From apprentice to vice-president in three decades is not your everyday manufacturing story. But as Edward Machin discovers, Airbus UK’s outgoing top man Brian Fleet MBE doesn’t exactly do run-of-the-mill. He’s not too shabby at Monopoly, either…
Officially stepping down this month, July 2010 marks the end of Brian Fleet MBE’s 36-year innings at Airbus Broughton. The Airbus senior vice-president and Head of Centre of Excellence for Wing and Pylon has been responsible for four European sites and involved in wing design, development and production on every aircraft in the Airbus family.
Just how did a local boy climb the slippery pole from factory apprentice to manufacturing top brass? “Any progression, be it career or otherwise, can be attributed to a combination of many things,” says Fleet, 54. “Being in the right place at the right time inevitably means having the tenacity to seize opportunities and make the most of them. Every now and then we are all given a key to the door; it’s up to you what you do with it.” Tanned and casually dressed, Fleet highlights the retirement in 1984 of George Allen, Broughton’s then production control manager, as his career-defining moment. Asked to take the reins, and becoming a departmental head in the process, he went from overseeing 10 engineers to managing a plant served by 500 men and women. The company’s youngest executive by two decades, Fleet had celebrated his 27th birthday only weeks before.
Before the beginning
‘A’ levels secured and all set to study mathematics at university, “With my sister already in higher education and costing our parents a fair few shillings, I realised my attendance would be a further drain on their coffers,” he says. Responding to an advert by Hawker Siddeley Aviation — nationalised during the early 1980s to become British Aerospace — in a local paper, the aspiring engineer applied for the company’s HND in Aeronautical Engineering/Computer Science programme. Although highly over-subscribed, and no doubt a barometer of what was to come, Fleet made the grade. It was 1974.
“The only problem was that when the holidays came we had to go back to work, whereas my friends got to kick about without a care in the world. On the upside, they weren’t being paid at the end of every week, so that helped ease the pain somewhat!” Qualifying in 1979, Fleet was awarded with Hawker Siddeley’s Engineer of the Year. With this moment of glory, however, came a sobering realisation. “I was in competition with my colleagues, many of whom were friends,” he explains. “So I worked that little bit longer, tried that little bit harder. I would pester my boss to give me new and challenging tasks as soon as I had completed my last one, and generally made a nuisance of myself.
After all, the best way of achieving recognition is to get recognised.”
Enjoying life in the company’s systems department, he nonetheless applied for a position at Shell as a project leader. Loathe to lose its rising star, Hawker Siddeley dangled the carrot of a newly-created management training programme before Fleet, having earmarked him as its first candidate.
Accepting the fast-track scheme, and as if the gods were smiling down on him, three months into his training the programme planning manager resigned. Asked to step in, the 24-year old Fleet was appointed to the management team, where he stayed for three years until the previously mentioned executive opportunity, with company car to boot, came calling.
And the secret(s) to his success? “While demonstrating a great deal of maturity, intelligence and application for my age, I never over-committed to something that couldn’t be achieved on the deadline we had promised. This built up a level of trust in me by the company’s senior management,” says Fleet. It sounds so simple.
A Monopoly on success
Would he say, for those starting out on the company’s apprentice scheme — UK manufacturing’s biggest scheme, and which he re-instated after a temporary freeze — is it realistic to believe that they, too, can emulate Brian Fleet’s career trajectory? “What I did is much more difficult today, I accept that. It wasn’t the norm in my day, clearly, but when an opportunity presented itself I was lucky enough to be there and had the wherewithal to seize it with both hands,” he says.
“However, I have no doubt that if you are good enough, together with a strong degree of tenacity, you will eventually get that opportunity. And don’t forget that we all have more disappointments than successes in our work; it is simply that my competitive nature meant and means that I have to win — be it in business or playing Monopoly with my children.”
Aisle take this one…
In 1995 Fleet took a director’s job at British Aerospace’s Royal Ordnance small arms ammunition business, upon the advice that he wouldn’t make the Airbus top position without outside experience. He was then appointed managing director of Heckler and Koch in 1998, before returning to Broughton the following year.
With such a glittering career, does he find it hard to pick out high points at Airbus? “The launch of the single-aisle A320 is still right up there,” he says. “We were a cottage-type industry, building 50 aircraft a year at most. The A320, which remains the backbone of virtually every commercial fleet in operation, kicked Airbus into a different gear and led us to produce close to 200 aircraft annually in the 1990s.” “It was particularly significant for the site’s [Broughton’s] development, too, given that there were numerous companies at BAE Systems, as well as across Europe, trying to secure the programme.
It continues to be fundamental to Broughton’s long term security — our bread and butter, in other words — and which still pays 70 per cent of the wages here, in spite of flagships such as the A380.”
Fight or flight
With a genesis stretching back to 1999, the Airbus A380, the world’s biggest passenger aircraft — boasting a wingspan longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight — has been lauded and, in some quarters, chastised in equal measure. Fleet, as manufacturing director for the UK, was instrumental in the project. “Responsibility for designing the initial business case and getting the capex approved, managing the facilities and bringing the programme online to schedule – the buck stopped with me.”
Having been invited to Toulouse with Airbus’s senior executives for the A380’s maiden flight in 2005, he instead chose to remain on Broughton’s west factory floor. “To stand shoulder to shoulder with our guys and watch it take off — so quickly, so quietly, so serenely — on the wings that we built here remains the greatest thrill of my working life,” says Fleet, a flicker of genuine emotion betraying his otherwise unflappable demeanour.
While clearly a profound moment for those at the company, was this initial elation tempered by the frustration of production delays to the aircraft, resulting in a 26% drop in the share price of its parent company, EADS, and the departures of EADS’s chief executive Noël Forgeard, Airbus CEO Gustav Humbert and A380 programme manager Charles Champion? “Not at that point, given that they weren’t prevalent until exposure to the marketplace,” he counters. “Moreover, any delays experienced were not caused by Broughton. We promised to deliver the wings on a certain date, and did so to the required level of completeness.” “You learn more from mistakes than you ever do from your successes. That said, and in technological terms, with the A380 we were pushing boundaries further than we ever had before. Is it surprising we had challenges with some of these? I would argue not so. And when you look at technologies in military programmes, which can come in up to ten years late, in relative terms we missed our timescales by two years. It can never be justified, however, and we must make allowances for the integration of technology in our future projects as opposed to disappointing our customers for two years.”
Into the sunset…
Scheduled to enter service in 2013, the Airbus A350 is one such project. A mid-size, wide-body aircraft, it will be Airbus’s first model for which both fuselage and wing structures are made primarily from carbon fibre-reinforced plastic. “Moving from basically a metal basher to composites on the A350 is a major change for us, both in the design and the manufacturing technology we are utilising here,” says Fleet.
“Further, the A350 is a pivotal programme for the UK, and we won it because Airbus at Broughton and Filton have demonstrated over the last four decades that we can bring these huge programmes to fruition — on time, on cost and on quality. The benefit to UK plc is that we are commercial aerospace, and by giving the second, third and fourth tier companies the opportunity to work on these projects we can support an additional 135,000 UK jobs while adding £15bn to the country’s balance sheet every year.” And so, with a lifetime of service in the pursuit of aviation excellence, what does the immediate future hold for Mr. Airbus? More Monopoly, perhaps? “After 36 years of devoting myself to the company, the rest of my life will be spent with my wife and family,” he says.
“I’m going to do a lot of traveling, and have five holidays booked before the year’s end. I’ve built these wonderful aircraft; now I’m going to fly on them to see the world for my enjoyment!”