Visiting Japan: Robert O’Neil

CEO, Welsh Automotive Forum

GoConnect spoke with Robert O’Neil, who has operated in the global automotive sector at leading multi-national organizations for more than 20 years. He was predominantly at Robert Bosch which encompassed several senior positions specializing in plant logistics management, including a four-year international assignment to Austria.

On repatriation, he then joined Tenneco Walker in Merthyr and Tredegar, Gwent in South Wales to head up its plant logistics operation. In September 2017, he joined the Welsh Automotive Forum, providing the ideal opportunity to diversify in the sector and understand the association with extended supply chains, academia and government.

Originally from Port Talbot, O’Neil graduated at Masters level from the European Business Management School at Swansea University which also included a year at the University of Stuttgart.

Please tell us about your current position and employer.
I am CEO of the Welsh Automotive Forum (WAF). As the voice of the automotive sector in Wales, we have 130 member companies, including Toyota Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd. Engine Plants, Aston Martin, Jaguar Land Rover, Tata Steel, and International Tier 1’s as well as an exceptional SME community and also includes Japanese companies such as TRB Tokai Rika and J-TEKT.

Why are you in Japan?
Because I love sushi! No, seriously, to discuss business opportunities and meet our member companies at the 2024 Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan Annual Spring Congress on May 22–24 at Pacifico Yokohama.

How has the Welsh auto industry grown since 30 years ago?
The Welsh automotive sector is a pivotal industry for the economy of Wales. Highly skilled employees are globally recognized. We have an estimated value of some £3 billion and employ about 9,000 locals. The industry has been slightly impacted by the withdrawal of Honda; however, we are excited about new opportunities for net zero mobility.

What are the main challenges of the industry?
Energy costs and a level playing field. The WAF has lobbied the UK and Welsh Governments about the Ukraine and Russia exposing our sector to higher energy costs. Another challenge is material and transportation costs, but the biggest challenge was the semiconductor crisis. However, we are a resilient sector and will continue to overcome challenges like these. 

We are also concerned about global protectionism and opportunities regarding the quick transition to net zero mobility.

What cars and parts are made in Wales?
Wales makes the fastest SUV in the world, the Aston Martin DBX707, and hosts hydrogen car manufacturer Riversimple. We make many parts, such as interiors, stamping, HVAC cooling systems, electrical components, injections moulding, engines plants, braking systems, and seating. 

How is Wales’ relationship with Japan in the industry?
We have had a wonderful, long-established friendship with Japan for over 30 years. Many auto assembly firms came to Wales to support Toyota and Honda. While we have lost some organizations due to Honda’s closure, the Japanese presence remains strong with Toyota Plant, TRB Tokai Rika Co., Ltd. (switches, seatbelts, key locks, shifting levers, etc.), J-Tekt Corporation (power steering and axle components), Mitsui Components Europe Limited (safety-critical closure systems), Hayakawa International (UK) Limited (power cords), G-TEKT Corporation (vehicle body structures), GS Yuasa (batteries), and Sumitomo Electric (wiring systems).

We have learned a great method of working from our Japanese friends, but we are still enemies on the rugby pitch!

Robert O’Niel

Which SDGs are big in your sector?
It is very important to start the decarbonization journey and we are accelerating green renewable energy projects across Wales, such as offshore wind farms. Our future vision is to access clean reliable cheaper renewable energy to support green sustainable manufacturing.

Which UK and EU region is your biggest rival in autos?
We do not see any rivals in the UK and EU regions, but instead consider them to be business partners. Wales is part of the globally recognized automotive ecosystem in the UK, and the EU is the largest export market for automotive vehicles, with about 50 percent of total exports to the EU.

How has the sector changed over the years?
The pandemic and the semiconductor crisis had a significant impact on manufacturing cars globally; we were also impacted by the withdrawal of Honda from the UK. However, we are excited about the challenges ahead of us, such as net zero mobility solutions.  

Who are the biggest Japanese and other foreign investors in the Welsh auto sector?
The biggest investors are Japan’s Toyota, J-TEKT and TRB Ltd (auto switch products); Spain’s Gestamp (design, development, and manufacture of metal automotive components); Continental from Germany; Marelli Automotive Systems Europe plc. of Italy, and Cummins-Meritor from the US (axles, brakes, suspensions, drivelines, and aftermarket parts).

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