Ex-Ford boss on leading the UK’s battery charge

Graham Hoare, newly appointed chairman of Britishvolt, the Northumberland-based start-up that will open the first phase of a 30GWh battery manufacturing business in 2023, recently made a major career change – the kind of move he admits would not have been possible in any other era of motoring history.

For the first 20 years of an illustrious engineering career, Hoare spent most of his time making and improving internal combustion engines. Working first at BMW, then Land Rover and Ford, he led and inspired the creation of some of the automotive world’s most admired powerplants, most recently Ford’s Ecoboost units, which have won consistent plaudits for their sophistication and affordability. So good was his performance that he was eventually given sign-off authority for Ford’s global product line-up, and then appointed chairman of Ford of Britain at the remarkably young age of 52 – a position from which incumbents usually retire gracefully. But not Hoare. For at least half his career the eventual automotive transition to battery power has been visible on the horizon, Hoare said, but the event that catapulted him into his new electrification role wasn’t automotive at all.

He explained: “My awareness of this new world accelerated during the early days of the pandemic when, working with government and partners, we at Ford built 12,000 desperately needed ventilators in 105 days, employing 2500 people in three factories around the country. It was exhilarating. We were scared to death half the time, but I loved the urgency and the need for quick decisions. It made me more aware than ever that the UK is the best place in the world for collaboration.”

At the same time, Hoare said, demand for electric cars began accelerating – a clear sign that the electric transition was coming “faster than we thought”. So when the chance came to head the UK’s first big-scale investor in battery technologies, a company with a breakneck timetable attached from day one, he decided to grab it with both hands.

The benefit to Britishvolt was clear: as well as Hoare’s thirst for corporate agility and quick decision-making, he brought hard-nosed industrial knowledge, great contacts and, perhaps most importantly, clear lines of communication with the government through his position as chair of the Automotive Council industry body. During the past few years, research projects like the Faraday Challenge have been set up (today it concentrates the work of 450 battery-minded scientists), leading to rapid growth at technological hubs such as the Warwick Manufacturing Group and Coventry’s Battery Innovation Centre, which Hoare calls “national assets”.

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Hoare described Britishvolt as “at present, a start-up with a variety of global shareholders”. Rather than being UK-centric it plans to tackle global ventures, though the heart of its activities, including R&D, will remain in this country. The plan is for a public flotation “in a few years”. The next battery plant will be in Canada and is expected to open a year after Blyth, but Hoare suggested that the Northumberland project won’t be the end of Britishvolt’s activities here.

“The first step is the hardest and the most important,” said Hoare, “so we’re concentrating on that. There’s so much GDP locked up in the automotive industry that we’ll miss if we don’t get this right. But as we establish this first facility, and spread ourselves overseas, we’ll also look to see what additional facilities are likely to be needed in the UK.”

Hoare estimated that the UK will eventually need “four to six” battery sites on a Blyth scale (each requiring expenditure of between £2 billion and £3bn) to support the anticipated scale of electrified motor manufacturing here. Batteries are so heavy and cumbersome that domestic manufacture for domestic customers is the holy grail. Still, striking deals with car makers is a long-term business: “We’re happy with the engagement UK makers have shown so far,” he said, “but we’ve all got to now be happy that we can get the size, scale, chemistry and price points right. We’re expecting agreements next year.”

Perhaps because of his close links with the government, Hoare was more bullish than most about the authorities’ awareness of the huge and numerous steps needed to establish full electrification in this country in time for the proposed 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars.

“It was very challenging while we were leaving the EU,” he admitted, “when we all had something else to worry about. But the government has a clear ambition to be a leader in the automotive electrification business. Our task at the Automotive Council has been to ensure their full understanding that you have to match ambitions with resources. But can we lead? I think we absolutely can.”