Interesting times ahead

After just over 30 years, in fact, two days short of 31 years, working for (ostensibly) the same company in its various incarnations, I am now unemployed, redundant.

When I started back in 1988 it was a privately owned company Aerial Facilities Limited (AFL), then Aerial Group then back to AFL then Axell, Axell a Cobham Company but under the aegis of the Aeroflex management (more of below) and finally since 2015, Cobham – the most important thing we make is money, or something like that. Actually, more correctly it’s Axell Wireless Limited trading as Cobham Wireless for some legal nicety which was never full explained.

Recently the company decided to downsize (even further) and move out of Chesham (to Marlow) thus requiring of me almost four hours a day on buses so I decided to take the (only slightly over statutory minimum) offer of redundancy. I ticked a box on a questionnaire which asked if it would be difficult for me to get to Marlow and a few weeks later I was informed that they (Cobham Wireless) had identified that it would be difficult for me to get to Marlow. No shit, how did they do that?
Difficult? No, not really, it wouldn’t be “difficult”, how difficult can getting on a bus then changing for another bus be? I just didn’t want the hassle.

In my time I have performed many and various roles: QA Inspector, Packing Operative, Despatch Manager, Webmaster, Documentation Team Leader, Graphic Artist, For a while back in the AFL days I was the de facto Marketing Department Graphics Team and for my sins I somehow became the Technical Author or TECWTR1_SYSENGUK as the Cobham banding system so eloquently puts it.

I’ve degreased aluminium components for bandpass filters, wound and soldered coils for and assembled those same filters, drilling and tapping screw holes as required; assembled in-house build PSU modules and electrocuted myself (not seriously) whilst testing them; cleared snow from footways and drives at the fronts of the various buildings the company has inhabited; designed and assembled wooden crates for some of our “bespoke” solutions to be delivered in and then helped to load (and unload where necessary) delivery trucks; repaired the factory fence after the attentions of vandals and been the principle key holder (at two different factory sites) with the added attraction of being called out by the Police at stupid o’clock in the morning to see why the factory alarm has been activated (spiders building webs across the sensors mostly) and generally had a good old time along the way.

I say generally; the first 19 years all seemed to make some sort of sense; the AFL days were certainly some of the best working days of my life. We worked hard and played hard; being part of AFL was like being in an extended family. Anyone who remembers Gerald David, the Christmas parties and the jaunts up to the Severn Valley Railway and the ensuing curries will know what I mean.

We worked in a factory where we made as much as we possibly could in-house, obviously there were components such as microprocessor chips and the like that we had to buy-in but the majority of stuff was, if not built in-house at least locally sourced. Lots of people were employed and the local economy benefitted. Of course I realise now how old-fashioned and outmoded that idea is; the very idea that we should benefit anything else than the shareholders! What were we thinking?

There was a dubious flirtation with private equity during the latter AFL days, The Aerial Group was broken up and sold off. Phoenix Equity set about making a complete balls-up of things in their relentless quest for profit. Then, like knights in shining armour Gerald and Abbas bought back the AFL part of the Aerial Group and normality was restored.

Gerald famously said once at a company meeting, “We won’t be millionaires but we’ll make some money and have some fun along the way.” I may be paraphrasing there but that’s essentially what he said and that’s exactly what we did; we made some money and had some fun. Working late into the evening or at weekends was never a chore, I was working with a great bunch of people, doing a job I enjoyed for a company that I cared about and more importantly, which cared about me.

After Gerald sadly died and Abbas decided to retire from the business, AFL was again offered up into the hands of Mammon and that plucky little blighter, Ian Brown (nothing to do with the Stone Roses) was engaged to be CEO. Ian Brown who described himself as an Angel Investor and Entrepreneur did wonderful things with AFL, he changed the name to Axell, he introduced boomerangs and horrible shades of purple, he made sure that we couldn’t build passive filtering systems any more – old hat that stuff, you can buy cheaper from China.

Talking of those boomerangs, it was decided that the Axell logotype be a set of three boomerangs, decided by the newly appointed marketing team who was as I recall Ian Brown’s girlfriend. As I the person in charge of maintaining the AFL website I was asked to put a little flash animation onto the website; it was a “coming soon…Axell Wireless” sort of thing and featured the new Axell logo and a handful of boomerangs flying about. I was contacted by a chap at the agency who’d come-up with the thing, could I put it onto the website? Yes, I could. But after viewing the animation I expressed my concerns that boomerangs, with the associated connotation of things “coming back” possibly wasn’t the most ingenious thing to use as a company logo. The agency chap protested that it had already been decided and signed-off by the highest authorities. The AFL logo was, in my opinion, much better, it was a representation of an antenna multicoupler, it was what we did, then. Ian Brown called it, “That stupid thing”. Fair enough then, what did I know?

Aerial Facilities Limited
Aerial Facilities Limited
Axell Wireless Limited
Axell Wireless Limited
Axell Wireless a Cobham Company
Axell Wireless a Cobham Company
Axell Wireless Limited trading as Cobham Wireless
Axell Wireless Limited trading as Cobham Wireless

Above: The various logotypes.
Cobham Wireless doesn’t have a logo as such,
Cobham are at pains to point out that there is only one company, Cobham.

Ian Brown set about acquiring other companies under the Axell umbrella, notably Avitec from Sweden because he was seduced by their streamlined range of “standard” products (lower overheads, bigger margins) and Dekolink from Israel because of their digital technology, an area that AFL never really got into. After several years of ramping up profit margins by reducing product lines and somehow managing to buy Axell from the Private Equity firm, Mr. Brown then sold Axell to Cobham for a tidy sum and swanned off into the sunset, his wallet bulging with equity. Ian Brown only ever had one aim, making Ian Brown slightly richer.

For a while we were, “Axell Wireless, A Cobham Company”; then some Cobham corporate bigwig decided to throw us together with another company recently acquired by Cobham, the English arm of Aeroflex, based in Stevenage. Aeroflex and Axell had nothing in common apart from both companies starting with the letter “A” and being vaguely in the communications business; everyone could see that, everyone but the corporate wallahs, so thrown together we were. The Axell management team had all jumped ship with Ian Brown so we were managed by the ex-Aeroflex team who knew nothing about what we did and frankly didn’t seem to care that much. The only person from ex-Aeroflex who did care was the head of SHE who delighted in finding nice little earners for her husband in the Chesham factory, despite all the training courses about avoiding nepotism and putting everything out to tender. Oh how we laughed.

Early on in this period, the new head honcho, not CEO this time but VP and General Manager; one remarkably forgettable Ian Langley, held a company meeting in which he told us that the previous few years of Axell’s profit growth had been unsustainable and therefore we were going to make a strategic loss while we sorted ourselves out. He went on to say that this always happens when a company is sold and we shouldn’t be concerned. Well, we’d never have guessed if he hadn’t told us.

And then of course there was the “Cobham Accounting Scandal” which was triggered by a member of the ex-Aeroflex management in an attempt to, erm, shall we say, massage the figures; an accounting irregularity which caused the all-hallowed Cobham share price to fall and led to a multi-million pound fine and then to two rights issues of £500,000,000 each to shore things up.

During, after or maybe because of this, to reduce costs it was decided to outsource all the actual manufacturing to somewhere cheaper. This decision was made taking into account that a lot of the ex-Aeroflex equipment made in Stevenage would also be subbed-out. Economies of scale you see. So a lot of people were made redundant as production moved eastwards. The legions of managers, senior managers, Directors and VPs of this that and the other and other hangers-on would of course stay; you can’t have too much management it seems, middle or otherwise.

Cobham then decided to ditch the ex-Aeroflex component of the company, cutting their costs and selling it to VIAVI Solutions. The departure of ex-Aeroflex also meant that the anticipated volume of work for the chosen outsource facility fell substantially thus making the outsourcing more expensive, and all this on the brink of Brexit too, but higher paid minds than mine have been working on this project so it’s bound to be alright in the end – maybe.

With the unending quest to cut costs, the decision was taken to move out of Chesham, the building, we were told, now being “unfit for purpose”. I think that they thought that we wouldn’t notice that the “purpose” had been changed almost out of all recognition. Where were we going to move to? Somewhere smaller, that was a given… However, we all knew it was going to be to Marlow because Cobham who are famously known for not liking to own property because they are “not in the property business”, already own a property there. Various other locations were looked at, apparently, but we all knew it would be Marlow

A lot of the production work that had heretofore been done in Chesham is now being done in Central Europe, not all of it, there are still a few things that need skill and experience but the big factory at the end of Asheridge Road was slowly emptied of people, equipment and skills and was oft-times a fairly joyless place to be. No doubt they will try to continue this work, the analogue stuff, the “Bespoke” work, the thing that gave AFL its USP, at the much smaller facility in Marlow. The major digital component of Cobham Wireless’ portfolio, the thing that they are pinning their hopes on, the so called Intelligent Digital Distributed Antenna System, was and still is largely made in Israel at what was Dekolink, never mind the cost of shipping that stuff to the UK to be incorporated into “systems” which are then shipped out to the customer.

Perhaps surprisingly in all this and the drive to “save money” is the fact that so much “stuff” in the Chesham factory appeared to have been scrapped, not sorted and sold for scrap but simply chucked into the several and various large skips supplied for the purpose. Goodness knows how much money they chucked out; aluminium repeater cases, some partially built complete with electrical bits and bobs in, batteries, tables, chairs, tools, wire and cables, dummy loads, couplers and splitters, populated PCBs, 19″ racks and all sorts. Amongst the un-branded and anonymous skips there was one with Hawes Skip Hire on it; I Googled Hawes, they don’t just hire out skips, they also have a “…£3m state-of-the-art recycling centre in High Wycombe…” which, “…specialises in separating mixed waste into specific waste types ready for recycling.” so hopefully the materials will be recycled and not just trashed.

Having visited the Marlow facility, I have to say that it all looked very nice, the people there looked healthy and well fed but the part that Cobham Wireless has been allocated is a windowless first-floor area which many of us thought wouldn’t be nearly big enough. Not big enough to offer the option of expansion, certainly not big enough to perform the type of factory acceptance tests that we have held at Chesham where several racks and dozens of repeaters were all laid out and tested as a system. But higher paid minds than mine have been working on this project.

And so, in light of the fact that were I to stay with the company my journey to and from work would have been a lot longer than it is now, I was offered the chance of redundancy or working from home. At first I chose working from home, but after two weeks of reflection I changed my mind and accepted the redundancy settlement.

I did that for a couple of reasons;
1. I don’t really want to work from home; it’s a completely different paradigm to the ordered working day when you have to travel to and from an office or factory.
2. I don’t have any faith in the present management of Cobham Wireless or their vision/business model/way of doing things. As far as I can see, what they are doing only really makes sense if the intention is to get a period of cheap rent at Marlow and quietly close things down.

Maybe I’m wrong, for the sake of my friends who have elected to stay on with Cobham Wireless; I hope I am wrong but for me the fun had gone. It became just a place I went to five days a week. I won’t be churlish, I do wish the best for all those people who have elected to go and work in Marlow and I hope it works out for them but sadly I just don’t recognise the company anymore.
I tried to Be Bold, Be Inventive, Be Determined, Be a Team… all the things that “Project Advance” urges us to be, I tried to “Be Cobham” but in the end, I’m just too much AFL.

Be Bold, Be a Team – I tried to be a Team but that really needs more than one person.
Honestly, who comes up with these slogans? Someone who has never heard of “Round the Horne” I’m guessing; “Ooooo… isn’t he bold?”

Cobham have a lot of rules and regulations governing trust, antitrust, ethics, safety, anti-bribery and anti-corruption and all sorts, almost it seems to the point of being paranoid; I don’t know what happened to Cobham to make it like this but it must have been traumatic. There is an endless series of training courses that everyone must do, no exceptions; training for Anti-Slavery and Anti-Human Trafficking, Anti-Competitive Behaviour, SHE, SSA, SOF and GDPR – everyone must do these; they do like their acronyms by the way. Just after I decided to take the offered redundancy settlement I was assigned a training course on how to use a new software program for company expenses. I told them that in my over thirty years’ service I had never once claimed expenses and saw no reason to start now. Several emails from a “Managed Services Administrator” later they told me that; “We believe we have resolved your case and it has been marked for closure.” One small victory then in the face of Cobham corporate bureaucracy.

Of safety, I recall seeing a document which stated that safety is paramount in all that Cobham does, for customers and employees. I often used to wonder, in quiet moments, how they reconcile that ethos with the Mission Systems business unit and their Air-to-Air Weapons Carriage and Release Systems. Yes, I’m sure they were safe for customers and employees…

Among all of Cobham’s rules, regulations, visions and beliefs is one governing the posting of things on social media and the like; therefore, even though I’m no longer employed by Cobham, I will say that these are my own personal views and not those of AFL, Axell or Cobham. Some of the things I have written about here are my personal recollections and therefore may be bound by subjectivity or just plain old forgetfulness. I have not made anything up and I stand by what I have written. As they say at Cobham, “When in doubt tell the truth”.

Lastly, what makes a good company good?
Profits?
Margins?
Roadmaps?
Acronyms?
Having loads of Managers, Directors, VPs and the like who you never see and are quite unsure about what they actually do?
Hapless executives saying, “Myself” and Yourself” when they mean “Me” and “You” and forever uttering, mantra-like, the phrase “Going forward”?
Expending more energy on “Goals” and “Visions” than on what your core business should be?
Post-it notes stuck on a wall, endless KPIs and spreadsheets and adherence to the philosophy of 5S?

None of the above.

The people that work at a company make a company good and I have had the privilege to work with many fine people, too many to name them all here and needless to say the vast majority of them (not all but the vast majority) hail from the days of AFL. I’ve also had the misfortune to know more than one or two right royal corporate prats but here and now is neither the place nor the time for that particular discourse.

Addendum:
Three weeks before my final day with AFL/Axell/Cobham came the curve-ball, the googly, call it what you will but three weeks before my final day came the news that:

“…the Boards of Advent International Corporation and Cobham plc have reached agreement on the terms of a recommended cash acquisition of Cobham plc by Advent International Corporation.”

Hmmm, well, didn’t see that one coming.
It’s not a done deal, due process must be followed but it is noted that:

“…the Cobham Directors intend to recommend unanimously that Cobham Shareholders vote in favour of the Scheme.”

And the really good news (sarcasm mode engaged) is that:

“…the Acquisition represents an opportunity for Shareholders to realise their investment in Cobham in cash in the near term…”

Well, that speaks volumes; it’s all about the shareholders getting a return on their investment and despite assurances in a lengthy release saying things along the lines of:

“…believes that Cobham has a number of high quality businesses with exciting growth and development prospects and that Cobham represents an attractive opportunity to invest in an engineering leader…”

The upbeat tempo though is tempered with many instances of “However…” and the bottom line is that if approved, the Acquisition will put Cobham fully into the hands of the Private Equity wallahs, a scenario which doesn’t always have a happy ending; I was there twice, once with AFL and once with Axell and neither period really stood out as a good time.

Interesting times ahead then for me, for Cobham in general and Axell Wireless Limited trading as Cobham Wireless in particular.

2 thoughts on “Interesting times ahead

  1. Worked at AFL for two summers, 79 and 80 I think. Fond memories of Gerald David, what a character, and I remember Abbas too! We worked in a converted barn on a farm. Spells of repairing the roof, assembling filters and barrel cavities, site visits, aerial rigging up towers and on rooftops in the City. Interesting to read about how the company went on.

    Liked by 1 person

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