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‘Five minutes with’ Alex Cresswell, CEO Thales UK

Cresswell was appointed Chief Executive and Chairman of Thales UK in 2020, following a thirty-year global career within the aerospace and defence sectors. INFO+ speaks to him about stepping into the role in times of crisis, the UK strategy for growth and innovation, and the future of the France-UK bilateral relationship.

You stepped into the job at a time of great challenge. How do you view your role in terms of leadership in times of crisis?

My first priority has been the health and wellbeing of Thales UK employees, and being able to meet our commitments to our customers.  I have been hugely impressed about the reaction of our people, from making our sites COVID safe and the flexibility and adaptability of our employees who have to work on site, and at home. The circumstances have been different, but the focus on delivering for our customers has remained the same.

I’ve been able to run some ‘all hands’ digital meetings but it’s difficult to get to know an organisation without being able to travel to the sites. Thanks to the efforts of our operations teams, I’ve started being able to get out and about in a COVID secure way. 

I also have responsibilities with Thales in Australia, Canada and the USA, so I really think of Thales in a global sense and how we can leverage the Group as a whole to deliver for our customers – although it does make for an interesting daily routine trying to work around different time zones!  

The Group recently announced a global adaption plan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What has been the impact of the crisis on Thales UK?

Like every business, there have been challenges as a result of the pandemic, delays to programmes and increased uncertainty, but luckily, we have a diverse portfolio across a range of markets and so haven’t been impacted in the same way as some of our industry colleagues, for example those who are very heavily weighted towards aerospace and aviation.  

In the UK we were in a good position to be able to adapt to home working quickly because of our Smart Working culture that was already in place. This introduced more flexibility into our organisation by considering how, when and where we work and also embracing advances in digital technology and workspace design.

We’ve also made a significant investment of approximately £1m in IT infrastructure and building adaptation to ensure safe working on sites and effective working from home.

Very pleased to have been able to step up and do our part in the effort against COVID-19, from being part of the Ventilator UK Challenge, providing free cyber security services to the NHS in Wales and supporting a drone trial to deliver medical supplies to the islands in Scotland, reducing the journey time from hours to minutes.  

What does the recovery look like from your perspective? What are your business priorities in the UK for 2021?

We need to see decisions being made and contracts being placed at speed to drive the economic recovery forward. I think the French Government – and other Governments around the world – have been very proactive at bringing decisions forward with the explicit objective of keeping the economy stimulated and I believe that’s the right approach. 

I’m very keen to grow our civil business in the UK. Following the acquisition of Gemalto, our digital identity offer is very strong, we have big ambitions around HS2, around the UK’s future border strategy and Thales Alenia Space has great potential to grow in the UK as well.  

What are you views on the UK government strategy in terms of this growth?

We are really excited by the Government’s focus on R&D, new technologies and innovation – that’s Thales’ lifeblood! We’re well-placed to support the ambition for the UK to be a ‘science superpower’ and looking forward to working with our customers to make that a reality.

At a group level, we have invested in digitally transformative technology like cyber, AI, electronic warfare, big data, robotics and autonomy. These will support and complement the UK’s ambition around science and innovation.

In the UK, we believe in partnerships to succeed in science – be that with academia, Government, industry and SMEs.  We’re a key player in UK industry and are aware we need to invest in UK infrastructure, skills and jobs for the future.

The group recently contributed to a €500m investment fund to help SMEs in the aerospace sector in France. What are your challenges to help and support your supply chain through this crisis?

Our supply chain in the UK contains a significant number of SMEs, around a third of our UK business procurement is from SMEs which are often highly specialised, and so we are very alive to the challenges that they are facing.

We have constant and open engagement with them to check in and ensure that they are able to meet their targets; where there are difficulties we look at how we can support them through that including financial support. 

Many businesses in our network are concerned about the convergence of COVID and Brexit on the UK economy. How will Brexit change how the group interacts on a pan-European level or affect operations of Thales UK specifically?

There should be no doubt about our commitment to our future presence in the UK. We are still hopeful that a deal will be done but we have been planning and preparing for a long time so I feel we are in a good position to react to whatever the outcome is. 

Our site in Belfast is a big part of our UK presence so we’re very keen to see no additional measures for as goods go from NI to GB and vice versa because of potential delays or costs. 

As one of the UK’s major defence exporters – the majority of which goes to non-EU countries –Thales has benefited from strong UK Government support for exports around the world and we look forward to continuing to work with the UK on trade and export promotion.

We continue to support the UK’s participation in European programmes and hope that we can be a key proponent of Franco-British defence industrial collaboration, supported by our solid position in the UK market. 

You worked for Thales in France for ten years and were awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2017. What is your views on the Franco-British relationship going forward into 2021?

I think the UK-France relationship is a long standing one – with some ups and downs throughout history! – that remains incredibly significant. I hope that the bilateral relationship will continue to grow, which in the context of Brexit it is more important than ever, and I want Thales in the UK to help drive that. 

On 26 November this year, the UK and France also reaffirmed their long-standing defence relationship by committing to a joint programme for Autonomous Minehunting Systems that will detect and neutralise mines around the world. Technologies such as autonomy and AI are transforming societies and warfare at an exponential rate. This contract represents the next generation for Anglo-French minehunting, delivering a world leading capability that will keep our armed forces safe and create and secure vital jobs across the UK and our supply chain. We look forward to delivering the next stage in this exciting hi-tech programme.

The French diaspora here in the UK, and particularly in London, is very significant and I think has its own strong identity. Reflecting on my own family experience, I think the younger members of an expat community, who may have spent large proportions of their lives outside their home country, really see themselves in between cultures and that can only help strengthen the UK-France relationship for the future. As an engineer at heart, it was an incredibly rewarding experience for me to work in France for such an iconic engineering company.

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