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Personality of the year

Personality of the year
The Winner is... Sarah Sillars
Just two years into her role as Institute of the Motor Industry chief executive and Sarah Sillars is making a massive impact. She has reinvigorated an organisation that was until recently being written off as an irrelevant dinosaur that had lost touch with its core membership, motor industry employees.

Relationships with other industry bodies and senior automotive executives that appeared doomed have been salvaged, membership is rising quickly for the first time in years – 2003 saw a near 100% increase, with some 2,000 successful applications - and staff at the Hertfordshire head office have been filled with new energy and motivation.

For them, there is one reason why this turnabout has occurred – Sarah Sillars. They are the first to praise the work Sillars has done, highlighting the new enthusiasm at the organisation. Typically modest, she says that many of the new training courses launched over the past 18 months was work in development before she joined the IMI, but there's no doubt that the impact on the motor industry would have been far less significant without her infectious passion and drive.

“If you don't have the belief that what you are doing is right, then you will not succeed in this industry,” she says.

Her candid views have rattled several peers, but Sillars is not afraid to court controversy to achieve her goals. Her belief has been fundamental and she admits that without her drive and desire, she probably would not have lasted after facing some harsh, and often chauvinistic, criticism. While Sillars is keen to play down suggestions that she's a figurehead for women in the industry, there's no doubt that her seniority has provoked some of the negative reactions from male colleagues. But the reaction at the AM Awards presentation suggests there is growing respect from within the industry, as senior automotive executives jostled to offer her their congratulations.

Sillars, like AM, is a keen advocate of licensing, although she believes it should be individual technicians who are accredited, rather than the company they work for. “Customers have a right to expect a thorough and professional service from our industry, which means dealing with fully competent and trained staff,” she says. “There is a need for the regulation of technicians by the implementation of a rigorous and consistently applied process and standard for technician recruitment, development and assessment that also offers long-term cost benefits. It is not acceptable that someone can get a job without any qualifications in such a complex industry.”

The first step towards licensing was taken in October with the launch of a national skills accreditation scheme in association with Thatcham, the training and research organisation. This programme is intended to address a shortage of skilled bodyshop technicians, minimal development training and a general absence of structures process in technician recruitment. Sillars also believes it will raise self-respect by giving technicians a recognised qualification that proves their competence. She is also pushing IMI members to enhance their skills through its Continuing Professional Development programme (CPD), which makes ongoing skills training a condition of membership.

Both these initiatives, together with several more than have been unveiled over the past couple of years have been given widespread publicity on national and regional TV and radio. Sillars admits this is no nine-to-five job, but it is paying off. Carmakers are now approaching the IMI – Honda is supporting a pre-apprenticeship programme at a Hertford-shire school, while Ford has aligned its technical training to the IMI's certification scheme. And more carmakers are declaring their support of new IMI initiatives.

Sarah has worked tirelessly over the past 12 months to repair the image the Institute of the Motor Industry, which was seen as an irrelevant, fusty gentleman's club. She has enjoyed one of the highest public profiles of any automotive industry executive, appearing on countless TV and radio programmes to promote one of the many new training initiatives launched by the IMI. Member-ship is up 100% year-on-year.

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