The Monday Interview

August 4, 2013 2:53 pm

Enough limelight for both bosses

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Max Conze, CEO of Dyson, photographed at their headquarters in Wiltshire.©Charlie Bibby

The ‘other’ of invention: Max Conze with a Dyson cordless vacuum cleaner

A plain white room in a warehouse in rural Wiltshire. Futuristic vacuum cleaners and bladeless fans are stood on plinths. Empty shelves line the wall. And a 6ft 2in former German army lieutenant is pirouetting around the room, vacuuming up detritus.

It’s a fantastical scenario worthy of the mind of Sir James Dyson, the inspired inventor, eponymous overlord and chief engineer of the UK manufacturing group behind bagless vacuum cleaners, towel-less hand dryers and bladeless fans.

However, the star of today’s show is not Sir James, but Max Conze, the Dyson chief executive who is demonstrating the company’s latest innovation – the curiously named Dyson Hard, a cordless vacuum-mop hybrid. “If you work for Dyson,” he says, “you have to have fun with vacuum cleaners.”

We’re not in Mr Conze’s office but “the box”, a serene white space in Dyson’s Malmesbury headquarters where retailers are schooled in how to display the company’s wares.

It is all part of the founder’s vision. The 66-year-old Sir James still looms large at the company he founded in 1993. He stepped down as chairman briefly in 2010 but has since returned to the post. The family owns 100 per cent of the shares. His two sons are now on the board. Signs of succession planning, perhaps? “No, not at all,” says Mr Conze. “I saw James on Friday, he looked damn fit to me, so . . . ”

Mr Conze is not Dyson’s first chief executive. He took over from low-profile predecessor Martin McCourt 18 months ago, having joined Dyson to run the US operations. He was, he says, “always inspired by James’s story”. The two now operate “hand in hand”. How does that work? “Very harmoniously,” he says, quickly. Then, choosing his words carefully, he adds: “Everything James does is born out of his huge passion for technology, for engineering, for inventions, for everything that Dyson is about, no? And I wake up every day with the same passion, which is ‘how can we help the engineers bring those ideas alive? How can I make sure that those ideas materialise in more places around the world?’ And I find that if you operate off that base of passion, then your emotional state is very aligned, no? Because you’re really after the same thing. And then it’s actually quite easy.”

The CV

Born: November 1969 in Bielefeld, Germany
Education: After two years in the German army, completes a business administration degree at Columbus State University in Georgia, US
Career: 1993 Begins in business at Procter & Gamble in a number of brand management roles in Germany and the UK
2000 Becomes marketing director of global skincare in Cincinnati, US
2002 Moves to Geneva, Switzerland, to become marketing director for personal beauty care
2004 Managing director for skincare in Guangzhou, China
2007 General manager, beauty care, based in Germany
2010 Appointed president of Dyson USA
2012 Takes over as Dyson chief executive
Family: Married; two children
Interests: horse riding, skiing, sailing

So who is the most important person at Dyson? “Well, James. I think secondly all the young engineers we have.”

And the CEO, the boss of the company? He laughs. “It’s a question I don’t think about because it looks to provide some value as to how important certain individuals are and, frankly, neither James nor I think that way.”

The eldest of four siblings, Mr Conze is no doubt used to sharing the limelight. But does he feel like a CEO in the shadows? “No, not at all. No. It’s pretty bright in this room and I find the world is pretty bright.”

It is certainly looking bright for Dyson. Mr Conze runs a group with more than 4,400 employees across its three sites: the UK head office; a Malaysian factory where the bulk of production is carried out and a new motor facility in Singapore. Revenues in 2011 – the most recently available figures – were more than £1bn, and operating profit roughly £300m. Sales have been growing about 20 per cent annually. Spending on res­earch and development has continued to grow at the same rate, reaching £70m last year.

Dyson has been on a big recruitment drive and now has 1,500 engineers with an average age of 27. Mr Conze, 43, shares this belief in youth, something he puts down to his days as a paratrooper. “I was a 21-year-old guy suddenly finding myself responsible for 20 people, which I thought was scary as hell,” he says. “It has instilled in me a sense that the best you can do is hire a lot of smart young people, give them a lot of responsibility and they’re going to grow on it.”

Dyson last year took on 220 engineers in the UK, 70 of them from British universities. It aims to take on another 350 this year. Is that easy in a country where, according to a 2010 report by Sir James, people “struggle to define what it means to be an engineer”?

“No, not at all,” says Mr Conze – but not for the reason one might think. “Very encouragingly, there has been a bit of a renaissance across the spectrum of British technology-based companies. We’ve been expanding, Jaguar Land Rover has been expanding, BAE has been expanding . . . So there’s a lot of competition for great talent, which in some ways is wonderfully encouraging, but it means we’re going to have to work very hard to bring in the best and enough of the best.”

After two years in the German army and a business administration degree at Columbus State University in the US, Mr Conze joined Procter & Gamble. He spent 17 years at the personal and household products group in a variety of marketing and general management roles in the US, Europe and China. This experience, he says, taught him the importance of innovation and geographic breadth.

That global ambition is what def­ines Mr Conze’s role at Dyson. The company has bought land surrounding the HQ, removing a previous barrier to growth – the local government authorities had blocked an extension – though the company is silent on what its plans for the land are.

Further afield, having achieved secure footholds in the US and Japan – now its two biggest markets, with the UK its third – the company is eyeing Latin America and launched in China in November. It now makes 85 per cent of its sales outside the UK. “We’re going to be in 50-60 cities in China by the end of this year. Every store that we’re opening, it’s this level of quality,” he says, gesturing to the surrounding pristine white. “The Chinese are ready and love technology.”

With its push into China, Dyson is entering the lair where the most transgressions of its 3,000 patents have originated. Mr Conze, rep­eating a favoured phrase, speaks of a “battle of ideas and inventions” that some competitors are shying away from by copying. The fakes either fall into a “red zone” of patent infringement that can be pursued through the courts, or a “grey zone” of legal imitation.

“By having a presence in China it actually gives us a better ability to see where copycatting or counterfeiting or whatever you want to call it may be going on,” he says. “At the end of the day, engaging is a better strategy than staying away. But it is a very, very big concern of ours.”

Dyson last year spent £3.2m defending the Air Multiplier technology used in its fans and heaters. These are the products it now has most difficulty defending. Counterfeit versions copy details down to the box and manual.

Given such legal battles, Dyson is understandably fiercely protective of its product development. Bits and pieces slip out in conversation though. Mr Conze proudly displays on his iPad some footage of a recent engineering challenge, when employees were asked to design an aircraft to navigate an obstacle course. “Nothing to do with current products,” he says.

But could Dyson be working on a drone that will independently vacuum your house top to bottom? “If I tell you I can’t let you out of this room.”

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