half of 2019, the Aston factory will have around 750 directly employed workers. Sproule praised the “partnership” approach adopted by the Welsh Government, acknowledging both the financial incentives and business support that ministers have offered.
“The Welsh Government team has been very engaged and very supportive,” he says. “The bottom line is, there is aid available anywhere in the world to open a car factory.
“If it was just down to the amount of cash being offered, Wales was not the richest offer. But, the whole package put forward by the Welsh Government was the best.”
Sproule says this included financial support, the high quality of the facilities at St Athan, having an engaged and supportive government, access to labour and skills and strong transport links. “It just added up to a very compelling package,” he says. “We were prepared to go overseas, but in the end it is great that we’ve maintained production here in the UK.”
Wales’s heritage in industry and manufacturing played a huge part in Aston’s decision. “If you go to a new area, that area having a heritage of industry is always a help,” Sproule says. “The fact that it’s located in a beautiful part of the world is also great.” He noted local colleges and universities across south Wales have already contacted the luxury car maker to find out whether there are areas in which they can collaborate in the future. The automotive executive also praised the strong transport links offered by the area.
“Over 80 per cent of our production will be exported, so access to good road and rail links, ports and airports is important,” he says. “Also, St Athan is only a two and a half hour drive from Gaydon and within easy reach of our existing supply base in the west Midlands.”