UK: Chemring Group - flaremaker seeks new flair. (2 of 4)

UK: Chemring Group - flaremaker seeks new flair. (2 of 4) - A big, straightforward man, Billington, now 47, took the chief executive's job in January 1990, a far cry from his early days as a bank clerk with National Westminster. From there he progressed

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A big, straightforward man, Billington, now 47, took the chief executive's job in January 1990, a far cry from his early days as a bank clerk with National Westminster. From there he progressed via Racal to become sales and marketing director at Pains-Wessex in 1981. In 1988, two years after Pains became part of the Chemring group, he joined the main board. He has a hard act to follow.

Ian Fairfield, the power behind Chemring's earlier progress, remains as non-executive chairman. He and his entrepreneurial brother, Sir Ronald (who died in 1979), came into Chemring in 1951 and established its reputation for cautious, conservative management. Now a sprightly 71, Fairfield, who was a major shareholder, held the company on a very tight and low-key rein. Visiting journalists would be interrogated to see if they knew anything about radar frequencies, for fear of KGB "moles" who might be able to identify from the size and shape of the radar reflectors which frequencies the RAF was trying to jam.

Since glasnost, spies are seen as less of a hazard and Billington has opened up Chemring activities to equally feared City analysts. While recent hostilities in the Gulf brought no direct gains, he concedes that they "certainly did us no harm". Chemring's share price rose from 460p on the eve of the war to peak at 575p. It has now settled back to 570p.

With the Gulf war came sharply increased output. At the Pains-Wessex factory at High Post near Salisbury a 26-week night shift was deployed, made up of experienced employees from the day shift. To fill the gaps left in the day shift, some 43 people were hired and trained in short order. Sydney Howlett, chief executive of Pains-Wessex, recalls the hectic activity: "We had to more than treble our output of decoy flares. Everybody, including management and supervision, worked weekends. It was all hands on deck."

At Chemring's Portsmouth factory it was a rerun of the Falklands war, with every possible means used to maximise production. Says chief executive David Evans, an ambitious and capable 44 year old who joined Chemring in 1987 from general management at GEC Marconi: "Gearing up meant training some 30 new recruits, doubling up on tooling and testing equipment, changing manufacturing methods, anything that helped us to do things more quickly." He stresses, however, that the pressure was caused not so much by totally new orders as by the bringing forward of future ones.

Despite the end of the war and the consequent relaxation in tension, output at Chemring and Pains-Wessex is still at record levels. Between them Chemring companies supplied not only the decoys and chaff but also the novel Rapid Anti-Personnel Minefield Breaching System (RAMBS). Developed by Pains-Wessex, RAMBS is a portable kit made up of an explosive line which can be fired from an ordinary rifle to clear a path through a minefield, wide enough for a man to pass along it.

It is a mini-version of the Giant Viper mine-clearing system seen on television in the run-up to the Gulf ground fighting, complete with running commentary by Kate Adie and the like.

As a result of the war, Chemring has received a number of enquiries for RAMBS. There are hopes, too, of a market for this device in drug control: it is undergoing trials with American police to assess its usefulness in breaching the minefields commonly found guarding drug plantations.

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