Top gears: Interview with Peter Digby, Xtrac

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Xtrac is a UK engineering success story par excellence and the company's managing director is a major factor in that success.

If one were to point to a British engineering success story, it would be hard to improve on Berkshire-based Xtrac. The company has become a world leader in the design and manufacture of gearboxes, differentials and driveline components, which are used throughout international motorsport.

Founded 30 years ago and winning the Queen's Award for Exports in 1992, Xtrac has a long history of entering new growth areas around the world at the right time and is often cited as a UK industry benchmark and exemplar for small and medium size enterprises (SMEs).

And yet, beyond the industry itself and the motorsport cognoscenti, it is probably fair to say that Xtrac is some. Admittedly, this may have changed somewhat with the company's recent inclusion in a recent 'Best of British' episode of 'Top Gear', but the point nonetheless stands that this world-leading company remains relatively obscure.

However, some recognition has been forthcoming recently in the form of Xtrac's managing director Peter Digby, managing director being named 'Global Director of the Year' and overall winner of the influential Director of the Year Award presented by the UK Institute of Directors.

Under his leadership, Xtrac grew rapidly and in 1997 Digby led an unusual management buyout in the sense that it included all employees, who still make up 100% of the shareholders. Xtrac is now the world's most successful motorsport transmission company with a turnover of £40 million – having achieved its best annual sales ever.

One of the critical assessments made by the IoD was determining the systems Xtrac has in place to ensure on-going professional development of its entire staff – including the company's apprenticeship training programme.

"With hundreds of candidates chasing just a few positions each year, we have honed and developed our skills in selecting and training young, enthusiastic and extremely talented individuals," says Digby. "Through our programmes, they attend colleges and universities collecting ONC, HNC, degrees and PhDs, with Xtrac's full support and financial backing."

"I have been greatly rewarded by being able to personally, and actively, encourage more than 100 young apprentices, trainees and graduates to successfully enter the world of high-performance, world-class engineering, also working with the most advanced machinery in our 90,000 sq ft factory. Our employees are of course our most valuable asset. That's why I ensured they could all become shareholders, which successfully engages and motivates everyone."

"Not surprisingly, we enjoy outstanding employee retention figures, especially amongst our most experienced staff, many having more than 20 years of service. This loyal, experienced and highly qualified group of engineers is, however, kept fresh by our award-winning undergraduate training scheme. And we continually invest in the latest, computer-aided engineering and machine tools. This investment saves lead time and reduces costs, ever more important in a tough global economic climate."

The IoD is not the only body to recognise the initiatives Xtrac has employed under Peter Digby's leadership to encourage employee engagement across all levels of the organisation. Xtrac is now consulted by the Rt Hon Vince Cable at the department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), and other government departments, on how its experience can help the training needs of the UK's engineering and manufacturing sectors.

Commenting on the role of the motorsport industry in the broader automotive context Digby says it has realised its collective responsibility and opportunity to help develop new fuel-saving technologies, which Xtrac has fully embraced. "Motorsport is leading the way in creating smaller, lighter, more efficient engines and gearboxes," he says, "with a rapid rise in the introduction of kinetic and thermal energy recovery systems combined with advanced electronics. Many race formula regulations now actively reward efficient fuel consumption. Xtrac has placed itself at the forefront of these new, energy-efficient technology developments, not only by using advanced lightweight materials and gear designs, but also by designing and patenting revolutionary new engine and gearbox and electric motor hybrid powertrains."

"These technologies demonstrate that high performance does not require large, multicylinder engines and that substantial fuel consumption and CO2 savings can be achieved with multi-speed lightweight drivelines. A change in public perception will take time but is now well underway, with Xtrac playing a leading part through our motorsport and automotive engineering divisions."

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