IN FOCUS: AgustaWestland is a Finmeccanica star - but faces testing times in weak defence market

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Finmeccanica may have troubles, but as chief financial officer Alessandro Pansa pointed out when detailing third-quarter results, the problems reside mostly in "two significant exceptions of aeronautics and rolling stock".

Without discounting the general deterioration of the economic environment in which Finmeccanica and its peers operate, he said, the group is otherwise "fairly stable and enjoying a certain degree of profitability".

One of the relatively strong performers is helicopters. The AgustaWestland division - which Finmeccanica formed in 1998 as a 50:50 joint venture with GKN before acquiring full control in 2004 - posted an 8% rise in revenue to €2.75 billion ($3.64 billion) and profit (EBITA) of €287 million for the nine months to 30 September. That 10.4% margin looks good compared with undisputed market leader Eurocopter, which turned in 4.5% (EBIT) for the same period.

 aw169

 ©AgustaWestland

The AW169 meets the requirements of commercial and government operators worldwide

At €11.3 billion, AgustaWestland's end-September order backlog was down 7% since the close of 2010 - reflecting last year's big order from India and deferral to 2012 of some Italian purchases. However, this will take up three years of production.

AgustaWestland is a distant third in the world civil helicopter fleet, but is gaining ground as one-time leader Bell continues a long slide that has seen Eurocopter take what looks like an unassailable top slot.

So, it is no surprise to learn that helicopters represent one of four key sectors for the "new" Finmeccanica, alongside aeronautics, defence electronics and security.

However, there is little guidance at this point regarding plans for the business. At the nine-month mark, Pansa and Finmeccanica chief executive Giuseppe Orsi - who took over the group leadership earlier this year after a stint as head of AgustaWestland - were silent on the matter.

AgustaWestland may be the least of Finmeccanica's problems or, perhaps, the business is an opportunity that has already had its plans put in place.

One thing is clear, the division hopes to shift reliance away from defence business with the introduction of its AW169 multipurpose civil helicopter, which is being readied for delivery from 2015. AgustaWestland expects to sell 1,000 of the 10-seat models over 25 years to transport and offshore operators, and for law enforcement and surveillance duties.

The AW169 will make its first flight next year, and one of four prototypes will be based at AgustaWestland's Yeovil, UK facility, where attention is focused on main and tail rotor and transmission development.

However, Yeovil is also symptomatic of the troubles facing AgustaWestland, Finmeccanica and, indeed, aerospace peers with significant defence business.

In October, AgustaWestland UK announced big job cuts with up to 375 staff to be laid off, largely from Yeovil, in response to reduced helicopter purchases by the UK Ministry of Defence, as well as slowing export sales.

The exact number of redundancies has yet to be determined, and the company has launched a voluntary scheme to minimise compulsory job cuts.

The final number will be known in early 2012 but could be in excess of 10% of the company's UK workforce of 3,600, of which 3,400 are at Yeovil.

AgustaWestland UK also has to decide how Yeovil will fit into the AW169 programme once it moves from development into production, and there is no guarantee the plant will be a mainline production centre. The AW139, for example, is assembled in Italy and the USA, with a third plant to come on line soon in Russia.

In the short term, the Yeovil plant - which assembles the AW101, Super Lynx and AW159 models - will have to increasingly make do with ongoing support activity for the UK armed forces.

AgustaWestland UK managing director Ray Edwards said: "Our military business remains central to our success. That said, extending our capabilities in civil production and competing for export programmes, both areas where the government has shown considerable support, are the keys to AgustaWestland's future."

Edwards was specifically speaking about the UK, but his remarks may apply equally well to the entire company.