Graham Cole, Chairman of AgustaWestland

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Each month, we use our extensive network of business leaders to bring you the latest insights on the challenges and triumphs facing executives today. In this interview Graham Cole, Chairman of AgustaWestland tells us about competing in the international defence and aerospace market, localised supply chains and why directors should never stop learning no matter how experienced they are.

Hello Graham, tell us about AgustaWestland and your role as Chairman

AgustaWestland was formed 10 years ago by the merger of Westland Helicopters in the UK and Agusta in Italy. Westland celebrates its centenary this year. We are the third largest helicopter designer and manufacturer in the world and have our UK base in Yeovil, Somerset. I have been around a long time, so as Chairman my main role is to be a source of experience for the other directors and be a sounding board for ideas.  

How has the current economic climate impacted your activities?

The helicopter business does not particularly have ties to the economic cycle. It’s true that the reduced defence spending across the globe has a considerable impact, but the civilian markets are growing: we are seeing lots of requirements from Search & Rescue and Air Ambulances for example. 

What challenges are you facing over the next 12 months?

While we are based in the South West, we operate in an extremely competitive international market. Yeovil is a beautiful part of the world, but as I tell my staff: once you enter through the gates in the morning you are now working in a very tough global industry. We are subject to international pressure from events and we are always looking for ways to increase efficiencies. Our success is largely down to promoting a culture that puts the customer first and ensuring this culture remains at the forefront of the business is a challenge.  

Do you think that the government is doing enough to support your business or sector?

The aerospace and defence industries in this country are supported by the Aerospace Growth Partnership and the Defence Growth Partnership, which brings together the industry across the UK to promote mutual interests. However, we are competing in an international market and the support French, German and American companies receive from their governments is at a much higher level.

What is your view on the South West business scene?

As I alluded to earlier, the South West is a wonderful place to live and work in. We also have the majority of our supply chain throughout the region, so we are well positioned. It is a very positive and supportive business environment to work in.

Do you have any non-Executive Directorships or advisory roles?

I am also the Chair of several different companies. I have been Chairman of the South West CBI for the past 2 years and enjoy the role immensely. I also work with charities and community foundations.

Do you have any advice that you’d pass on to a newly appointed company director?

It’s a bit difficult to distil forty years of business experience into two minutes, but here are my three main tips:

1. Be committed to the job. Realise that being a director is very different from being a ‘normal’ employee. Your job is to lead the business and leaders have to lead.

2. Never stop learning. I come across many things every day that I am not familiar with even after 40 years. Always feel comfortable asking for advice and remember that the newer you are, the more advice you will need. Asking for advice is a strength, not a weakness.

3. Enjoy it! A directorship will put you under crazy amounts of pressure: if you don’t enjoy your work it will quickly feel like a chore and you will underperform.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Most of my time outside work is devoted to my volunteering activities. I work with the Yeovil Opportunities Group, which supports challenged children up to the age of five.  I used to be on the board of a prison and although I have since left, I take an interest in prison related charities. I’m also a supporter of Yeovil Town FC.

Who is your hero/personal inspiration?

It seems unfair to single out any particular person as I have been fortunate to benefit from the guidance of many different professionals in my career. There are also many routes to the top and no two senior managers have got there the same way. Thinking of many years ago, I found my school housemaster a very encouraging figure, always telling me that I could do things if I tried hard and practiced them over again. I try to encourage others in the same way.

What are you reading right now?

I’m not someone with an extensive library and I’m not one of those people who always reads before bed. I quite like politically themed books.

What has been your experience of working with Moon Consulting?

Moon Consulting have worked for AugustaWestland in the past and it is to their credit that I never heard anything bad about them! More recently I know Moon Consulting and Vanessa Moon from my work with the CBI, where they come across very well. This positive impression is shared by the rest of the CBI council too.