Sir James Dyson, Britain’s most famous living inventor, says money is not his motivation. “I manufacture products where I’ve developed the technology and designed the whole product, and that’s the kick I get from it,” he says at the Dyson company headquarters in Malmesbury, south-west England. “My belief is that if I do that well, everything else will follow.”
Innovative engineering combined with cool design is the hallmark of the Dyson brand. Over the past quarter of a century this has transformed everyday appliances, from vacuum cleaners to air purifiers and hairdryers, into stylish products associated with superior performance — and high price tags.
The upshot is that Sir James controls a business that turns over £3.5bn a year and reaches into homes in some 80 countries. This has built his status as a British success story — one who has also become an outspoken figure on topics such as the EU, Brexit and education.
The entrepreneur’s boldness was on show last September when his company unveiled arguably its most ambitious endeavour yet: a £2bn project to design and construct from scratch a “radically different” electric car.
It is a high-stakes wager that could prove Sir James’ crowning achievement. Yet the venture is fraught with pitfalls in a fiercely competitive industry. “It’s bold for somebody who’s never been in automotive,” says Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, an industrialist and educator who first met Sir James in the mid-1990s. “That takes a lot of guts and imagination.”
The car has been merely the most eye-catching development during what Sir James describes as the biggest year of change in the company’s history. Expansion is under way as Dyson delves deeper into frontier technologies, including robotics, battery storage and artificial intelligence.
In 2017, the company welcomed the first intake of students at its Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, located at its headquarters. This higher education establishment will train the company’s next generation of engineers, in partnership with the Warwick Manufacturing Group, chaired by Bhattacharyya, part of the University of Warwick.
When asked about Dyson’s greatest achievement over the past decade, Sir James — aged 70 and dressed in a zip-up shirt, chinos and white trainers — says he had “never thought of that” before but soon finds an answer: “From being a company that produced vacuum cleaners, we’ve turned ourselves into a technology company.”
He gives the example of the minuscule but powerful electric motor, controlled by electronics and algorithms, that has been used in many Dyson devices since 2009. Although the fundamental principle had long been deployed in industrial “brushless” motors, the innovation was to shrink the motor for domestic appliances — similar to how Dyson adapted the cyclonic principle in its cleaners to separate dirt from air.
“They’re probably the most advanced production electronic motors in the world and certainly by far the fastest,” he says. “But those sorts of technologies can take some time to get there.”
Sir James is one of the few well-known business figures who advocated a vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Was this not in contrast with his former enthusiasm for the EU, including support for the UK adopting the euro? Sir James brushes this off as “a long, long time ago, in the mid-’90s”.
“As we expanded more and more globally, I realised Europe was a bad thing, not a good thing, for us,” he says. Dyson has “expanded heavily in China” and Asia-Pacific has become by far its biggest region. “We’ve expanded in Europe, but Europe is a shrinking part of the world for us and I would suggest for everybody.”
Is some of this down to the EU’s energy-efficiency labels, given Dyson has mounted a legal challenge against them? Sir James regards this as an area ripe for post-Brexit reform, saying regulations favour German manufacturers and that laboratory tests for ratings do not reflect real use in the home. “They don’t encourage innovation — in fact, quite the reverse.”
To read the FT’s piece on EFT Adviser Sir James Dyson in full, click here.