The next chapter in Xtrac’s impressive automotive engineering success story is underway. Tim Wickham finds out what drives chairman Peter Digby.
Many of the winners taking the chequered flag at motor races around the world rely on Thames Valley engineering expertise, courtesy of their Xtrac gearboxes. The roll call for 2017 includes the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, MSA British Touring Car Championship, 24 Hours of Daytona and many more
Xtrac prospers in the punishing and unpredictable world of high-performance racing through its uncompromising commitment to quality. Mike Endean started the business in 1984 in Finchampstead. He was joined by Peter Digby in 1986 and sold the business to him when he retired in 1997. Digby went down the employee share ownership route, with 51% of the company owned by managers and 49% by employees.
Digby trained as an engineer at British Airways before working at Formula 1’s Williams and Haas teams alongside motor racing pioneers Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey. “I had a lot of F1 and racing contacts; Mike had rally and rallycross contacts. We gelled and worked well together – me on the commercial side, Mike on the technical side,” said Digby.
“Our secret is offering unbelievably high levels of service. Everyone at Xtrac is taught that you’ve got to look after your customers. Treat them, and your colleagues, how you’d like to be treated,” he said. “We pay massive attention to every detail, buy the best materials and the best machinery. We’re not the cheapest, but people choose Xtrac for quality and durability.”
In 2000, the company moved to Thatcham where a new extension due to open in August will add around 30% of extra manufacturing space to handle growing demand. A satellite operation started in 2003 in Indianapolis to service gearboxes for US customers, has also recently doubled in size.
Xtrac may be an international brand, but this is very much a local success story. Many staff live close by and most of the gearbox components are British made, including high-quality Sheffield steel blended to Xtrac’s recipe. “We’re in the UK’s ‘Motorsport Valley’ – from Newbury to Rugby and into the Cotswolds,” Digby pointed out. “Nearly all the machining companies we use are based within 50 miles and our two main competitors are within 100 miles of here. We have looked at sourcing work offshore, but the quality and dedication of staff is here in the UK.”
In 2015, 10 senior managers increased their shareholdings, with long-serving former technical director Adrian Moore taking over Digby’s CEO duties. Turnover for the year to September 2017 was £50 million and Digby expects this will rise 10% in the current financial year.
The workforce almost tops 350 people, including 18 based in the US. To meet its customer service commitment, the company runs night shifts five days a week. Apprenticeships play a big part in ensuring a new generation of engineers comes on board and Xtrac has close links with Newbury College to help achieve this.
Xtrac is now poised to begin its next chapter. It recently brought in private equity firm Inflexion as a majority shareholder. In July, former Ford UK chairman and Jaguar Land Rover CEO Joe Greenwell CBE will replace Digby as chairman. “I’ll continue looking after our larger customers and liaising with race organisers,” said Digby.
The company has a flourishing high performance automotive division that makes gearboxes for high-performance road going super cars. Customers include McLaren, Pagani and AMG. As Digby pointed out, when you’re paying £2m for a car you expect its transmission to be the best.
Xtrac is also increasingly involved in supporting the automotive industry’s move to electric vehicles. “Motorsport gearboxes are efficient, lightweight and durable – the same requirements apply to electric vehicle transmissions,” he noted.
For Digby, the long hours, pressure and commitment are rewarded on race days. “You can’t beat the thrill of standing on the start/finish straight at Indianapolis as 33 cars roar past together at the start of the race. The noise is incredible; there’s an amazing buzz. And it’s humbling to know Xtrac gearboxes are in every car racing the Indy 500.”