Leonardo has reskilling of economy in its sights

There's one Italian-owned industrial heavyweight with technological heritage and a new identity that should prove valuable to Britain post-Brexit.

Mauro Moretti, left, chief executive and general manager of Leonardo, with Norman Bone, chairman and managing director of Leonardo MW, the newly rebranded UK arm of the company. Picture: Contributed

As the Prime Minister looks for businesses to help shape her modern industrial strategy for post-Brexit Britain there is one key employer north of the Border that can no doubt chip in with a recommendation or two.

Leonardo MW may not be a household name but the brands it encompasses will be familiar to most. For a start that M stands for Marconi, one of the most recognisable pioneers in the field of electronics and communications. The W refers to Westland, the venerable British aircraft maker that has become synonymous with helicopters, including the Sea King, stalwart of the RAF’s search and rescue service.

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The new single entity, revealed this month, effectively brings together a series of operating units – AgustaWestland, Selex ES, Finmeccanica UK and DRS Technologies.

As the UK arm of the Italian industrial giant Leonardo, formerly known as Finmeccanica, Leonardo MW boasts more than 7,000 staff, including some 1,800 people based at its sprawling avionics systems operation at Crewe Toll in Edinburgh. That major Scottish site has sported several names over the years, but is possibly best remembered from its BAE Systems days.

Norman Bone, chairman and managing director of the new UK holding business, says the rebranding made sense following the restructuring at its Italian parent last year and the company can now speak with one voice.

“Anyone who works for Boeing would say they work for Boeing while those that worked for Finmeccanica would say they worked for Westland or Selex. It did not exactly give out a single corporate message and getting a single Leonardo view was difficult. Finmeccanica is quite an old fashioned name too.

“We have now rolled out Leonardo as a single entity and brought together the companies. We have created an identity that allows our UK customers to talk to us on a single basis.”

Bone is enthusiastic about Theresa May’s plan to create an industrial strategy, with the UK government pledging to take an “active role” in boosting the economy.

The government last week launched a 12-week consultation as is looks to close regional productivity and wealth gaps, increase competitiveness and encourage business growth. A 132-page green paper outlines ten key areas for action, including the development of skills, upgrading infrastructure and delivering affordable energy. Scottish businesses and workers have been encouraged to help shape the strategy through the consultation process.

“We are absolutely delighted that the UK government has decided that we need an industrial strategy,” says Bone.

“We decided some time back that our future in the UK was as a service-based country. That did a huge disservice to most of industry. While services are absolutely vital to the economy so is industry.

“We have a massive challenge ahead in that we are not producing nearly enough engineers in this country. The difference between supply and demand is about 40,000 engineers a year.”

Bone argues that it is vital to nurture new talent and focus on developing the key Stem skills – science, technology, engineering and maths – if that gap is to be closed. Across the UK business, Leonardo currently has 415 people on training schemes, both graduates and apprentices.

“It’s early days but one of the things we are also looking at closely is the importance of developing and creating intellectual property in the UK,” adds Bone, who points out that the firm already makes a significant investment in UK research and development, including with various universities. It also helps support a substantial supply chain comprising hundreds of smaller businesses.

“If you create that IP here, that is what will create a product or capability which you can export. At Leonardo this is something we are doing all the time.”

Bone adds: “I’m a firm believer that if you can remain competitive and embrace new technologies then you can be successful. We are, of course, also developing some of these technologies.

“Part or our business is cyber security and how we protect things. It used to be all about how to protect your computer and now we are protecting companies. It’s a growing business and we still need system and software engineers.”

The UK headcount of 7,100 is likely to remain “pretty stable” over the coming year, says Bone, who also sees opportunities arising from the election of Donald Trump as US President. “He will probably increase defence spending and there is a strong likelihood that other Nato countries will be pushed into increasing their defence spending.”