For Alan Dunn, more than a year into the operations director’s job at BAE Systems Submarine Solutions, humble beginnings as an apprentice caulker continue to influence his working life. Here he talks talent spotting, teamwork and tactics with Edward Machin.
Beginning life as an apprentice at what was then Govan Shipbuilders in 1977, Alan Dunn was merely one of a 150-strong apprenticeship intake that year. “As far as I know, there are three of us left in the industry,” he says, “and two of them continue to work at the Govan shipyard in Glasgow. My career, in terms of apprentice to operations director and board director, has certainly not been a sprint. I’m sure guys in the past have done it quicker, as will those after I retire, but it’s good enough for me!” While the evidence appears to suggest otherwise, “Managing my own career was not something I thought seriously about,” says Dunn, now operations director of BAE Systems Submarines Solutions. “But there are always people who are experienced enough in any business who are able to identify potential and develop it — in semi-formal ways, maybe, but it happens.” Having completed the apprenticeship in 1981, there were opportunities for Dunn and a number of his peers to develop into technical areas within the drawing office, as it was then known. The company picked the best people available and developed that talent, through job progression in the drawing office and academic study.
And the fresh-faced apprentice, beginning his steady ascent through the ranks; how did he approach work? “I’d like to think I was a head-down kind of guy who valued effort and commitment. Perhaps someone saw a bit of raw talent in there, which has generally been my approach to both work and sport,” says Dunn, a “ropey” amateur footballer by his own reckoning.
From boot room to dugout, though, times – and responsibilities – change. “My job now is to merge that raw energy and commitment with individual flair within any particular team, but it’s ultimately about talent. Whether someone holds that in a self-deprecating way or shouts from the rooftops, I don’t mind. The most important thing about confidence is that you deserve it; if a youngster is assured about their ability that’s cool with me, so long as they actually back it up.”
Astute looks ship shape
Launched on December 16 at BAE Systems Submarines’ Barrow-In-Furness shipyard, HMS Ambush — the second Astute class vessel in a fleet not without a few well-documented teething problems — represents the fulcrum of Dunn’s current work. A 7,400 tonne nuclear powered attack submarine, Ambush will leave Barrow in 2011 to join its sister boat, HMS Astute, at the Faslane submarine base in Scotland. Sad to say goodbye? “Of course,” says Dunn. “When you see how the team corrals around a task and remains uniformly focused on what they need to achieve — it’s a tremendous accolade for the individuals involved, but also the whole business. Launches are always a special occasion for us. Thirty three years in the game and I still get butterflies thinking about it. Your team spends a great deal of their working life on these boats: I’ve got guys who’ve been on the project for the better part of eight years. All that hard work culminates in a great occasion where we can invite the general public and guests from the Royal Navy and MoD to thank those who have put their endeavour into the product.
“While you get that bit higher up the food chain, and perhaps a little further removed from the day-to-day activities on the floor, my overriding emotion is pride for the team. There’s no feeling like reflected glory: you watch the guys and girls succeed, knowing that your time is, to a degree, passed — but you can stand on the touchline and watch them win.” With the third and fourth boats in the class — Artful and Audacious, respectively — yet to be built, the fifth as yet unnamed vessel currently in fabrication, and materials ordered for a sixth boat, the season is anything but over for Dunn and his team. Last October’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) referenced a seventh boat, which he says will ensure, “A hugely exciting future for all the guys here” — one which will bring continued manufacturing challenges: sequence of build, and quality of parts, integration and resource, among many others. And given that the environment the submarines will operate, it remains absolutely critical that the parts, system and vessel functions as required in terms of operability and timescale. “Sub-optimal is unacceptable,” says Dunn. “As a result, the skill level of the designer, manufacturer, integrator and tester needs to be as high as possible. Once the capability is optimised, in terms of human factors, the manufacture, construction and test plan needs to complement this fully.” As to the wider political climate and manufacturing’s place in the UK economy, “it’s early days, but witnessing the coalition’s support for UK exports is immensely positive,” he says. “Whether it be India or Brazil, for example, we see government and industry being mutually supportive in demonstrating the capabilities of UK manufacturing to the world. That said, the nature of BAE’s work at Barrow means that we are necessarily more focused on the UK customer, and the SDSR’s reference to seven Astute class boats and the successor vessels beyond that satisfies our business requirements going forward.”
Dunn’s vision for total manufacturing centres on predictability and reliability. “What the customer demands of us, and we demand of ourselves, is the capacity to remain predictable in terms of cost, schedule and delivery. As a result we become a reliable provider of capabilities to the government,” he explains. “It’s a simple thing to say, but when putting products together that are as complex as nuclear-powered attack submarines there are always going to be challenges, but nothing we see as being insurmountable. Like any good team you continually strive to be better; to that end we look to recruit talented people into the business and will continue to do so.”
Diving for pearls
For those coming into the organisation — be they lateral hires or, like Dunn once was, a wet-behindthe- ears apprentice — is there an underlying BAE Systems culture? “Absolutely,” he says. “It is a tremendous company to work for, both in terms of the products we produce and the opportunities available. Why wouldn’t you want to be working on nuclear-powered submarines? What a manufacturing challenge that is! I’m still blown away each and every day by what we do here, so for the young lads and lasses to come and witness it from an engineering point of view, you couldn’t get it better anywhere in the UK. It speaks volumes, too, that many of our employees are governors at local schools, so the company/community relationship is very much entwined. From bringing kids in at a young age, to taking sixth formers for summer placements, it remains vital for us to maintain links with the wider Barrow area. It’s a relatively small town, which BAE involves itself in through community projects and charitable giving, so we really are cheek by jowl in many respects.” With apprentice numbers having fallen to double figures during the 1980s, things are looking up for those considering a career in an industry charged with defending the UK’s honour, too. “When I started out the 100-plus apprentices in Glasgow was quite normal,” says Dunn. “While that approach to the development of young people diminished for a period, we’re exceeding that number in Barrow today. It has been especially pleasing to be involved in the submarines business because over the last decade we’ve seen the number of young people here starting to reach those dizzy heights again.
We’ve got 5,500 employees within the submarines business, 10 per cent of whom are made up of those on the early career programme, so we’re talking about healthy numbers.”
Ultimately, he says, the expectation at BAE Systems is that talent will out — whether graduate or apprentice, artisan or manufacturing management. Youngsters coming through the doors are expected to develop their domain knowledge: what the product is, why it’s important, where it goes and what they do on behalf of the customer. “Of equal importance, and something I say to all of them, is that if they seek an opportunity or wish to develop within the business they have to demand it. As adults we’re all keen to support the next generation, but the mind-reading aspect doesn’t work so well. You must take matters into your own hands and be demanding of both your career and the business; if you’ve got the capability to match then the world really can be your oyster.
After all, if I had put my hand up a little bit more as a youngster perhaps it wouldn’t have taken thirty two years to get where I am now!”