With a love of engineering, Steve Debonnaire, 56, made his way through the ranks only to find his dream job at the top, leading a large and professional support team. With the setting of RAF Coningsby and being surrounded by Typhoon aircraft, it is easy to get distracted and think that you are looking at a scene from Top Gun.
“I guess it started with my careers advisor who was a French teacher that used to double as a careers advisor. You got 20 minutes when you were about 15 years old to decide what your future life was.
“He said: ‘Well what subjects do you like, son?’
“‘Well, I quite like metal work and I quite like drawing and maths.’
“He said: ‘You’re a lathe operator in the local crisp factory. You’ve got it written all over you.’
So I went for an interview for that job and decided he was definitely wrong!” Steve laughed.
After realising that he had not been given the best careers advice, Steve stayed on at college to do technology and applied for as many sponsorships as he could get his hands on.
“It was in the days where you could be paid to go to university and you came out with money in the bank. I was sponsored to go to university by what was British Aerospace (now known as BAE Systems). I have been with BAE Systems now since 1978, from apprentice to my current role as UK Availability Director.”
After doing a degree in Mechanical Engineering, most people go into design or engineering, but Steve decided to take a different path and went into production.
“Graduates working in production were unheard of. But I loved it because every single day was a new challenge. I enjoyed working in the different parts of BAE Systems and now I’m in maintenance and operations.”
Taking on a new challenge
Steve didn’t always work in the military side of the company. Much of his career was spent in the civil part of the business, progressing from manufacturing engineer to running the big aircraft assembly line for the 146 passenger liners. He then moved to the military side about 10-12 years ago when BAE Systems was bidding to build an aircraft called The Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft.
The MOD invited a number of significant industrial players to explore better ways for working together. Steve was chosen to be part of a small team to go to RAF Wyton and help the customers develop their partnering strategy. It was a time of significant change with a focus on transparency and incentivised long term contracts aimed at halving MOD support cost and paying only for successful service delivery.
Steve knew that it was time for a change and thought out of the box in order to be able to help both businesses come up with the best solution. “Rather than imagine that we could keep competing, I thought, ‘why don’t we actually go open book and partner and try and find a better formula?’ We helped develop that approach to business and we have won some really big programmes.”
All of this joint work has paid off. “I lead a sizeable BAE Systems team based on the Royal Air Force bases and we work in partnership with the Royal Air Force to support all of their fast combat aircrafts. We perform all of the maintenance, provide all of the spares and provide all of the technical answers to issues that the customer might have using our products.”
Between 2004-2006 the BAE Systems team has grown from a very small team, numbering less than twenty to delivering a sizeable business on the East Coast.
“Our support contracts are collectively worth some £2-£3 billion with an annual sales figure of some £200 million – £300 million per year. This is a significant business requiring considerable engineering investment in this part of the country.”
With the workload having grown so much, the company now employs around 1,500 BAE Systems people across the east coast, and all of these staff working in close partnership with the Royal Air Force on their projects.
“When people think about RAF Coningsby, they immediately relate to the number of RAF people here but they won’t immediately relate to the scale of industry on base.”
In order for them to be able to obtain the correct skill set and to the high standard that the company is recognised for, BAE Systems have introduced an apprentice school in Doncaster which will soon move to Humberside Airport.
“We have already trained and graduated 300 apprentices. It is great to be able to bring that to this area and grow 16/18 year olds through to apprentices. There is a worldwide shortage of aerospace technicians so it is exciting to be growing this capability within BAE Systems.”
Having the best assets
Knowing who, where and what your assets are is a key point to any business, and of all the assets that BAE Systems has, there is one that stands tall and salutes.
“The partnership with the Royal Air Force is our most precious asset. Team UK are still busy exporting Typhoons and support services. We are always conscious that the RAF are a powerful part of this important drive.”
“In this unique partnership the RAF are the customer and the focus of all our output, they provide some very skilled and valued members of our team, and provide all of the critical infrastructure we need to work alongside them on baseIt’s mixing their culture with our industrial culture. It has made it a really rewarding place to work.”
Even though the working structure is fantastic for what Steve is trying to achieve within the company, it is no easy task. “One of the biggest challenges is to consistently develop a better service that provides the RAF with even more certainty and flexibility, at lower costs, yet continue to return shareholder value.”
“But we have had great success so far. On Tornado, an aircraft after decades of service we have halved the support costs and grown a reputation for great service delivery. We are working hard to repeat that success on the Typhoon platform.”
For Steve, it looks like he is happily settled where he is, knowing that he is doing a good job in keeping the RAF Typhoons in top shape. At the end of each day he gets to return home to his wife, see his two daughters aged 23 and 26 and his two dogs, Harry the Labrador and Blue the Cocker-spaniel.
“Right now this is possibly one of the best jobs that I have ever had in BAE Systems and I am just trying to keep my head down until someone else spots that it is just that good.
“I just love doing a good job, leading a good team and going the extra mile and now and again that has led to opportunities to grow.
“When I walk out to the car at the end of the day, I watch a Typhoon taking off in the evening sunlight with its afterburners on, and I know it sounds awful, but it feels a bit like Top Gun! Who wouldn’t want a career working alongside those sorts of products?”
This feature interview was first published in issue 31 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.