BEST’s interview with battery industry veteran Mike Dunckley

Mike Dunckley is a battery industry veteran with almost 40 years’ experience as a marketing and strategic director for global companies. His recent term as EMEA MD for Leoch ended in September last year. His role was primarily to spearhead their global marketing ambitions. Currently he is working on an energy-based project that draws together an international consortium of companies. BEST technical editor Mike McDonagh met him to learn more. Below are some excerpts from the interview.

BEST: We have known each other throughout your time in the lead-acid battery industry. I have always regarded you as having a unique perspective on the battery industry. Can you describe something of your background and what got you into this business?

Mike Dunckley: I came into the battery industry almost by accident. After studying graphic design at college, I quickly moved to account management. In the advertising industry, you get involved in many different industries and business situations. My experience was mostly in the UK and in the 1980s covered banking, retail, industry and much more.

It was a demanding profession with long hours, working with senior managers and developing marketing-based business solutions. It was all about creativity, learning about a company, positioning it, and communicating a message. I rapidly progressed in this industry and eventually became a PR director for one of the offices of the international McCann Ericsson agency.

The battery industry found me. I was contacted by a local battery company. They were merging two companies in a month’s time and had not thought out the communication and branding issues for international and external communication. Together with my agency team, we developed a launch event and a communication rationale. This was good training as I learned that one of the biggest aspects of merging or buying companies is integrating people.

After the launch event, the new managing director of the venture continually contacted me to join the new company and for a long time I declined the offer as I thought that moving to the battery industry was a rather boring opportunity. Boy, was I wrong.

Since we worked together in the 1980s at Hawker Siddeley, we have worked for different organisations. Please give a brief summary of your work, including the companies you were engaged with.

Growing up on, working and managing a farm gave me a great work ethic. I have always believed that work is an important part of who we are and what we contribute in life. I have always tried to do the best. My background is too long to describe here, except to say that I progressed through a series of steps from salesman to manager, director roles, then managing director and board member. Some managers get catapulted into senior positions today without having covered all the bases. This can be a weakness in my view as it’s important to have real experience, not just something from a classroom or book.

As you pointed out, we met when we both worked for a division of a famous UK group, Hawker Siddeley. When I joined, I was recruited into the new battery venture, which was called Oldham-Crompton. I soon learned that the venture was a division of HS and that there were several battery companies, including operations in France and the USA. The group was quite small at that time and covered markets including automotive, traction, stationary, rail and military. The group also had two companies making lithium.

Having ended my career in advertising, I transitioned from my general marketing role at director level, to being the marketing manager in the newly merged company. All my ex ad-industry colleagues saw this a step backwards. They were right of course. But my new role was as challenging as it was interesting. I was now directly involved with manufacturing and learning to be part of a business that had a turnover approaching £100 million ($127 million).

Within months of starting, I met the newly appointed divisional chief executive of the battery group. His role was to bring the group together and manage its growth. However, a battery business was not considered to be compatible with a world famous engineering group like Hawker Siddeley, which had a strong history in the UK, tied to engineering and aerospace. Subsequently, the battery division was buried inside the larger portfolio of famous companies.

Within a year of joining the group the new chairman continually allocated me to special projects. My direct boss did not approve of my involvement in confidential work. This unfortunately led to my having several different roles inside the same job description. This situation has occurred too often in my career and was unwelcome. The chairman and I were both new to the industry and together we began to map out the market and start to form a plan to develop this relatively small group within Hawker Siddeley. This was a seminal moment in my career, leaning on my marketing knowledge, learning about strategy and the development and managing of a portfolio of companies.

What do you think you brought to your various roles that these companies benefitted from?

Today, we are surrounded by business trends and people telling us how to build companies. You can read a million books (and I have), but nothing compares to the experience of being in the business and getting involved in the everyday issues. It is not only about the products a business makes, it is knowing the market. This is all about the customers, and understanding the macroeconomics of the world.

It also about envisioning people and bringing them with you. I believe that I have a unique skill: the ability to absorb and understand all the complexity of issues, people, markets, economics and new trends, then combine them to enable clarity for the direction a business should take.

The next skill is the ability to communicate all those issues, facts and opportunities to a team, a workforce, a group, why a particlar direction is correct. The term we use today is vision. If you can do it successfully then you can motivate people. If we can find meaning for our role in even a part of that vision, then there is no greater motivation. Many senior managers don’t understand this.

What would you say have been the most significant commercial changes during the time from when you began until now?

In my 30+ years in industry the speed of change has been dramatic. I entered the industry at the end of an era of national companies that dominated their local markets. Business was conducted through strong local relationships. In general, Brits bought from Brits, French from French and so on. There were strong cultural barriers. This changed with communication advances. The mobile phone, cheaper travel and the internet all lowered these barriers, and international competition increased.

Regarding technology, when I came into the industry lead-acid had a virtual monopoly. Lithium only existed in primary cells. There were some specialist formulations for military and other special applications, but in general it was all about lead-acid.

Today, lead-acid has been dramatically challenged. For the moment that challenge is lithium but there are many other battery chemistries on the way and there are many global research and development programmes that are transforming the industry. What is unique about these developments is that they are being driven by a global emergency to transform society from oil and carbon-based fuels, to renewables-generated electric power.

How has that impacted on the industry?

The biggest change has been that the customer now has more scope to purchase goods from many sources. This has been good for the market and particularly customers, as it has sharpened competition. Like the industry itself, customers have gained knowledge and raised their expectations. Quality and service have improved, and in general the industry has raised the bar. We are also in a golden age when every person, everywhere talks about batteries. Our industry is no longer a grudge and commoditised purchasing decision, but something that is critical to the future. I am personally excited to be still involved in many of these developments.

What about the battery technology developments? What effect has that had on lead-acid battery manufacturers?

There is no doubt that the lead industry is under pressure. The lead-acid battery used to operate almost with a technology monopoly. The chemistry and the industry as a whole, have done a good job. In particular the record on recycling is impressive, which all of the new chemistries will struggle to match. Manufacturing processes have dramatically improved quality, and I think the battery manufacturing equipment industry has done a great job in improving equipment and industry throughput.

As we all know, there are lots of initiatives ongoing in the industry to improve the performance of the lead-acid battery chemistry. All of these are designed to considerably enhance lead-acid battery performance, including better cyclability and energy density.

In my view, lead-acid thin plate batteries have always been an industry benchmark. My own former group saw the opportunity of this technology in the 90s and invested significantly. What has surprised me is the failure of the industry to understand, or even see the opportunity to create a winning product.

A few tried, such as Northstar, and were to be commended, but only Enersys has truly understood and taken advantage of the chemistry.

Recently other companies are starting to see the potential. Hoppecke for example and others are following. But it has taken more than 20 years to realise this. It is interesting to note that the performance improvements of pure lead come from the mechanical design rather than enhancements to the chemistry itself.

Do you think it is right to continue putting effort and resources into improving lead-acid battery chemistry?
This is a very interesting question. We must recognise that the world operates in a different way. We are moving into a world – for good or bad – of artificial intelligence (AI). We are already living in a highly digitised and connected world. We all want access to instant information, anywhere and in real time. This is the biggest challenge for many battery technologies. Customers want to be connected to their investments to check performance and anticipate problems.

The biggest challenge for lead-acid batteries is that they are ‘passive’. In other words, they are fit and forget, and work until they fail. However, they are not connected electronically and cannot be monitored in real time. This is a problem. I believe that the lead-acid companies that are going to survive will start to pay more attention to this extra-altilium innovation. There are many things that can be done. Improved charging performance, customer service etc.

In your opinion what should the lead-acid industry be concentrating on to secure a future in the battery market?
The lead industry has to think more about innovation. Companies should nurture teams that focus on seeking out customers’ emerging needs. Companies, in my view, have never placed enough emphasis on understanding their major customers’ challenges, then engaging in strategic discussions. I once worked with a company, a market leader for many years, that suddenly found its position challenged. When asked how this had happened, they conceded that they hadn’t explored what their customers were considering for future needs. Their competitors, with a new technology, soon overtook their position. It’s important to know what customers are thinking and what their challenges are.

Finally, how do you see the global battery market developing over the next 10 years?

There is no doubt that the battery industry is in a period of profound change. The industry is growing dramatically and we are now talking about a global sector with valuation of $300 billion or more. But this growth represents enormous challenges as well as opportunities for the industry. The high growth will come from higher energy density batteries, not necessarily lithium but other chemistries.

There are currently initiatives all across the world to find new battery types with lower cost materials that can be easily recycled. There are going to be enormous challenges for producers to choose a strategic position. As we all know the electric vehicle (EV) market is going to be the biggest sector, and here battery producers will align with automotive partnerships.

Choosing the right partnership will be crucial as battery manufacturers will be dependent on the success of each automotive brand. In the automotive sector, the critical demands of standards such as TS16949 will also improve batteries’ performance.

At the moment, the global industry is in an embryonic stage as it tries to capture market positions and partnerships. The major players are gearing for major capacity and this will also cause some issues further up the line. China, the dominant producer of lithium, already has a capacity glut due to the slow-down of its adoption of EVs. Similar things will happen in other areas.

A further issue is that the world is now moving away from globalisation. The implications for the world and specifically the battery industry are profound. The new battery world is one of power electronics as much as batteries. These are businesses that are rebuilding new industries. If we look into regions such as northern Europe, we see lots of new start-up companies developing innovations. These companies are the future and many will be bought up by larger corporations who want to acquire their innovation. These start-up companies are made up of engineers and technicians who are emerging from universities and other industries and see the opportunity to create new customer value propositions. They have an energy and creativity which larger companies often stifle.

An issue that concerns me is that senior managers often get locked into a kind of ‘management floor’ type thinking. Senior managers can easily get removed from market awareness and its customers. This really struck me when I was promoted out of my battery group role into a senior manager in BTR.

The division I was part of had monthly sales that could read several hundred million. You spend time as a senior manager looking at graphs and spreadsheets with these huge figures and can easily forget where the business comes from. Consolidated sales numbers are made up of thousands of transactions and each of those is a customer need being fulfilled.

As a manager I have spent my life in front of customers and service people. All the while learning from and listening to them. Not only about the products I may have been selling, but also what they think of competitors and market trends. As a guiding principle, senior managers must make time to listen closely their customers, to determine their needs. This is vital for long-term survival.