High flyer readies for take-off

Posted on 9 Dec 2009 by The Manufacturer

Allan Cook will retire from Cobham in December. The aerospace and defence industry kingpin, National Skills Academy chairman, Ministerial Advisory Group member and competitive squash player talks to TM about his industry, innovation, balanced skills needs and the need to respond to markets quickly in ‘exponential times’.

Cobham, the aerospace and defence manufacturer, turned 75 years old in October. It is one of the most successful “second tier” British defence companies that sit behind the better known national champions, Rolls- Royce and BAE Systems. Founded as Flight Refuelling Ltd by aviator Sir Alan Cobham in 1934, it is best known for developing air-to-air refuelling equipment but its portfolio of products today covers a truly exotic range of highly engineered products, from vehicle intercoms and surveillance technology, to search and rescue devices and oxygen regulators in space suits.

Allan Cook, Cobham’s straight-talking chief executive, steps down on December 31 after eight years with the company. He will become chairman of WS Atkins, the UK’s largest engineering consultancy. Cook’s career is long and distinguished. He started as an apprentice engineer and worked his way up through several big engineering firms. Before Cobham, he worked for BAE Systems as managing director of the Eurofighter, a controversial project which tested his ability to manage a pan-European consortium with different, sometimes incompatible interests. He admits the job was very difficult to manage both politically and technically.

He also has several non-executive appointments beyond Cobham. This year he rescinded the presidency of the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe. He retains his chairmanship of the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing, is a director of the Industrial Forum and the DTI Aerospace Forum, and a committee member of the UK Ministerial Advisory Group for Manufacturing (MAG). He is also about to become a mentor for the Sainsbury Foundation.

R&D investment not optional
Cook believes in the modern definition of manufacturing, as a fully integrated progressive industry that does far more than simply make things. “We now ship products that require support services and advice, which can profoundly affect our offering and help to differentiate products in a marketplace, where the end-user can access product information at their leisure using the internet,” he says.

On R&D, speaking at The Manufacturer Directors’ Conference in November, he identified five critical factors which would influence the ability of the manufacturing industry to foster innovation in the 21st century. One of these is the ability for firms to rapidly adapt to changing customer needs. He says: “The state of innovation in manufacturing is not in crisis – it is being transformed! For the industry as a whole, the pattern of agile firms progressively displacing lumbering ones on the edge of innovation is not so much a crisis, as an indicator of healthy renewal.” He also observes that a renewed focus on science education, shopfloor skills and lean techniques alone are not the answer. “I support the current focus on innovation in science, technology and engineering, but that should not be to the exclusion of improving service aspects: we simply need to redress the balance.”

Cobham has demonstrated its own agility. In response to the recession it has diversified and expanded its product range into markets including surveillance, homeland security and training. But this company has a forecast annual turnover of nearly $2bn for 2009/2010. What can SMEs do to address new opportunities with limited funds? “You don’t have to be a big plc to invest in development and technology,” he says. “Some of the best companies in the UK are SMEs. The good, successful companies are always looking for ways to improve their expertise and that means investment in the current and future technologies. We are in an exponential market, which is truly international. The companies – big or small – who will survive and grow will be the ones who are agile, responsive, close to their chosen market and who have the skills to address the opportunities.

Perception and skills
Despite its success, Cobham exemplifies British advanced manufacturing; a world class company that exports globally, which remains invisible to many ordinary folk outside its operating sectors.

Now that Cook is stepping back from frontline senior management in aerospace and defence – Atkins is involved in aerospace, but as chairman his role will not be day-to-day business management – perhaps we will see him more as a publicist of advanced manufacturing, promoting a better perception of the sector through his work with the National Skills Academy (NSAM) and MAG, the ministerial advisory group. His insight here is close to the bone. “Many of the current generation of journalists are based away from the industrial heartland and staffed by people without scientific or engineering backgrounds,” he says. “Given the choice of covering a ‘clean’ industry in a big city or a complicated engineering company in non-urban manufacturing, it’s not surprising the media favours other sectors to the detriment of manufacturing.”

NSAM has a passionate while smart advocate of modern skills as its chairman. It is true the UK has a gap for basic engineering and manufacturing skills, but the big picture is more complex, and Cook understands the skills needs of modern industry.”There are a whole range of skills required in the UK to support industry. These range from workshop skills such as CNC and tool-making to software engineering. They are all essential in today’s fast moving, international business market.

In addition programme and project management skills are critical along with financial skills, commercial skills and general management.” He points out more UK companies now rely on skilled people to manage complex projects across many national borders, with extended supply chains.

Along with other senior manufacturers, Cook recognises the opportunity the new economic era presents for the skills market. He says the financial services market has been able to attract the best talent across Europe with promises of fast-track careers and financial bonuses. “This has changed now and we should be promoting our industry as never before! Here is an opportunity to communicate with schools and higher education to tell our young people that our industry has the best opportunities to create an exciting career.”

Defence spending and the environment
Cook has always been vocal of the aerospace industry’s role in the climate change solution.

While the European aerospace industry is working to reduce aircraft fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 50% by 2020, in an interview in The Manufacturer in Jan 2008, he said aerospace was seen as the culprit more than the solution. Has this image changed since then? “The situation has not changed – in fact the demand for more efficiency and lower environmental damage is even more intense, as the forthcoming conference in Copenhagen will testify. Many advances have already occurred or are happening now. Rolls- Royce has made huge strides with more fuel efficient engines, aircraft manufacturers are turning to new, lighter materials and Air Traffic Controls are being modified to improve and reduce flight times.” Despite stepping out of the aerospace and defence sector limelight from 2010, Allan Cook will continue to advise his non-executive positions on macro matters. Defence spending for example is something he knows a lot about. There are clear signs that defence spending is under threat with public spending cuts expected under any government in 2010. The $2.4bn Northrop Grumman joint venture contract – Cobham’s biggest – this year is the kind of export deal politicians crow about but will be less likely under a more contracted defence spending regime. Who is listening? “Peter Mandelson is listening and acting on some of these issues,” Cook answers.

“His department, BIS, is very involved in looking for ways to encourage investment in the most important industries in the UK and that includes aerospace and defence. It is inappropriate to comment on specific programmes but it is clear that with increased pressure on budgets, priorities will have to be established and kept.”

Focus on people and work hard
As this stalwart of the UK aerospace and defence industry taxies out for his next departure, he leaves behind a solid, very respectable legacy at the sharp end of advanced manufacturing (see tribute box).

What advice would he give to manufacturers and to young people considering this as a career? To paraphrase John F Kennedy: “Ask not what your industry can give to you but what you can give to your industry,” he says. “ I reckon that I have got more out of my career than I have put in and that has meant everything to me over the past 40 years.

To highlight one area, it would be to increase the recognition of the need to develop people in all areas. We must attract, develop and retain talented people and help them to understand that the manufacturing and engineering industry will give them a rewarding career, not just a job.”