Not many Ford employees can claim to have in their possession one of its earliest cars. But Emma King, winner of this year’s Great British Women in the Car Industry – Rising Stars initiative, is the proud owner of not only a 1904 Model A but a 1916 Model T tourer.
King’s day-to-day job couldn’t be further away from the historic vehicles she’s so fond of. As senior purchasing manager for EV battery cells, King is at the forefront of Ford’s dramatic modernisation plan, which includes an $11 billion investment in electric vehicles by 2022. We’ll first see a Mustang-inspired electric SUV next year.
Ford, which has broadly been considered behind the curve with electrification, must now catch up and prove it’s ready for the future after announcing a dramatic restructure, including £14bn of cost savings, earlier this year. King’s role, then, is to ensure Ford has a quality and ample supply of battery cells at the best value possible.
King has risen quickly through the ranks of Ford’s purchasing division since joining the firm’s graduate scheme in 2007 as a commercial vehicle buyer at Dunton, Essex.
Before her current role, she headed up purchasing for powertrains in Asia-Pacific, based in the Indian city of Chennai. She describes the three-year experience as thoroughly enjoyable and says she got a lot out of it by being open to a very different cultural setting. While there, she was involved with a professional women’s network, looking at developing leadership capabilities and addressing challenges. In a country notorious for gender inequality, she notes: “You have to be sensitive to how the country operates and different expectations of family roles. But women have every right to be there, leading the way.”
Last year, King relocated from Chennai to Ford HQ in Dearborn, US. The biggest change? “Chennai is hot and humid all year round, and then I experienced my first Michigan winter. I thought UK winters were cold – they are not.”
The other shock was Ford’s early morning meetings: “It’s part of my routine now, but the 6.30am or 7.30am meetings were a surprise! In Chennai, I was used to working way into the evenings. You find very different working practices from region to region.”
Not that King is often in Dearborn. Leading a global team of nearly 20 buyers based predominantly in the US and China, she is often on the road in Asia, the US and Europe. “It’s important to get to know your suppliers, and you can achieve a lot in face-to-face meetings,” says King. “It means you are able to assess manufacturing plants and quality but also build personal relationships.”
Ford’s purchasing strategy, King says, is a diverse supply base: “Our perspective is that building and maintaining a diverse range of suppliers helps us to lower costs, improve quality and make progress towards our sustainability goals.” She adds that a range of suppliers allows Ford to take into account regional footprints as well as gain access to the latest technologies.
Ford’s tactic is to pair purchasing bodies with counterparts in product development to ensure everyone understands what is required.
“It means the technology and cost discussion happens together,” explains King. “It is a fact-based negotiation based on a deep understanding of what we’re buying. It isn’t either for best price or best technology, it needs to be both – though, of course, there will be a trade-off.”
How do you outdo your rivals in purchasing? “If we’ve done it right, when we launch the products our customers will be as excited as we are from both a technology and price point.”
The procurement of EV battery cells is a contentious subject, with plenty of industry debate surrounding the ethics of sourcing raw materials – something of which King is all too aware. She says: “When it comes to battery technology, there are some unique challenges. When we look at sourcing batteries, the chain is really complex. It is heavily dominated by raw materials and you have to be careful about extraction methods and human working conditions.
“My team looks at the mining of base metals, which helps us to identify cost opportunities and gives us transparency of where material flow is coming from. We need to be able to satisfy ourselves that the material we source is sustainable.”
King’s motivation comes from being at the forefront of a fast-paced industry. “I love working in the automotive industry,” she says. “Being right at the front of major technological changes is fantastic. Things don’t stand still in this industry for very long.”
King says that consumer uptake of electrified vehicles should mean “a no-compromise solution for what they’re buying”.
“Our EVs are going to be inspired by our most iconic products such as Mustang,” she adds. “We’re amplifying the best attributes that we know our customers love – performance, capability, convenience – and building an ecosystem of services that ease the transition into EVs.
“My view is that different products appeal to different customers. In China, the rate of EV penetration is a lot higher than elsewhere. In North America, hybrids are important for us because of the challenges of infrastructure and the vast distances travelled.”
What’s King’s next step? “I like to continue to learn and challenge myself. The business develops and opportunities arise and if you have an open mind, you can have some great experiences.
“When I first applied for Ford’s graduate scheme, it said ‘occasional travel in Europe’. Fast forward eight years and I’m on a one-way ticket to India. I never would have imagined it. It’s good to be ambitious and have a development plan, but being too specific is never a good idea.”
Are there plans for more additions to the historic Ford fleet? King’s Model A and Model T are stored with her father in the UK, though she loves driving them when she’s at home.
She concludes: “I love cars, that’s why I’m here and that’s why I applied for Ford. It’s a great part of my life outside the office as well as in. I’ve found, to my delight, a big network of people here in Detroit with old Fords, old GMs. I haven’t made any acquisitions yet…