I think I was always an engineer. Right from an early age I would take things to pieces to find out how they work. That led to me starting at Ford Motor Company, who sponsored me at Imperial College London doing mechanical engineering.
I then moved on to ICI and chemical plants, and that's where I first learned about people management skills. I then did an MBA at Warwick Business School, since when I've done 20 years in aerospace and defence with Lucas, Smiths and Meggitt in a variety of roles: factory management, operations management, programmes and even sales and marketing. Now I’m operating in aerospace and defence at Vendigital, a consultancy that strategically takes cost out of engineering businesses.
The standards have increased significantly in that time, putting greater demand on companies. I joined aerospace from automotive thinking that the standards would be incredibly high, and I was surprised to find that they weren’t as good.
We’ve seen increasing competitiveness in aerospace and defence. There was a ‘cost plus’ mentality in elements of the businesses – but these days it’s much more competitive, information is much more available, and customers are much more intelligent in the way they analyse things.
It’s not good enough to just have some good intellectual property that gives you protection and then think that’s going to keep you comfortable forever. You’ve got to be at the leading edge in terms of your technology, and really strong in terms of cost base and ability to deliver high quality, on time and in a cost-effective way.
Increasing computing power and memory availability have had massive effect – there's the opportunity to do much more modelling, but that also moves into manufacturing systems. Things like automation and the use of robotics are so much more credible now that you've got intelligence built into those systems that was just not possible 20 years ago.
I’ve been involved in quite a lot of challenging things over my career. One of the most challenging times was putting in place the strategic sourcing activities for Meggitt. It was a complex organisation with lots of individual sites, each with their own view as to how things should be done, and none of them really wanting someone external to that site to have any strong influence.
There was an enormous potential to take cost out and improve productivity, but it was highly challenging to demonstrate success and use that to get everyone onside. We built from a kernel of success, using the right measures of performance and positive communication to turn it from something with a high level of resistance to something that actually ended up getting a whole lot of support across the business.
I don’t do much hands-on engineering any more – except with small start-up Advanced Laser Technologies. But I think my engineering background allows me to ask the right questions.
In my view, long-term success is about three things: capability, trust, and then a degree of luck. My advice to others is to work hard to develop your capability through experience, take on the challenges that present themselves, and have the confidence to know that you will find a way of doing it, even if you don’t yet know what that is.
Make the right decisions to create trust with your boss, colleagues, customers and suppliers. Your reputation is your most valuable asset, so nurture it, be reliable but be challenging, and be prepared to address issues when necessary.
And finally – luck. This quote has been attributed to Gary Player: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”. In business, I think that reads absolutely across to networking. Really this is something I came to quite late in my career – I would strongly recommend everyone to see it almost as part of their job, and that will make them luckier in their career.