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The Globe and Mail

What drives Aston Martin? This man's passion

As an unshaven, soft-spoken, middle-aged businessman, David Richards doesn't appear to have much in common with the fast-living British spy, James Bond. But looks are deceiving when it comes to the 54-year-old who just helped lead the buyout of Aston Martin from the embattled Ford Motor Co.

Described by many as the Richard Branson of motorsports, Mr. Richards leads a high-flying and fast-paced life.

An accountant by training, Mr. Richards is a multimillionaire and sports car enthusiast who drives an Aston Martin Vanquish to work, but flies his friends and clients around in his private helicopter.

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He founded the motorsport and automotive engineering group Prodrive Ltd. of Banbury, England, in 1984 and soon after bought his first Aston Martin, a DB6 coupe from the late 1960s that he wanted to make into a convertible. He has owned one ever since.

"Like all schoolboys, you lust after the cars that are the icons of the time. When I was a boy it was the DB5, the James Bond car," he says.

He has led a successful career with Prodrive, winning the World Rally Championship three times in partnership with Subaru. He also helped design the Subaru WRX, and has twice operated teams in Formula One.

Though often spotted at racetracks around the world, this onetime competitive rally driver is equally at home behind his desk -- which in his case is made from a chrome Dakota airplane wing.

It's in his role as a businessman that Mr. Richards recently spearheaded the $848-million (U.S.) purchase of Aston Martin, where he is now non-executive chairman.

"We've run Aston Martin's racing program for the last few years. When the opportunity came up [to buy the company]it just seemed like it was on my doorstep here, and to be honest, I had some concerns of what would happen to the company if it went into the hands of investors with only a short-term commitment," he says.

Ford declared its intent to sell a controlling interest in the company in August, 2006, and more than 30 potential buyers geared up for a bidding war.

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Several private equity groups from Britain, the U.S. and the Middle East were among the bidders. Magna International Inc., the Canadian car component supplier controlled by the Stronach family, was also in the running.

Mr. Richards says the outcome is a mix of good fortune, good business and convenience. Prodrive's headquarters are located not far from Aston Martin's new factory in Warwickshire.

Many in the British press have heralded Mr. Richards as "the man who made Aston British again." But he's only one member of the consortium that purchased the marque from Ford and the only one from Britain.

He was backed by two Kuwaiti investment firms, which will take a majority stake in the company, while John Sinders, a former U.S. banker and Aston Martin collector, is another major backer.

Aston Martin was founded in 1914 by Lionel Martin and developed a cult following after James Bond drove a silver DB5 in 1964's Goldfinger. Subsequent models have been featured in Bond films (the most recent DBS model is driven by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale) but the car company has only made a profit for two out of its 92 years in existence.

Under Ford, Aston Martin went from near obscurity selling less than 50 cars in 1992 to more than 7,000 last year. Mr. Richards hopes to build on Ford's recent success in making Aston Martin profitable and hopes to increase production to 10,000 cars by 2010.

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To do this he plans to add 200 factory workers to Aston Martin's 1,800-strong work force and intends to lower production costs by shopping around for the car's components. He points out that while it was under Ford, Aston Martin wasn't always able to get the best deal from its suppliers because of contractual limitations.

"Now that we're independent we have more possibilities," he says.

With Mr. Richards behind the wheel, Aston Martin's immediate future seems secure. Ford will keep a $70-million stake in the company and has agreed to continue supplying the marque with engines.

Mr. Richards says he "wholeheartedly" supports Ford's short-term business plan, which will see Aston Martin release the DBS this October and the four-door sports saloon, the Rapide, in late 2009. Speculation is the cars will sell for about $250,000.

But if Aston Martin is to continue its growth, it will have to improve its sales around the world by increasing its number of global dealers from the present 125. With this in mind, the new owners plan to introduce Aston Martin to new markets in China, India and Russia.

But Aston Martin's ability to keep up with the competition could prove too expensive for its new owners. Unlike its rivals, Aston Martin will not have the full support of an automotive giant, so its cars could fall behind the Fiat-backed Ferraris and the Audi-backed Lamborghinis.

Mr. Richards acknowledges that development of future Aston Martin models will be much more expensive than the costs involved with bringing the DBS and Rapide to the road.

The Rapide made a big splash at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, but Ford stopped developing the project when it put Aston Martin up for sale. Analysts expect the new owners will have to shell out between $160-million and $200-million (U.S.) to get the Rapide into dealer showrooms for 2009.

But Mr. Richards says his team is ready to take these challenges on at full speed. He remains coy about the particulars of the company's future finances, but says his backers are committed to the research and development of future models for at least 10 years.

David Richards

Title: Chairman, Prodrive/Non-executive chairman, Aston Martin

Personal: Age 54, married to Karen, three children, aged 13 to 28.

First car: A 1959 "Bug Eyed" Austin Healey Sprite

Now drives: An Aston Martin Vanquish and a Range Rover, but flies his own helicopter and airplane.

Education: At 17 he won a Royal Air Force scholarship to university but decided to train as an accountant instead.

Career highlights: Became a professional rally co-driver in 1974, retired in 1981. Formed Prodrive in 1984. Sold 49 per cent of Prodrive in 1999 to acquire television rights of World Rally. Announced $848-million (U.S.) acquisition of Aston Martin in March, 2007.

Big break: Winning the World Rally Championship in 1981. "I often wonder where my life would have gone if I'd finished second," he says.

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