An engineer who built Grand Prix winning engines for Formula One teams and then built and sold an automotive technology business said the profession had given him a fantastic career and made him millions
Jon Hilton said he had had a “great career and a lovely time, from an apprenticeship up to senior roles.”
He was speaking as president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to an audience at legendary Rotherham seal company AESSEAL - winner of 13 Queen’s Awards.
Mr Hilton started out as a Rolls-Royce apprentice where he spent two years “designing bombs and missiles.”
He moved into F1 and worked for organisations including Cosworth, Arrows and Renault designing engines “from a piece of paper.” It culminated in Renault winning the driver’s and constructor’s F1 World Championship in 2005 and 2006.
He said: “Every time I’ve changed jobs I’ve tuned my persona and how I was viewed. At Rolls Royce I was an ex-apprentice, when I left I was ex-Rolls Royce.
“I also carefully managed the separation between work and home. I was always prepared to fire someone who worked for me. So I have 1,200 LinkedIn followers and 50 friends on Facebook. It can be a lonely life.”
At Renault, engineers had almost complete freedom, but the pace of development kept being increased, he said.
He added: “There was not a single project manager in a company of 1,000 people. You don’t need them if everyone turns up on time with their bits working. But it was like a treadmill with someone turning up the speed.
“Over 13 years in F1 I learned to sleep only four hours a night.”
In 2007 he set up Flybrid Automotive with business partner Doug Cross with £350,000 of their own money, making energy return systems based on a fast spinning fly-wheel.
He added: “Our very first meeting was with an exit strategy planner. Our aim was to do just enough to get the patents, staff and turnover we wanted.”
The products were hi-tech and used all their expertise and experience.
He added: “We did once say no to Ford, the thing they wanted was not right. That was scary, but the right thing to do.”
Eventually with 22 staff, a “nice factory” and contracts with Wrightbus and JCB they sold to Torotrak in 2012. He was 50. The multi-million pound deal heralded a new lifestyle.
“Things you learn in one business are transferable to others. I didn’t get everything right, but certain bits worked out very nicely.”
Engineers flocking to IMECHE
“Engineers are basically problem solvers who can maintain composure under pressure. You could be the next Elon Musk, James Dyson - or Chris Rea (AESSEAL founder),” according to Jon Hilton, IMECHE president.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers promotes engineering. Membership rose from 78,000 in 2006 to 118,500 in January.