Cobham www.cobham.com is rather proud of the fact that it has one of the smallest and most inauspicious head offices of any top aerospace manufacturer. The UK manufacturer - ranked 35th in terms of sales in the industry - eschews either a prestigious London address or a landscaped, modern office complex. Instead, the nerve-centre of its $1.8 billion operation - which controls 80 individual businesses across the world making everything from air refuelling equipment to microwave antennas to aerobatic aircraft - is tucked away behind a street of bungalows in the West Country backwater of Wimborne, next to one of its factories. Inside, the feel is one of 1970s local government office rather than modern, global aerospace player.
Cobham has expanded fast over the past few years, particularly in the USA. But the businesses it has been buying, ranging from tiny family firms employing half a dozen people to multi-million dollar enterprises, have been left largely alone by head office to go on doing what they are good at: designing clever stuff, buying from their own established suppliers and knowing their customer. As long as they all abided by the same financial reporting rules and met their sales and profits targets, the board was happy to sit back and run the big strategy.
But with customers like Boeing and Airbus increasingly streamlining their supply chains, opting to deal at a senior procurement level with a handful of sub-systems integrators, rather than hundreds of small contractors, it has become harder for loosely-integrated groups such as Cobham to sell their myriad of wares directly. There is also the danger of technology breakthroughs, that could have benefits across a range of company products, being overlooked, because some outpost of the empire has no incentive or means to share its know-how.
That is why Cobham, after its frenetic acquisition spree since the turn of the decade, is consolidating and becoming more corporate. Two low-margin businesses have been or are being off-loaded - flare-based countermeasures and fluid systems - and the company is appointing a chief technology officer, a head of procurement and a central marketing manager. It has also re-organised and renamed its divisional structure, a move perhaps made easier by the departure in the summer of the hugely-respected Geoff Cooper, who had run Cobham's old Chelton business as a semi-autonomous entity with its own identity after Cobham bought his company 16 years ago.
At a press lunch in London last week, Cobham bosses were keen to stress that it wasn't "becoming a Smiths" - a reference to a competitor that firmly stamps its corporate brand and ways of doing things through its entire global portfolio. "We haven't swung 180 degrees," said chief operating officer Andy Stevens. "We've maybe moved the pendulum 15 degrees." But for Cobham, most of whose companies do not even carry the Cobham brand, that shift is quite radical.