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Graham Cole: Building Business Bridges

Graham ColeGraham Cole is Chairman of AgustaWestland UK and Chairman of CBI South West. Today we talk to Graham about how he is working to help the South West become the aerospace region of the country…

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Graham, tell us about your own background and how you got involved in the aerospace industry?

"I was born in Coventry, where my father worked in the motor industry. I was one of those children of the late 1940s which was swept up into the comprehensive education system. I left school at 15, and my only qualification was a swimming certificate which I had to take twice before I passed.

"I went into the motor industry, as lots of people in the Midlands did, and worked my way up. I joined what was then Westland Helicopters on 25 March 1974 and from 1982 to 1989 ran our AgustaWestland_Logooperation in South America, living in Rio for 7 years. I came back at the end of the ‘80s and got involved in various large products such as the Apache and the AW101, called the Merlin here in the UK.

"GKN and then Finmeccanica acquired AgustaWestland and I eventually became MD and then Chairman, so absolutely no career planning at all. In my 20s and 30s I used to hide my lack of qualifications, now I guess as I get older I don’t hide it and it becomes almost a source of pride I suppose".

AgustaWestland, a successful, very well respected company, changing an awful lot. What makes the UK such an attractive place to invest in the aerospace industry?

"We are now an Anglo-Italian company and that Italian dimension is very important. They have been very, very supportive. In the last two or three years, you can see the Government really getting behind the aerospace industry and Ministers are actually going out now and selling the UK’s aerospace capability. I was with Secretary of State Vince Cable in Brazil and he’s a strong advocate of things British in Aerospace, so that’s good.

"There is an industrial policy that is growing and affects the aerospace industry as much as it affects any other and that takes on board clear rules on corporation tax, encouragement of skills, and regional growth funding. UKTI are doing a very good job in export, and it’s developing. If that continues beyond not just one election but perhaps through several elections then you can see an industrial policy here in the UK which will be beneficial for a number of industries, of which aerospace will be one".

You’re working with about 650 SMEs in the region. As a University interested in working with SMEs, how do you ensure those businesses meet your changing needs?

"The first thing I would say is that your supply chain is absolutely crucial. I’m not always sure that Government and the supply chain take that on board. If we outsource, particularly when it comes to major parts or business areas, then we are doing it for the long term. Which means the suppliers of this product or service are critical for our business going forward.

"We are selective, we have tough criteria because we want efficiency, but also there are specific aerospace qualities and capabilities which we need. We do help and talk to our SMEs a lot. Where we can, we do commercial arrangements which are beneficial and give the longest term view of the market, as we’re seeing it. Again, I think Government is beginning to understand the advantage of having a horizon, certainly in aerospace, of more than one or two years makes it possible for companies to be able to invest properly. I would like to see us more involved with the supply chain and to see whether we can offer more. We do deliberately try to foster the supply chain in this region as I believe, without a doubt, that we have a really good chance of it becoming the aerospace technology centre of the country".

You’re a key player in innovation active initiatives. What does innovation mean to AgustaWestland and how do universities meet part of that agenda?

"We’re constantly trying to innovate, constantly trying to improve efficiency. Innovation is looking forward to where rotor craft technology is going to be in a few years time. For instance, we’re looking at unmanned helicopters.

"We have significant capability in engineering, both here in the UK and Italy, with one engineering director responsible for both so it’s a unified engineering group who are constantly looking at the next helicopter, the next improvement.

"With regard to university involvement, we talk to a number of universities and a number of universities are involved with us already. I believe there’s clear encouragement from Government towards getting involved and I know the team, the factory, are always willing and open to have a dialogue".

How important is Government intervention in helping businesses and do businesses engage with the Government initiatives at the right level?

"There is a real desire by Government to engage and to help. But what we don’t want is an industrial policy that is only there to meet a crisis. We want an industrial policy that can help to develop, to grow industry. We can see that Government is really involved and in our case that’s included important funding. And we have more than matched that with our own funding.

"There are two aspects to this support. There’s the straight financial support and that’s important for the balance sheet. But there’s another aspect which is the statement from Government that they’re supporting you, they want you there, you are important. Whilst today you can’t put that on your balance sheet, as far as the future looks and as confidence goes, that has an impact".

As Chairman of the CBI South West how do you see the role of the CBI in changing the UK business environment?

"The CBI is the conduit which Government want to use. Care is taken within the CBI to make sure the message is clear from members, delivered not in a hostile or overtly political way but in a way that presents the advantage to business and industry. I think this is very important. We have the opportunity of feeding back to Government in a way that perhaps some of the larger companies can do but with the gravitas, the independence, and the objectivity of the CBI. That’s an advantage.

"Something I want to do during my time with the CBI is, as a group, to take things into our own hands a little bit and change things in the region. I’m keen to have the education-skills-business-industry bridge. If every member of the CBI did something on the same day to help build that bridge it would make a difference. I see part of my role to try and make sure that action actually has a real impact and I hope whoever succeeds me at the end of next year will take it on as well and move it forward. I see a real opportunity for business, of us going in and actually working to make a change. If we could get some momentum, everybody doing the same thing, I think it could make a difference and that’s my goal".

We frequently hear about a high level of skill shortage and need to grow youth employment. How do you see this being addressed and do universities have a role?

"There are some shortages, particularly technical skills. I think what you’re looking for though is a working populous that is at an ever increasingly skilled level, so whatever they’re doing you’re better at it. International competition these days is enormous and education and skills are right at the heart of the agenda of the BRIC and other emerging countries. We must work on that too.

"We look forward as far as we can and take on apprentices and graduates that we can train, that we can bring on, and that can provide skills we will require into the future. But it’s difficult looking forward and thinking what’s the market going to be, what are your figures going to be in two, three, four years time?

"Aerospace is a long-term industry. There is an advantage in working with universities, as there’s a general up skilling of capability and specific skills. One of my concerns about apprenticeships is that it’s not only on-the-job training. You’re not just training somebody to do that job at that time in that company. What you should be doing is developing transferrable skills, so you’re giving a broad training, but also a cultural training. It’s a balance".

Would you like to take this opportunity to say anything to the readers we haven’t already asked you?

"I guess I’m starting to return to being an optimist. We’ve gone through some difficult times as an industry, as a country, and no doubt there are an awful lot of bumpy rides ahead. If what we’re seeing developing now can be continued with a successive government, with the embrace and support of industry, then you start to feel encouraged.

"We’re on a journey, and that journey has slowed a little bit but it’ll pick up and move on. It’s a world of tough business because you’ve got to be as efficient as the guy in Fort Worth, in Philadelphia, in Margnane. It is only by being efficient, by having the support and encouragement from government, that we as a company can meet that international challenge. It’s tough. Everywhere you go there’s real competition but you’d be surprised with the number of places around the world where Britain is held up for its engineering excellence, its universities. I think there are real opportunities and if we can keep developing that process then I’m very encouraged".