Insiders tell why Sproule follows Palmer to Aston Martin

Spoule and Ed - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Last days at Tesla: Simon Sproule chats with Ed Niedermeyer, leaves him in the dark

When Simon Sproule left Nissan for Tesla, I was one of the few who wasn’t ecstatic about the new job. I wondered how long Simon would work for a Musk who believes that cars can be sold by word-of-mouth, and that snarky tweets are the best PR in the universe. Nonetheless, I was very astounded to hear that Simon would leave after a few months in the valley, and follow the call of his friend and long-time sponsor Andy Palmer, to become Chief Marketing Officer of Aston Martin. So why did he go?

Of course, the move back to the old blighty was planned earlier than during the seven days Andy Palmer has been on the job as CEO of the struggling British luxury car maker. Andy Palmer, who headed so many divisions at Nissan that his business card was printed on concertina fold stock (at least that’s what the talk was and still is at Nissan’s HQ in Yokohama,) gave notice in early September. He sat out his “garden time” for a painful three weeks at home building miniature Japanese houses out of chop sticks and tooth picks. Released from the penalty box, he took the reins of Aston Martin on October 1.

Spoule and Ed 2 - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Ed and Simon

When Ed Niedermeyer and I visited Simon Sproule two weeks ago at Tesla in Palo Alto, he was relaxed, and didn’t look like someone who’s about to pack an overseas container yet again. When we talked about Andy, the consummate PR man Simon Sproule did not flinch.

A week later and back in Tokyo, we did bid Andy Palmer adieu at a small function at the Foreign Correspondence Club. That’s where we always say sayonara to departing execs. I gave Andy the regards Simon asked me to convey, and again, nothing betrayed that the two were in cahoots again, and would soon work together like in the years before at Nissan.

Order in the court ...

Order in the court …

For both, the career is a homecoming. Both are unrepentant Brits. Sproule, whose car career started at Ford UK, actually worked for Aston Martin when it was part of the Premier Auto Group the Detroit automaker had to sell off in pieces to survive. Andy Palmer’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon is only 10 miles away from his office at Aston Martin in Gaydon. Palmer has been praised as the savior of Merry Old England’s auto industry. He recently was appointed to the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George as a Companion, which is one step from knighthood. Palmer had turned down earlier advances from Aston Martin. Princess Anne hanging the blue-ribboned badge around Palmer’s neck at Buckingham Palace was one of the many factors that made Palmer say yes to the second offer. Should he bring Aston Martin from near-death back to glory, Palmer surely will be knighted, or more. When I asked him how he feels about changing from number two at a 5 million unit maker to the number one slot at a maker of a piddling 4,200, Palmer just smiled.

Palmer’s job at Nissan paid well over a million dollars annually, much to the chagrin of the much lesser paid Japanese executives. There needs to be more than the good life in the dower house of a British country estate that makes the job worth the move. Aston Martin is heavily shopped around by its current owners. A pedigreed CEO and an experienced Chief Marketing Officer, both bringing with them connections and friends in the C-suites of global automakers, should increase the chances for a lucrative deal. Friends of Palmer and Sproule figure that both have a contract for a very interesting bonus when Aston Martin has found a new suitor. “Andy is 51,” said one of his friends, “if he turns Aston Martin into a delightful bride in a few years, he will be on the shortlist of any automaker. If Aston Martin is married-off successfully, he can retire rich. Or he can do both.”

Simon Sproule at his last Nissan quarterly results conference in Yokohama

Polishing his resume: Simon Sproule at his last Nissan quarterly results conference in Yokohama

Sproule is much younger, and after Aston, doors will be wide open throughout the industry. In a world where a man who marketed fancy fountain pens can advance to CMO of Cadillac, Sproule’s future is guaranteed.

In any case, Sproule’s short stint at Tesla appears to have been less happy that he led on. Living in a rental with a short lease, he never put down roots in The Valley. Working for a mercurial Musk was not easy. Coming from Nissan, Sproule exchanged a position in charge of vast numbers of people and budgets with a job that amounted to explaining yesterday’s Musk tweets to incredulous journalists. A headcount Sproule was promised was nixed by The Boss after Simon had arrived. Two months ago, a mad Musk terminated Communications Manager Shanna Hendriks over a minor matter. “A fan of Tesla wrote a slightly less fawning story than usual,” said an informed source, “and Musk fired Hendriks without even discussing it with Sproule, her boss.” The comms job at Tesla claimed many fatalities, and Sproule soon found out why. Even so, his decision surprised his closest friends. “I figured he would hold out for at least a year,” said one of Sproule’s confidantes, “that’s when a quarter of his stock options vest.” The full amount can be cashed after four years, an unlikely occurrence given the churn in Tesla’s communication department.

Yet again, Tesla needs a new spokesperson. The mission impossible will surely attract a new brave volunteer who believes that this time, it’s different. Beware: You will leave, and possibly get fired, before those fat options vest.