James Dyson shifts in his seat and laughs awkwardly as his stream of thought hits a tricky roadblock. “God, this is hard,” she murmurs. One of his grandsons called the digital electric motor on Dyson’s new 360 Eye robot vacuum “the brain,” and his own motor hums quietly as he ponders the question. After flowing for an hour through the history of industrial design, the importance of engineering, and Japan’s love of consumer gadgets, he considers the characters of his three children.
sir james sits in his office in malmesbury, wiltshire, in the long, undulating building that was once his factory for vacuum cleaners and washing machines and is now his research and development base. He leans back in his chair, his shock of white hair and shiny sneakers standing out against his blue shirt and cardigan. “I guess all inventors are maniacs, right?” he ventures. “I was always a bit manic and very, very focused. while they have a bit more of the slightly more laid-back nature of [his wife of him deirdre of him], and maybe they’re more understanding of other people.”
She’s happy when she mentions Deirdre, whom she met in 1966 when they were art students. “In many ways, we are quite similar, my wife and I. we love the design. we are artists, so we design our houses and gardens together and disagree on very few things. we went for checkups and we both have a small nodule growing on our lungs and a small nodule growing on our livers, like butterflies [with symmetrical wings]. very different backgrounds, but we have lived happily together for 46 years.”
Family life was not always easy. jake, dyson’s eldest son, remembers his mother teaching art to support them while his father fought to make his inventions work. He “was in the basement day after day, night after night, trying to form a perfect plastic cone [with a machine]. that’s my most vivid memory, of him losing his mind every time it went wrong. but I also remember when he walked up the stairs with the perfect one.”
Like its products, Dyson has evolved since establishing its business in a garage in its garden near Bath in 1993 to launch the dc01 dual cyclone vacuum. but he is still recognizably dison: he is still ambitious, impatient and relentless; still intolerant of mediocrity and the status quo; he remains the elegant evangelical salesman of his brand; continues to urge the uk to revive the spirit of victorian engineers like isambard kingdom brunel and 20th century industrial designers like alec issigonis.
“dyson is a brilliant engineer and an exceptional designer. His love of the product sets him apart – he cares about how a product looks, how it works, how it can be different,” says Anthony Bamford, chairman of British construction equipment company JCB. “As an iconoclast, he will develop many concepts.” . . those that [work] are wonderful examples of British creativity.”
One of Issigonis’s sketches for the Mini hangs outside Dyson’s office, featuring the arching lines of the car representing the 1960s, when Dyson was at the Royal College of Art. Issigonis drew him on a balcony of the Negresco hotel in Nice while he drank a gin and tonic, a dissonant combination of seriousness and style. “The way [jake] draws is very similar to the way I draw, which is a good expression of character,” Dyson says of his son. “powerful drawings with a dark pencil, boldly.”
some of dyson’s products have failed; for example, he no longer makes washing machines (“I didn’t earn enough. I learned that lesson,” he says). others took a frustratingly long time, including the new robot vacuum, which he first prototyped in 1999 and tried to make work with two variations of technology before designing his self-guiding camera system. Dyson’s machine now lags behind the Roomba, made by its American rival Irobot. It will launch in Japan this fall and elsewhere later in the year, priced at around £750 in the UK.
however, the company has not only survived but thrived. It has grown from a start-up with four engineers and a few staff answering calls on a phone in 1993 to an operation employing 6,000 people in the UK, Singapore and Malaysia, earning a pre-tax profit of $240 million. sterling on a turnover of 1.28 billion sterling in 2013. 90 per cent of their sales are now outside the uk. Dyson owns the entire company, which had a share value of £3.5bn in 2013 and paid dividends of £200m last year, as well as 25,000 acres of land in the UK.
now the dyson company and the dyson family are at a tipping point. dyson is 67 years old and does not look back. excavators have broken ground in malmesbury on a new £250m ‘tech campus’ that will see it add 3,000 people, many of them engineers, to a UK workforce of 2,500. is investing £50m in UK universities, including £12m for Imperial College London to start a design engineering school later this year, and is investing £250m in expansion of operations in Asia.
as it ventures into robotics and software, dyson faces new competition; roomba is just one example. The “Internet of Things”—the ability to link and control devices across networks—is drawing tech companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung into its orbit. Last year, Google paid $3.2 billion to acquire Nest, which makes thermostats and fire alarms. that brings both potential (dyson robots could work with others) and challenges.
James has called for backup. Having built his own light manufacturing company since 2003, Jake Dyson brings it into the family business. He became a non-executive director of the board in 2013, with his brother Sam, a musician and producer, and this cements his place as heir to the Dyson helm. “Jake is highly competent, loves technology, and has good business and marketing sense. he has all the things I had and more, because he is more inventive. so he’ll take it places I couldn’t,” Dyson says.
as well as a succession plan, it is a statement of intent: that dyson will remain independent, will not go public or be sold when its founder retires. “The beauty of a family business is that you care about getting the product right, not short-term investors or what other people think,” Dyson says. “I would hate to be [a public company]. we can be very long term, developing technology that can take years to bear fruit. we can be patient.”
His 42-year-old son has the same faith. “Seeing my father’s work, what he’s accomplished, it’s inconceivable to sell that and see someone tear it to pieces. You know what would happen: They’d put out 100 branded products, with no engineering improvements, for a quick buck. it is much more than maintaining the legacy. I’m passionate about it and I want to help it grow.”
age difference aside, it can be hard to tell the difference between james and jake dyson. They are often dressed identically, in clothing designed by Emily Dyson, James’s daughter and Jake’s sister, and her husband, Ian Paley; the couple run couverture and the garbstore in notting hill. “I have all my clothes there and also dad. we don’t consult, so we often show up wearing the same thing,” says jake, who is wearing a blue polka dot shirt.
They also talk in a similar way: they launch into lengthy explanations about technology, punctuated with kind blue-eyed looks of emphasis when making a point. “I’ll start from the beginning,” Jake says, when we meet in her workshop and office in Clerkenwell, London, a week later. After 20 minutes, she is becoming familiar with light-emitting diodes and how they generate intense heat that needs to be cooled to prevent them from going bad.
“we soldered it to a copper block with a thin wall at the end, and clamped the leds against it so that the heat would shoot out of the back of the leds, directly down the heat pipe and out of the arm of the product. so it becomes an incredibly efficient heat sink, cooled by the convection of the air in the room,” he enthuses. “We’re running it at 8.8 watts and we’re getting 560 lumens. we chose a warm color so it’s not the nasty harsh blue some people use.”
dysons are handymen by nature. “jacob used to go to the shop and start making things on the lathe. I never showed him how to do it, he’s not very good at being taught,” James says of his son. “We both refused to take lessons when we went skiing, which is pretty stupid when it comes to skiing. for engineering, it’s a good thing because you’re bound to make mistakes and learn from them. you get this visceral, tactile understanding.”
james dyson was born in norfolk, the son of a classics teacher at gresham’s, an independent school in holt. he went to school and then after meeting deirdre at byam shaw art school he studied furniture design at the royal college of art. he switched to architecture, where he met inventor jeremy fry. Dyson helped Fry build the Sea Truck, a fiberglass landing craft, and Dyson’s first job was with Fry’s Rotork company. A marine truck sits in Dyson’s parking lot, recalling his transformation from designer to engineer.
Like his father, Jake was caught up in the division of the UK education system between art and science. At central saint martins in london he was frustrated in his product design course by the emphasis on how things looked, rather than how they worked. “I made a water-powered generator that you would strap to a drainpipe, so when you flush a toilet, it generates electricity. they were like, what is that? I went against the grain.”
The easiest way to irritate dysons is to suggest that their products are successful because of how they look. even his supporters say it has been a vital factor in his success. “to be competitive these days, style is very important because you can only protect in-house technology with patents for some time,” says kumar bhattacharyya, the british industrialist and academic. “Most of the technology in cars is very similar. when people say it’s awesome, they mean industrial design.”
“Everyone says, ‘These vacuums are sold on the way they look,’ and I say, ‘They sell because they work better,’” insists James. “If something looks designed on the outside but doesn’t work, you hate it, and if something is ugly but works well, we grow to love it. the aga [oil stove] is an example. maybe I shouldn’t go back to scum, but you know what I mean; it’s obviously not designed.”
Jake made two mistakes earlier in his career. one was to go to work at dyson in 2000 for a couple of years. although she found it involving, “I felt like I had moved back home. I felt like I was in a shoe box. I had lost my identity and I wanted to go out there and prove myself.” that led to a second mistake, which was to stop working for six months while he figured out what he wanted to do next.
“I became very depressed and realized that a man must work. you have to keep busy or your brain starts thinking about things that are not important.” He bailed out by renting a workshop in Wandsworth, London, where he owned a mill and lathe, and he drove there every day from his home in Islington to work on a twin-turbine ceiling fan, which spread the wind like a hurricane. (he “lifted skirts 20 feet away”). he never made it work commercially, though one is affixed to the ceiling in his office.
He inadvertently apprenticed to a former Rolls-Royce employee named James Campbell Wilson, who owned the shop next door, where he tuned suspensions for racing bikes. Wilson slept on a bookshelf in his workshop and worked mysteriously at night. He would “accidentally leave an engineering drawing in there and go in the next day and there would be a shiny machined part, like the goblins and the shoemaker.”
There’s a lot of his father’s basement and his late mentor’s workshop in his office. a pair of pyrex flasks, one filled with a bubbly red liquid and the other with a cool blue liquid, rest on a table, where he uses them to test the conductivity of the copper tubes in his lights. his £1,300 ariel lamp, intended for offices but also set to appear in high-end furniture stores later in the year, hangs above the table.
The building was owned by an elevator engineering company and later converted into a gallery, which collapsed when thieves pushed a car through a window to steal a Picasso sketch. There’s still a car inside, but it’s Jake’s: a Fiat 500 that he drives to work and parks at the old loading dock. in the basement there is a 3d printing machine, in addition to the lathes and milling machines that it uses to make prototypes.
His company is small compared to his father’s business, but it breaks even and he has proven himself to his own satisfaction. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel [trapped] again. I am very well known in the lighting industry. . . and I have achieved everything I wanted in life. I can say that I have designed, manufactured and sold five products. . . the journey is very volatile and there are moments of despair, but the feeling when it works is incredible.”
Your lights will now be sold through Dyson and manufactured at the Dyson plant in Malaysia. jake spends three days a week in malmesbury, participating in product development. “It’s growing so fast that if I leave it for longer, it can be hard to understand the mechanics, to get familiar with everything that’s going on there. It’s so exciting, the products they’re working on, the technologies they’re investing in, the whole 20-year-ahead mentality.”
Though James Dyson learned the value of publicity long ago, he’s careful not to let what comes next slip by. Dyson has fought more than 1,200 intellectual property legal battles, including his first fight with Hoover in the UK over bagless machines, and is wary of letting outsiders into his Malmesbury research and development lab. >
today, he has conceded. the revolving door swings us through, guided a safe distance from the most delicate work. we tour the prototyping area, with 3d printing machines that use 30 tons of nylon powder a year to create models. then comes product testing, with robots pushing vacuums over patches of dust. finally, we stand at the edge of a space that was once a production line for washing machines and is now filled with desks with computer screens. The loss of 560 manufacturing jobs when Dyson moved production to Malaysia in 2002 sparked protests, but that loss has more than made up for since. about 1000 young engineers are crowded into space.
they work in a large hangar-like building, with mauve-painted wavy beams supporting the roof. there is evidence of its earlier use: a gantry crane spans the roof of the area now used as a dining room. A Rolls-Royce hallmark jet engine, one of the first turbojets invented by Frank Whittle, squats in the middle of the canteen. dyson bought it as a tribute to british technology, like the harrier jump jet that sits outside the main entrance.
Despite the high security, the lab has a playful side. Three colored plastic swatches, labeled “touch me,” “look at me,” and “smell” like in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, hang from a table where we stand. A lot of ingenuity is invested every year in costumes for the Christmas party. Annmarie Nicolson, a 26-year-old design engineer, built wings for the latter herself, arriving as Icarus, the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, who, according to Greek myth, flew too close to the sun.
Nicolson joined dyson three years ago, having studied product design in the engineering department at the university of strathclyde and spent a year at mars. he works in new product innovation, the early-stage research lab at dyson, and is now part of an eight-person team trying to create a product he can’t talk about. if they’re successful, he’ll move to the product development division for a year or two before launch.
dyson spends a lot of time in the lab, having handed over day-to-day business oversight to max conze, its CEO. He is president and chief engineer and conducts monthly “James reviews” to keep an eye on new initiatives. “It can be nerve-wracking because he’s so curious,” Nicolson says. “He will always ask you a question for which you have no answer. we’ll sit for hours brainstorming and filter it down to what we think works best and build a prototype. James will say, “Have you thought about this?” and we’ll say, “well, no, we haven’t.”
alex knox joined dyson in 1993 as one of its first engineers and is now its director of industrial design. “James can be impatient, but that’s a good thing. it creates an urgency and a passion,” he says. At the moment, one of the things Dyson is most impatient with is the shortage of engineers in the UK: his initiative with Imperial is part of his ambition to increase supply. there were 61,000 engineering vacancies in the uk last year, and dyson has to compete for recruitment with rolls-royce and others.
Just as low-cost manufacturing drew it abroad in 2002, the ability to hire more skilled workers in Asia is drawing it east. “I would triple the number of engineers here overnight if I could, but they don’t exist,” Dyson says. “part of the solution is to build our engineering resources in malaysia and singapore, which we have done. we have more engineers there now than here. that is a danger for great britain, because our center of gravity will change”.
the greatest danger would be that dyson would cease to exist or gradually lose its competitiveness. that has happened before with companies founded by British inventors. Rolls-Royce still makes jet engines, but BMW reinvented the Mini, and consumer technology companies that flourished for a while, like home computer maker Sinclair, then faded away. dyson has done a great job getting this far in a fiercely competitive industry.
among a stack of gadgets in his office, dyson has a yellow waterproof sony walkman, which he bought in 1985. “i admire them enormously for their technology, design and boldness with new products. a recorder that doesn’t record! you need balls to do that,” he says. but sony has had problems in recent years. “It’s still a wonderful company, but I think after [akio] Morita, they kind of lost their way because he was the engineer,” Dyson muses.
believes that a technology company must be led by an engineer to thrive. “For me, the renaissance of the Jaguar Land Rover is because [ratan] Tata owns it and he is a petrolhead. I have been to three grands prix and he was on the starting grid in all of them,” she says. “An engineer understands the product and the technology. he has a pretty good idea of economics, he knows how things are done. he may not know the finer points of marketing or accounting, but he has other skills.”
Still, many family businesses have strayed when the founder retires because the sons of genius are not geniuses themselves. jake will face a great task to continue the achievements of his father, although he has time to learn; James shows little sign of slowing down. “I’m starting to contribute to the designs there and now I’m saying things at board meetings,” Jake says. “But my father is not going anywhere. he will be there until he is 100 years old.”
by then, who knows what the dyson brand will stand for? In addition to education, James has invested part of his earnings in agriculture. She bought 3,000 acres of land in Lincolnshire last year, bringing his estate to 25,000 acres, more than the Queen, and has taken up farming. She “told me the other day how many peas she had produced,” Jake says. she “she had calculated the square meters, the pods per square meter and the peas per pod.”
unknown to most shoppers, dyson farms are now filling supermarket shelves. “you walk into john lewis and see a range of dyson vacuum cleaners. you walk into waitrose, and the potatoes and peas come from our farms. It’s an amazing thing.” but the product doesn’t have “dyson” stamp on it, right? “no”, says the son of the founder, lightly. “not yet”.
john gapper is associate editor and senior business commentator for ft. tanya powley is the manufacturing correspondent for ft.
photographs: gareth phillips