How Lotus CEO Phil Popham is shaping the firm’s future

For all but four of its 72 innovative and sporadically successful years, progress at Lotus has looked fragile. Even during its greatest racing days, those who knew the company behind the headlines were aware that it was often only a step or two from financial disaster, as if founder Colin Chapman needed a view of the financial abyss as a form of motivation.

Since 2016, life has been quite different. In that year, Lotus was acquired by the Chinese Geely group, the successful and much-praised owner of Volvo and the London Taxi Company (now LEVC). Geely founder and chairman Li Shufu promptly signalled that £1.5 billion would be invested in the Hethel company over the long term to fund an ambitious development plan to replace the current range of UK-built sports cars in the UK and to create a brand new range of sporty SUVs in Asia.

Late in 2018, Geely hired the high-achieving former Land Rover and Sunseeker boss Phil Popham to lead Lotus’s charge as CEO, building on improvements to sales and manufacturing efficiency begun by his mercurial ex-PSA Group predecessor, Jean-Marc Gales. One early, pleasant task for Popham came with the unveiling in July last year of the new Lotus Evija, a £1.7 million all-electric hypercar designed to grab worldwide attention for a brand that, in the new CEO’s words, has “high global awareness but low familiarity”.

As a means of demonstrating the potential of modern Lotus, the Evija could hardly have been more effective, especially since other aspects of Lotus’s business were starting to go well. A backlog of overstocked cars had been cleared, sales were rising, dealer numbers were being carefully increased, quality was on the up and a skeletal, half-finished factory at Hethel – a monument to previous failures – was on the road to completion.

Even so, when Covid-19 arrived early this year to knock Europe’s motor industry sideways, media pundits familiar with Lotus’s fragility expected some of the earliest bad news to come from Hethel. Only this time it didn’t. For once, others seemed to be doing worse. Lotus went into a well-organised survival mode, but its secure backing meant it could keep its eye on the long-term plan.

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Kershaw joined Lotus directly from school in 1988 as an apprentice, arriving on the same day as another high-achieving contemporary, Matt Becker, who is now at Aston Martin. “We met in the gatehouse on the first day, and we’ve been pretty good friends ever since,” Kershaw says.

Kershaw was lucky in three ways. He had a motorsport background, because his father raced stock cars, his driving talent shone through from an early age and he moved into the orbit of the late John Miles, ex-F1 driver and brilliant chassis engineer. Through Miles, he still feels a link going back to Colin Chapman. Miles enjoyed working with his protégé so much he sometimes accompanied him to Yarmouth or Ipswich speedways to give hints on how to make the cars go faster.

Nowadays, Kershaw’s job is to drive every car and “see what needs changing” if it’s going to feel like a real Lotus. “I spend a great deal of time in the cars,” he says. “The job is always to try to make things better, but the driver has to be the centre of everything — the hands, the ears, the fingers, the seat of the pants. That’s what makes a Lotus a Lotus, and it ain’t gonna change.”