Sky's the limit

As the new CEO of GKN Aerospace settles in, we ask what is likely to change under his tenure and if he can sustain its enormous success of recent years.

GKN Aerospace has been an ongoing UK engineering and manufacturing success story for more than a decade. Under the leadership of Marcus Bryson it triumphed through a period where many technology companies fell by the wayside. So as new CEO Kevin Cummings gets comfortable, is it more of the same or does he plan to mix things up? Well, it seems to be all change at the company as there have been numerous shifts in senior management. So, how does he and his new team compare?

"Well, obviously the leadership team just got a lot smarter," he quipped at the pre-Paris Air Show press conference last month. With a smile, and instant humorous retraction, Cummings explained how he sees the new GKN top flight management. "I would say that there are natural cycles. We can't look back with anything other than saying, 'what an excellent job'. But the world changes and you want to refresh and have an interjection of new ideas.

"We have become a much larger global company in the last 10 years, and to some degree we are immature in some of our approaches. So, while fresh ideas are good, we also honour the people who were in these slots and we'll continue to listen to them."

GKN Aerospace is indeed in a different place to when Bryson took over in 2007. It now represents 30% of the group's overall revenue, and its business reach – and international order book – are on a different, world-class, scale. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2006 sales were in the region of £600million. Last year, they had almost quadrupled, in the region of £2.2billion.

Cummings has clearly set out his agenda and defines his priorities for the business as two separate headlines. The first is delivering the tremendous backlog of purchased items, which need to be produced or delivered. "The number one priority is execution on our current programmes, and delivering current business," he said. "The second priority is developing growth."

The growth is believed to come from a number of different areas, much of which forms its backbone on the application of cutting edge technology – much of it proprietary and materials based. For a company that already operates in seven countries, across 33 sites and employs more than 12,000 people, you have to ask, how much more of a foothold does it need, and can it get?

"We still do not believe we are everywhere we need to be," said Cummings. "Specifically, we are going to focus on moving into Asia. That is an absolute goal of ours."

And perhaps this is where Cummings wants to have greater success than his predecessor. Last year a joint venture with Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Company fell through after two years of discussions. At the time, it was Bryson that conceded mistakes in the implementation of its strategy in China were responsible.

Cummings is dogmatic in his view of rapidly conquering Asia. "We will go into Asia in a big way," he said. "We still do not have the presence we need in Asia and over the next few years we will remedy that situation... [and become] a completely global company, so the Asia question is complete, and the sun does not set on what we do as more of our technologies are applied."

And here lies the other backbone to GKN's strategy under the leadership of Cummings: technology application. A lot of this technology is available and the common trends in the aerospace industry are key themes for GKN, such as running higher temperatures in engines and laminar flow.

But while platforms for Airbus and Boeing have largely been set out for the next decade or so, GKN plans to develop technology that can be retrofitted, in much the same way as aircraft engines, meaning that it is not locked in to the R&D programmes of OEMs. But, perhaps, what is interesting about Cummings' view, and is indeed notable, is the ambition and the speed at which he thinks it can be delivered.

"You are going to see performance improvements rolling out on a pretty frequent basis because the breakthroughs are coming so much faster now," he said. "We are starting to get chunks. Instead of offering a 1% improvement, we've got a 15% improvement and we are already prototyping."

GKN aerospace has become a powerful technology and materials developer, and is keen to continue this trend. But it acknowledges just how competitive the area of research and development has become. So, being selective about technology development has never been a higher priority for business development.

"We have set the threshold where if you can't get costs down 20%, weight out by 20%, fuel burn down 15%, then you don't get any money," said Cummings. "We don't have unlimited resource, nobody does, so we have to make decisions all the time, and that is mostly on what we don't do."

The company has become a supplier to most of the large aerospace OEMs and has seen civil aerospace applications grow at an unprecedented rate. Indeed, on all of the major platforms flown at Paris, or at Farnborough Air Show next year, whether it's commercial, a rotorcraft, military, or whatever, it is likely to have GKN technology on board. It's impressive stuff, and sky seems to be the limit for Cummings and GKN Aerospace.

CV: Kevin Cummings, CEO, GKN Aerospace

Kevin Cummings joined GKN in October 2008 as CEO and President Aerostructures - North America and in January 2014 he was appointed CEO GKN Aerospace. As CEO for Aerostructures North America he was responsible for development and growth of GKN Aerospace's aerostructures business in the region. He joined the company from Alliant Techsystems (ATK) where he had most recently held the position of Executive Vice President & General Manager - Launch Systems. He has over 20 years of experience in the advanced weapon and space systems industry working for both ATK and Hercules Incorporated. He held leadership roles with both companies across programme management, operations, engineering, strategic planning, business development, and corporate development. He has a degree in engineering and an MBA.