From anorak to campaigner

Posted on 13 Jun 2011 by The Manufacturer

Last year Graham Chisnall took on a big job at revamped industry body ADS following the merger of four separate trade groups. ADS has since secured better dialogue, and influence, with Westminster and has drawn in the security and space sectors under its ample wing, but a more disparate membership and big defence spending cuts present challenges. Will Stirling speaks to him.

At the National Manufacturing Debate at Cranfield University on May 25, the debate became bogged down in some familiar mud. Protectionism, and whether the UK government should support British companies for public sector procurement. Some danced gingerly around the issue of government’s role in picking winners. Graham Chisnall took the microphone for the second time that afternoon.

“I’m frustrated with this debate,” he said. “We have to push every button that we can. We either play that game to its best advantage, or we don’t and face the consequences. I have no truck with “picking winners”, in specific cases. It seems eminent common sense.” It was a welcome dose of black and white in a high calibre debate that was straying into the realm of platitude. Mr Chisnall supports his sector – the aerospace, defence and security industries – vociferously and, albeit for a little judicious media training, wears his heart on his sleeve when speaking up those sectors’ needs. The leading UK trade association for the aerospace industry wouldn’t be much use if its top executives represented its members concerns in sotto voce.

Graham Chisnall is the managing director of Commercial Aerospace and Operations at ADS, the trade association for the aerospace, defence, security and space industries. ADS was borne of the merger of predecessors the Police and Public Security Suppliers, the Defence Manufacturers Association and the Society of British Aerospace Companies in October 2009, and it encompasses the British Aviation Group (BAG). The merger was driven by several forces, one of which was to improve the efficacy of the bodies’ lobbying powers through a united voice. Membership in May stood at 910 members and technical programmes like Supply Chain 21 are providing measurable benefits to companies of different sizes doing different things.

Mr Chisnall acknowledges that a combined, larger ADS is now opening more doors to the corridors of power. “BIS [the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills] has become more accessible at ministerial level and has started to really understand the importance of our sectors to their own growth aspirations. David Willetts [Universities and Science Minister] actively supports the whole STEM agenda and is a huge advocate of space. BIS is listening.” But with size comes difficulties. ADS now represents the security and space industries, which have their own set of problems – growth, regulatory, technical and skills – to finesse with its work in the more traditional civil aerospace and defence sectors.

Defence spending is under pressure; think-tank RUSI expects cuts of at least 15% in the overall defence budget over the next four years. Part of ADS’s raison d’etre is to seek and communicate to its members the clearest possible picture of the long term spending plans of the Ministry of Defence; in essence, a detailed Defence Industrial Strategy. If defence spending cuts are deep, despite diversification into the security sector, ADS’s membership base will potentially fade – lean times cause companies to shed certain non-core business activities. Given the austere times, a new coalition government and the shifting needs of global defence programmes, it is a challenging task. Is Graham Chisnall up to the job?

Know your game
He is certainly eminently qualified. A chartered engineer, Chisnall spent 35-years at two companies, BAE Systems and GKN, and is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. A self-confessed aircraft anorak, he is a pilot and flies an original 1942 Tiger Moth biplane when time allows. He is also the nonexecutive chair of the Engineering Development Trust, a charity involved in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)-related school programmes. Engineering and education, as well as all things with wings, is obviously a passion. “We clearly have to support the government to improve the basic teaching of English, maths and science.

We still see too many youngsters leaving school with inadequate skills in those basics,” a view that the media unearths more evidence of every day.

His career covered several important milestones, which gives him a deep insight into these sectors’ idiosyncrasies. As technical director and chief engineer for all BAe aircraft at Brough, he oversaw the rapid, private venture development of the Hawk 100 and 200 aircraft family. He then became project director of what became Nimrod MRA-4, a successful two-year bid for the £2.5bn Replacement Maritime Patrol Aircraft contract for the Royal Air Force, launched in 1997. He was also group head of strategy at BAE Systems from 1998 to 2000, which involved leading assessments of merger and acquisition opportunities.

Joining GKN in 2000, Mr Chisnall was a director in the newly formed Aerospace Group and over the following 10-years held several senior jobs and launched some key initiatives, such as GKN’s Technology Forum, a board level group responsible for overseeing all GKN’s automotive and aerospace technology development – a weighty responsibility at the £5bn (2010) turnover company. His last job at GKN as Corporate Director – Strategy exposed him to strategy across the entire company, including M&A and group technology. A comprehensive career, from grass roots engineering skills to business management, in aerospace, defence and automotive, leading technology and group strategy at two iconic British firms.

Why join a trade association following this stellar career? “I had done pretty much every job at a senior level in those two companies and I wanted to do something different. I also care passionately about the work that ADS does. I genuinely care that we ensure we leave a strong, vibrant aerospace industry for the next generations.” Is an engineering background essential to run ADS? “At the top level, engineering is a good training, an approach to problem-solving. How you make successful trade-offs can help you deal with complex situations. I haven’t done hands-on engineering for many years, but I’m sure the way that I approach situations is influenced by that early engineering training.” We talk about a familiar lament, the dumbing down of engineering skills in business and education.

There are signs that this is changing; Chisnall acknowledges this but adds, “I am concerned that, because of the need for shareholder growth and financial reporting required by the City, there is an increasing preponderance of financially-trained senior executives running engineering companies. Where engineering excellence is part of [these companies’] future, it’s important that engineers do not drop further down the pecking order.” He adds: “We need to drive a better collective understanding of the broader role of engineering in the value generation of these companies.”

New look ADS – in the zone
ADS membership is growing on a net basis, especially in the security sector. Has the merger worked? “Yes, it has been a marked success,” Chisnall says.

“There was a plan in place to merge the two main organisations [DMA and SBAC] over a period of a year, a very short time frame. There are still a few cultural issues that will take longer to resolve, but nothing insurmountable.” What is the evidence that the combined entity is working more effectively? “Two most striking things for me in the first year was, firstly the degree of senior political and industry access that ADS is now able to secure, in ways that SBAC and DMA couldn’t have done themselves. Also a combined aerospace, defence and security industry trade association has been remarkably prescient, given that the government used to mention defence and security separately. Now when MPs talk about this industry it’s almost one word, ‘defence and security’. That’s important because of the synergies.” And the group has stronger finances as a combined force, says Chisnall. “ADS continues to depend on Farnborough [Air Show] to a degree. Fortunately, this continues to go from strength to strength. For example we will have a security zone at FAS 2012.” ADS plans to increase its remit for technical services, Chisnall says. Perhaps the best example of this is Supply Chain 21, the programme designed by predecessor SBAC for companies to benchmark their supply chain efficiency against ‘best in class’ standards. “SC21 is the only industryrecognised, all-embracing supply chain improvement programme. The government recognises it. It came from aerospace but it isn’t specific to aerospace companies. We have revised it to make it more relevant to a broader reach of companies who are now eligible.” One important improvement is the consultation in progress for ‘SC21 Light’, a less bureaucratic version of the full SC21 programme. This followed evidence that smaller companies, especially those for whom the management team might be 1-3 people, find it a burden to administer ‘full fat’ SC21.

Defence cuts and overspends
One ADS message especially – to support the UK’s defence industrial base for economic as well as defence reasons – reaches an acquiescent audience, its members. But how is the group dealing with the negative press surrounding defence cuts and large projects that go over budget, often in the billions of pounds? “We just want an open and proper debate process, because the defence industrial sector is a vital part of the industrial landscape in the UK,” says Chisnall.

“On the overspends, we need to try to inform people better when these stories break. They are usually a result of many decisions taken over a long period of time, which then get aggregated and announced at a certain point in, for example, the National Audit Office assessment cycle. A large part of overspend on the [two Queen Elizabeth II] carriers, for example, was due to the previous government’s consciouslyplanned delay in the programme, to try to minimise year-on-year cash spend. When government makes these decisions, we have a job at ADS to make sure as far as possible that the consequences to the UK’s advanced manufacturing sector of such decisions are explained. We are on that case 24-hours a day.” In the 1990s, Chisnall was instrumental in securing the contract for the Nimrod MRA-4 Replacement Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The overbudget programme was pulled last year as the first round of defence cuts following the SDSR Review. Chisnall says he has no personal regrets in his career, but the biggest regret “is for the team at BAE Systems doing the Nimrod MRA-4, a programme very dear to my heart. There are some highly skilled, very talented people I know personally who’ve worked on it night and day for the last 18-years, to produce the world’s best submarine hunter. It was cancelled within a year of getting into service. So I feel deeply for those individuals who spent long and hard years doing great work on that, just for it to run to nothing.”

Engineering: Get beyond the word
Chisnall is very close to the skills debate. He is non-executive chairman of EDT, the Engineering Development Trust, the UK’s biggest charity running schemes to motivate young people to choose a career in STEM subjects. “We have to get past the word, engineering. Show youngsters before they take options at school that engineering is one of the most creative disciplines that you can work in,” he says. “Stats now show that for first year postgrads, engineering is the best or second best paid profession. And its one of the few occupations that is truly creative – something exists after you’ve done your job that didn’t exist before.”

On the status of the engineering profession, Chisnall is concerned about how well university equips people for the modern workplace: “It worries us that there is still an erosion of graduate engineers coming out of UK universities, but also the skill sets of some of those graduates need additional support from companies before those companies find them very useful. Action needs to be taken at every level to tackle this.”

There are lots of positives at ADS, but where does it need to improve? “You can always communicate better. From small SMEs to some of the biggest global companies, getting communications right with all of that variety is a never-ending challenge. We must continue to deliver relevant services, including big technical services like SC21, so they remain what the member companies want and not to allow them to become prescriptive programmes.”
And is the Tiger Moth the aircraft anorak’s way of venting executive stress? “I love old aeroplanes. I knew I’d always have a Tiger Moth at some stage and I co-own it with others. It’s completely authentic, with no brakes, no electrics, no engine starter – it’s a beautiful thing. We flew it to Toulouse last summer, it took a week but it didn’t miss a beat. That’s a bit slower than a Hawk.”

Biography: Graham Chisnall

Joined British Aircraft Corporation, a predecessor of British Aerospace on an undergraduate apprenticeship. Graduated with a BSc. (Hons) in Aeronautical Engineering in 1978.

Had a series of engineering positions in BAe’s military aircraft division in Warton.

Deputy Chief Engineer on the Eurofighter programme, based in Munich.

Appointed Technical Director and Chief Engineer for all BAE Brough aircraft.

Project Director for the RMPA/Nimrod MRA-4 Royal Air Force project bids.

Group Head of Strategy, BAE/BAE Systems’ headquarters in Farnborough.

Director of Group Operations in engineering and lead GKN board director on the AeroSystems International Board.

Aerospace Group Director of Sales and Marketing and Director of Group Strategy, engineering and technology at GKN.

Corporate Director of Strategy at GKN.

Managing Director of Commercial Aerospace and operations at A|D|S.

Graham was a member of the SBAC Council from 2003 to 2008, is a long-standing Chartered Engineer, Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, is the non-nxec chair of the Engineering Development Trust, the largest national charity involved in science, technology, engineering and maths related school programmes, and is a non-exec director of the legal regulator the Solicitors Regulatory Authority.

Graham is married with two teenage daughters. He is an active private pilot, sharing ownership of a vintage Tiger Moth biplane.