Freedom Fighter

Posted on 15 Jan 2008 by The Manufacturer

Environmental issues are taking a front seat in the public eye. Allan Cook, CEO of Cobham, tells Gay Sutton how the thriving UK aerospace sector is responding to this challenge, and taking the initiative

Fast and powerful jets, cutting edge technology and, ultimately, a very sexy sector to work in: that is one view of aerospace manufacturing. The other opinion is that the industry is responsible for pumping millions of tons of damaging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and accelerating global warming, a view that is growing. “All too often we are seen as the culprit rather than the solution,” explained Allan Cook, CEO of Cobham Group, and president of the fighter Freedom 16 Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC).

“But the freedom of flight in today’s environ-ment is one of the most important aspects of our life. Tourism is a global industry. The ability to fly, efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way, is one of the most powerful things we have.

“So let’s deal with the cause of the issue, not the effect. Taxation and placing further restrictions is not the way – we believe – to deal with the environment and the impact that aviation has on it. Nobody in the aerospace industry underestimates the impact that it has on the environment. It’s not as if we’re ignorant or not aware of what is going on. That’s far from the truth.

”The environmental lobby is powerful, however, and is gaining in strength as the effects of climate change become increasingly visible – rising incidence of extreme weather events, changing wildlife and agricultural patterns, to name but a few. “My point is that we can provide the solution, we can provide the mechanisms by which we continue to fly.” And this, he believes, is the greatest challenge ahead for the aerospace sector.

The industry, which is currently going through a period of strong growth, is working to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 50 per cent, NOx emissions by 80 per cent and external noise by 50 per cent by 2020. All of which will require a step change in the design and manufacture of the aircraft. And it has made enormous strides. The work done by Rolls-Royce in developing the latest generations of Trent engines, he said, was “world beating”. And investment into the development of new technology continues across all areas of the industry.

The Airbus A380 has recently been certified to produce at least 50 per cent less noise at take-off and landing than its nearest competitor – the Boeing 747 – and its NOx emissions are 31 per cent lower than those set by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation).

But, he realises that there is an uphill struggle ahead to make the public aware of these improvements, and of the step changes the industry is aiming to achieve through improved technology. “We have to be much more vocal about these achievements,” he said. “The recent protest at Heathrow associated with the effect that aviation is having on the environment was really eye catching from a public point of view. And, of course, every time you see an aircraft with a trail – which is condensation – people assume that it is fumes. We have to get our message out, into the public arena.”

Cook, who is very much a people person, may well have a role to play in this, and the clue to his capability lies in his swift and sure career progression. He began life as an engineering apprentice, then took a degree and quickly migrated into manufacturing management. So what, I wondered, was the real passion that drove him?

“The people!” he replied, without hesitation. Although he did admit that engineering came a very close second. “If somebody asked me now, what would I change in my career path, there is absolutely nothing I’d change. A lot of that has been driven by engineering and manufacturing.”

His company, Cobham, operates in five different continents. And while each region faces different issues, he believes the identification and nurturing of skills and talent is fundamental to all operations, is key to the future of industry and should be a top priority for any CEO. “Inno-vation, technology, investment, the need to sustain a profitable business model – these are all important. But at the end of the day, it’s the engineer, the guy on the shopfloor, it’s the lady in accounts, the HR people, the PA, the lady on reception – these are the people who actually make the difference between a good company and a great company.” The ability to attract, retain, motivate and enthuse talent within the organisation is absolutely vital, and this has been his mantra for a number of years. “We try to do it as best we can. We fail as often as we succeed,” he laughed, “but we always come back to it.”

As CEO of Cobham, and also through his work with the SBAC, Cook has worked closely with the Government, and has a unique insider’s view of the progress of the much vaunted Defence Procure-ment Policy – aimed at solving procurement issues that, in the past, have resulted in projects presenting billions of pounds over budget, and years behind schedule. Does it, like many govern-ment policies, promise a great deal but fall down on the delivery, or is it shaping up to be effective? “I think it’s patchy. In certain parts of the industry and parts of MoD it is working. Where parts of the organisation are embracing the industrial strategy, which calls for greater levels of collab-oration and operation between industry and the procurement agency, then you can see improve-ments coming through. But in my view there is a lot of work still to do. It is not as crisp or as effective as it is in the US.”

Before leaving BAE Systems to become CEO of Cobham, Cook was managing director of the Eurofighter project. This revolutionary new European fighter/bomber was notorious for running over budget and behind schedule, although it is now flying in the RAF, the Spanish, German, Italian and Austrian air forces, and 72 aircraft have just been sold to Saudi Arabia. Comments have been made that some of the problems were due to defence procurement issues at the time.

“A lot of the responsibilities for the delays were down to the structure of the consortium,” he explained. It started out with four nations – the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain, each with aerospace companies vying for elements of the work. “All had high levels of capability and exper-tise, but all were trying to match the aspirations of their government,” while claiming the work share they desired. “It isn’t hard to imagine how difficult that became both politically and techni-cally.” And then, mid way through the technology development, the French decided to join the party, having originally ducked out of it.

To compound the difficulty, changes to the design became necessary. The Eurofighter had been designed to deal with a northern European threat. “Then, in the middle of the design and development stage that threat decreased, and it became very obvious that [the future defence requirements] would be air to ground rather than air to air.

”Finally, stress in defence budgets added to the project’s woes: the unification of East and West Germany, difficulties in the Italian economy and, of course, stresses and strains in the UK economy. But Cook is philosophical about this. “If you look back in history at any large military aero-space project, I can’t recall any that have been delivered on time and on budget. It’s no excuse, but it’s always at the cutting edge.”

Eurofighter has, of course, been a Euro-pean collaboration, but trans-national defence procurement policies are a sensitive subject. “There is still a lack of trust and integrity between the procurement agency and industry: over the past 15 or so years there has been a drive [in the UK] for open competition. But we are the only country in the world that has this open defence marketplace view.” Which makes it far tougher for UK companies who can lose out to foreign competition in the UK, and yet have no hope of winning contracts elsewhere against preferred home grown bidders. He does not have a problem with the open market concept, but it should be operated across the board, creating a level playing field for industry.

“You certainly don’t get an open marketplace view in France or Germany. Trying to operate in the defence market there – forget it, it just isn’t going to happen. The French DGA buys from French companies, period. The US is a little more open, but there is still a fortress America there.

”It does seem that Europe has perceived the problem and is trying to do something to redress this imbalance. The morning we spoke, the European Commission published the European Defence Package, the latest move to developing a more open and competitive defence market across Europe – in much the same way, I suppose, that we are waiting to see an opening up of the energy market across the EU. It may take some time.

“I haven’t seen the announcement, but I can give you my opinion now without reading it,” he laughed. “I think it’s a very lofty and laudable aim, but perceptions, characters and attitudes are going to have to change in order for that to become a reality. I think the aim is great, the objectives are very credible, I think that the attitudes and approaches, particularly in the military and defence areas, have to change in order for us to achieve the objectives of the policy.

”It certainly seems that the French are very protective, not only of their industry, but of their agricultural practices and even of the integrity of their language. It is a formidable cultural barrier to try to break down.

Meanwhile, the defence industry has recently lost one of its most potent proponents in Government, with the withdrawal of Lord Drayson from his ministerial position at the MoD. I was keen to hear Cook’s view on what this will mean for future negotiations on defence procurement. “From a personal point of view, I was extremely disappointed that Paul decided to follow a different route and step down. We will miss his drive, his initiative, his business acumen, his direct approach and his strength of character. That will be missed by Cobham, and I think I speak for the SBAC and for industry that we will miss his involvement. But ministers change quite regularly, and we will give Baroness Taylor all the support that we can in order to help her do her job effectively. I am sure she is committed to supporting us.”