What does the British president of the US multinational operation think about the UK electronics industry? Graham Pitcher finds out.
Andy Start has a number of hats to wear and, arguably, has an almost unparalled view of the UK electronics industry and its position in the world. His biggest hat is that of president of Harris' RF Communications Division's international business unit; a post he took up earlier this year after some years with BAE Systems. Another hat is worn during meetings of the Electronics Leadership Council (ELC). Harris, a $5.5billion company established at the beginning of the 20th Century, originally focused on printing, but moved strongly into electronics and related systems in the late 1950s. It has been in the UK since 1921 and maintains a strong UK design and manufacturing presence. The RF Communications division is a $2.5bn global business and Start is responsible for $1bn of that. "We're focused on tactical and public safety radios," he said, "with three main sectors: the US Department of Defense; international sales; and land mobile." Despite its size, Harris is growing consistently in the double digit range. "And the biggest growth is coming from tactical radio systems," Start noted. The international business unit, meanwhile, is 'healthy', in Start's opinion. "The business grew by 20% in 2009," he pointed out. The UK operation is an important contributor to the Harris success story. "We're here because the UK is more focused on rf and broadcast technology," Start said. Start has 600 people working for him in the UK. "Engineers, software designers and systems support mainly," he continued. "It's design dominated, but there is low volume design and manufacture. But it's where the core design is undertaken for a number of Harris radios." He believes the UK is a good place for Harris to do business. "For one thing," he pointed out, "the UK is good at export activity." That's important for Harris, because it deals with 150 countries. "Another important factor is that we can get hold of good rf and systems engineers here; much better than can be found in other locations." He gave an example of a UK designed product. "The 7800S was specified and designed here and is now exported around the world; it was all done here by working with other UK companies to develop the overall system architecture and the waveform design." Harris has a global R&D budget of around $1bn a year and a good slice of that is allocated to the UK operation. Even so, it is acquisitive when it comes to technology. "We certainly undertake our own R&D," Start said, "and look to be three or four years ahead of the competition. But we will also take technologies from partners; if they are doing leading edge research, we'll take it and productionise it. Harris is good at taking technology, integrating it into its overall product suite and then reselling around the world. There aren't many companies active in 150 countries and if you can get your technology into our catalogue, it guarantees a worldwide market." Nevertheless, the work could all be done in house. "It suits us to do work outside of the US. It allows us to diversify and is part risk management, part competitive advantage." Start confirms that UK engineers are as good as anyone around the world. "I run a large engineering division here and in the US," Start said, "and my US people are comfortable working with UK engineers. In fact, the vp of engineering in the US is an ex Marconi man." Start is also comfortable with the UK's R&D environment. "While the UK doesn't have the R&D budget of some nations – China has to be recognised as a driving force – the UK has focus on 'bleeding edge' technology; software based radio, for example." Here he swaps hats. "With my ELC hat on," he said, "I believe it is very important that the UK maintains an attractive environment for R&D; that drives everything else – where you do work, the balance between on and offshore and where you put project management." With his Harris hat back on, Start said: "Harris has large investment budgets and makes decisions about where to do work. It is influenced by such factors as the people and whether it is an effective environment; R&D tax credits, for example. "We want to do R&D in the UK; tax credits make the UK a good location and so we put some of our $300m R&D spend into the UK. I hope the environment remains attractive." Start says, rather coldly, that it's a simple decision. "When you sit in my seat, it's all about who can do it. There's a handful of countries and I decide where it's cost effective." Part of that decision process is informed by skills. "It's an active discussion point in the ELC," he confirmed. "If the UK allows the education of world class engineers to decline, that will influence whether work is available in the UK. At the moment, there's good availability of rf and systems engineers. Are we maintaining that over the long term? It won't be an issue for the next few years, but can we maintain the attraction in 10 years' time?" For the moment, Harris' interest in the UK is high. "The future here looks good; we're investing and growing. But it's entirely dependent upon whether the UK can become an investing, exporting business led economy," he concluded. Andy Start Andy Start is president of the International business unit at Harris RF Communications Division (RFCD), a supplier of secure radio communications and embedded high grade encryption solutions for military, government, public safety and commercial organisations. He joined RFCD from BAE Systems, where he was managing director and vice president of the Platform Solutions business. Start began his career as an electrical engineer at Siemens Plessey Systems and later joined EADS Astrium, where he led the company's military SATCOM business. He then held a number of senior roles within BAE Systems, including UK corporate strategy director and chief executive officer of IFS Defence. A graduate of Portsmouth University, Start is a member of the Electronics Leadership Council.