Following a turbulent period for GKN – culminating in its acquisition by turnaround specialist Melrose Industries in April – the UK engineering group’s aerospace arm is confident it can continue to invest in new technology and grow its business under its new ownership.
GKN Aerospace chief executive Hans Buthker said during a media briefing in London on 15 June that technology development and an ability to expand the international footprint are the company’s central business drivers, allowing it to bid for packages on future aircraft and engine programmes. “If you want to jump on other platforms, you need to be prepared,” he says.
Buthker says Melrose is “fully committed” to the long-term investment plan and growth strategy that GKN Aerospace had been pursuing before the takeover, though he acknowledges “some discussion” – and “to a certain extent, concern” – among GKN customers and in the press about Melrose’s suitability as shareholder, as its bid was fiercely opposed by GKN’s former group management.
In March, Tom Williams, chief operating officer of GKN’s largest client, Airbus, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that the aerospace industry was one requiring “a commitment to long-term investment and strategic vision”, which he saw as incompatible with typical venture capital or restructuring models. “It would be practically impossible for us to give any new work to GKN under such an ownership model, when we don’t know who will be the long-term investor,” Williams warned.
Buthker says the ownership change and its implications have been discussed with “some key customers”, and that the situation has “absolutely calmed down”. Pointing to predicted growth for the aerospace industry as a whole, he insists: “Melrose is there for the long term… because this is a nice business to be in.” He describes GKN as “really well-positioned for future platforms”, adding: “The only difference [is] we are now a standalone business.”
GKN’s group management was abandoned in April, and the individual leadership teams in the aerospace, driveline and powder metallurgy divisions now directly report to Melrose.
Nearly half of GKN Aerospace’s £3.64 billion ($4.82 billion) revenue in 2017 was generated by its aerostructures business, while the engine systems and special-technologies divisions – the latter supplies electrical wiring, aircraft windows and helicopter landing gear – accounted for 37% and 14% of turnover, respectively.
A key part of the manufacturer’s strategy is to build a “stronger… global aerostructures organisation” with a “strong balance” between Europe, North America and Asia. “That’s extremely important for our customers,” says Buthker. “If you want to be a big player in the market, you need to follow your customers.”
In 2017, GKN generated 51% of its sales in the USA and 42% in Europe. In order to shift balance toward Asia, the manufacturer intends to establish both manufacturing and maintenance facilities in that region.
Buthker sees potential to produce components in Asia for Western-built aircraft, and to partner with emerging local OEMs on new programmes. A tentative co-operation agreement was signed with Chinese aerospace manufacturers AVIC and Comac in 2017. Demand and work-share obligations in the region are strong, he says, adding: “Boeing and Airbus are requesting us to invest in India and China.”
The plan for the aerostructures and engine systems divisions is to build them into a “coherent global system” of organisationally aligned centres of excellence that employ similar technologies and processes. But in order to concentrate the business on core capabilities, other activities are currently under review for potential divestiture, Buthker says.
While GKN’s wiring division has an international footprint – production facilities are located in China, India and Turkey – it serves a “niche market”, Buthker says. “The structures market is big [and] the engine systems market is big,” he says. “If you really want to focus on the aerostructure business, then it needs to be global.”
Despite the growth plans around aerostructures and engine systems, Buthker still sees a role for GKN’s special-technologies arm. The division could serve as a platform to sell and buy businesses, he suggests, adding: “Melrose is obviously interested in start-ups.” This could open up opportunities to gain access to new technology, he says.
Earlier this year, Melrose proposed as part of its acquisition bid the sale of GKN’s powder metallurgy division. UK broadcaster Sky News reported in June – citing unnamed sources – that the unit’s sale was targeted for later this year.
Melrose declined to comment when contacted by FlightGlobal.
Buthker notes that a divestiture of the powder metallurgy unit – which includes additive manufacturing operations – would not affect GKN’s aerospace business. The additive manufacturing capabilities with relevance to aerospace are located with the aerospace division, he says.