Building on momentum: Interview with ESCO Council chief executive Sarah Macken

4 min read

ESCO's new chief executive tells Graham Pitcher that the electronic systems sector's 'time has come'.

When you're only about a month or so into a new job, you have the advantage of not carrying the baggage of the past and, to a great extent, see things how they are, not how they might have been. And so it is with Sarah Macken, the recently appointed chief executive of the Electronic Systems Community, or ESCO. Her verdict? "Interesting times." Macken is no stranger to the world of trade and industry associations, having recently completed a six year stay at A|D|S, the association for the aerospace, defence and security industries, where she was director of public affairs and strategy. "We are becoming more reliant upon technology, so it's a growing market," she said. "Having worked in the aerospace and defence sector, I can see the connections. For example, the fact that BAE now calls itself a systems company underlines the importance of systems." So what attracted Macken to the role? "The ESCO Report caught my eye," she said, "and the ambition within the sector. The electronic systems sector will be even more important and influential in the future and it's a great opportunity to help shape that future." Part of this future is making the UK – and its electronics sector in particular – a more attractive location. "We want to make more companies invest in the UK; that's what ESCO is about." Macken sees implementation of the ESCO Report as a challenge in itself, but believes the challenge is growing because of the way in which the world is changing. "For example," she said, "there has been a lot of discussion about reshoring lately; there is a shift in how companies look at the UK. It's a really interesting time." The ESCO Report – published in mid 2013 – put the size of the electronic systems sector into perspective. Amongst its research findings was that is a sector making a contribution of close to £80billion to the UK's economy whilst supporting more than 850,000 jobs. In fact, Macken thinks the industry is in an even better position. "Sometimes, if you look at figures alone, your impression of the state of an industry can lag what's actually happening." Macken recognises that, while business is driven by markets, government has a role to set the environment in which business operates. So it is a bonus to have a Government minister as co chair of your organisation. "ESCO is co chaired by business minister Michael Fallon and Warren East, plus there are a number of companies and trade bodies represented on the ESCO Council. Amongst other issues, we're bringing government and industry together to examine the barriers to growth and how some of these can be removed." One issue that lingers is something over which the government has control: procurement. The Government is spending many billions of pounds a year, but there is the perception that much of this is with the 'usual suspects' – multinationals with the staff to handle the process. But the government wants to shift the balance, hoping to source 25% of its needs from UK SMEs. "Procurement is a massive issue," Macken conceded, "but it's split amongst departments and it's something which ESCO is already debating. There can be more of a UK focus if the Government takes advantage of the electronic systems supply chain." There's a range of opportunities available, Macken believes. "Health care is one; technology can not only improve people's lives, but also improve the NHS. But there's also defence, security, space, environmental technology and energy. All these areas raise the profile of electronic systems and what the sector can do for other industries. "ESCO already has health care on its agenda and that's just one example of how government and industry can work together to create new opportunities for UK companies and for the various supply chains." What about that profile? It's another lingering issue, with an industry often described as inward looking. "Image and profile are things we have the opportunity to change," she said. "There are many stories to tell and, because technology can only be more important in the future, we need to tell more stories. "We also need to attract new people into the industry; tell them why companies are investing in technology, what are the problems which need to be solved and so on. "But it will be less about figureheads," she suggested, "and more about real people saying what they do." Another long term issue has been fragmentation. A decade ago, the industry was seen to be fragmented, invisible and with poor networking. "That job has been done," Macken asserted. "Getting the ESCO Report together over the last couple of years has been a cohesive process. Now we have working groups and workstreams who are getting on with things." However, it still comes down to knowing who you're dealing with and what they need. "ESCO has broad objectives," Macken said, "but we won't achieve them unless we know what the barriers are that companies face – and we won't know that without real engagement. This, in itself, provides momentum and drives cooperation. Now, Macken and the ESCO Council are looking to get involved with other organisations. "Cooperation with other industry councils hasn't always been top priority, but we can help them to meet their objectives; we want to connect with their agendas and we have to ask what ESCO can do to help them to access a wider pool of UK companies." It's almost a year since the ESCO Report was published. Macken's opinion? "ESCO has momentum," she concluded, "and it feels like its time has come." Sarah Macken Sarah Macken is chief executive of the Electronic Systems Community, responsible to the ESCO Council for implementing the recommendations of the ESCO Report. Previously, Macken was director of public affairs and strategy for A|D|S, the aerospace, defence and security trade association, and a policy advisor for the British Chambers of Commerce. She is also managing director of Astute Strategies, which provides advice to companies in a range of high tech sectors. She graduated from the University of East Anglia with a BSc honours degree in environmental technology and completed an MSc in environmental technology at Imperial College.