An energetic industry: Interview with Chris Aylett, chief executive, MIA

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

What does motorsport have to offer the rest of industry? An enormous amount, as Paul Fanning finds out when he talks to the Motorsport Industry Association's chief executive.

To some, it may seem odd that those working in a sector as prestigious and high-profile as motorsport would ever need a trade association. After all, aren't trade associations designed to give a voice to those companies who lack the individual clout to get a fair hearing from government? And, given that the Motorsport Industry Association numbers among its members some of the biggest names in Formula One, why do they need this sort of representation?

The answer, according to the MIA's chief executive Chris Aylett, is that his organisation has slightly different goals.

"Traditionally," he says, "trade associations come about because a group finds it advantageous to work together against a common enemy – usually government. However, in this industry, we've traditionally had to fight the sports' governing bodies."

This was the original purpose of the MIA when it was formed in 1994, but as Aylett puts it: "Trade Associations tend to struggle if they only have one issue", so when he joined, he set about being more proactive in the pursuit of greater business development for the MIA's members.

"What we decided," he says, "was that these guys needed to widen their net into other sectors as much as possible. Our members' innovative capabilities had a much wider market than they might previously have realised, so we made it our business to cross sector boundaries and take their innovative capabilities to new sectors."

The MIA, claims Aylett, is "open to anyone who aims to gain a commercial advantage in motorsport", which means that, as well as the engineering aspect of the business, it also represents its logistical, service and media elements. He draws a parallel between motorsport and the film industry in that "it is a glamorous entertainment business at the front end, but is underpinned by logistics and – critically – engineering".

For all his desire for motorsport companies to find new markets, however, Aylett fights shy of the term 'diversify' to describe what the MIA has encouraged. He explains: "'Diversify' is a word that people usually use to describe something they had to do. We didn't have to diversify, we chose to in order to do more business by looking at alternative, adjacent markets."

Clearly, the most adjacent market is automotive. And here, claims Aylett, there is no shortage of companies who can and have used the expertise that motorsport companies have garnered over the years.

The fundamental capability that the sector has to offer, says Aylett, is energy efficiency. "Since the first race," he says. "It's been the person who used their energy source most efficiently who has won. From the 1900s onwards, the most efficient use of energy has won races and so that is where motorsport companies have become expert – and that has encompassed everything from low-carbon vehicles to lightweight materials."

This expertise has been gathered over many years, of course, but it is only relatively recently that it has become a valuable commodity. Says Aylett: "So energy efficiency was the absolute heart of what motorsport companies did, but they didn't really think they had anything to sell because, until recently, nobody was that interested. However, when energy costs started to appreciate sufficiently, they suddenly found the world beating a path to their door."

One of the reasons why motorsport has been able to become pre-eminent in terms of rapid technological development, says Aylett, is that the process is ingrained in what the companies involved do. "Motorsport is essentially a process of constant development," he says. "We race and rally prototypes, basically. The car you see on the grid on a Sunday afternoon is not a finished product, it is simply the latest iteration in a constant process of prototyping.

"This makes the businesses within motorsport highly flexible and able to meet what in military terms would be described as 'urgent operational requirements' very quickly."

This process, he says, has meant that the businesses has been able to perform what in other sectors would be considered technological miracles. For examples, Aylett points to the development of KERS [Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems] and hybrid engines within 24 months of the announcement that they would be required. "It took an additional £20m in sponsorship, but it happened," says Aylett. "Why? Because there is a unique level of speed, adaptability and energy in this sector."

Driven to succeed
A former Roosevelt Scholar, Aylett began his career as a sportscar driver, eventually becoming a team owner and race promotor; while also building an international sporting goods distribution group.

Having served as president of the Sports Industries Federation, Aylett became chief executive of the Motorsport Industries Association in 1998. In 2000, he initiated a UK government review for energy efficient motorsport; three years later, he launched the world's first international Low Carbon Motorsport conference.

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