To say it’s not an easy time to be in aviation is an understatement. The pandemic has grounded thousands of planes and driven down the value of UK aerospace and defence companies, leaving them prey to foreign predators and private equity.
But two former Harrier jump jet pilots, Andy Offer, 55, and Chris Norton, 56, believe they can fly through the gloom that has engulfed the sector.
They set up their company, 2 Excel Aviation, after leaving the RAF.
On patrol: The bulk of 2Excel’s work is for governments, the oil industry and the Ministry of Defence, including a contract to help the coastguard
Initially, they took customers on flights and put on displays at air shows as The Blades aerobatics team.
Having started out with five people and four aircraft, the company now has more than 400 staff and a fleet of 30 planes.
The business has branched out into repair and maintenance, testing for the Team Tempest fighter jet programme, surveillance services for the coastguard and dispersing oil spills.
Earlier this year, the 2 Excel Aviation completed a refinancing with Signal Capital Partners, and a stock market float is on the cards in the next two to four years.
Andy and Chris have already weathered one major patch of turbulence before the pandemic.
When the financial crisis struck in 2008, their original aerobatics business was badly hit.
‘We knew we had to diversify from the Blades,’ says Andy. ‘But they were a good calling card.’
‘At the time it was horrible but it was the best thing in hindsight.’
Andy, who joined the military straight from school and did several tours in Afghanistan, became the leader of the Red Arrows.
But despite an exciting life in the RAF, he was drawn to the world of business.
‘I was always entrepreneurial. I loved the air force but found it frustrating.’
High flyers: 2Excel Aviation founders Andy Offer and Chris Norton believe they can fly through the gloom that has engulfed the sector since the pandemic began
He adds: ‘Having said that, some of the military disciplines are superb. People are not late for work or late for meetings. They don’t take sick days or days off.
‘They work well as a team,’ he adds. ‘The Red Arrows is a high-performing team and what that means is harmony.’
From its main bases at Doncaster airport and Lasham Airfield in Hampshire, 2 Excel provides a range of aviation services.
Some of these, such as charter planes for VIPs including top football teams, have been hit in the pandemic, but much of its business has not been badly affected.
The bulk of its work is for governments, the oil industry and the Ministry of Defence, including a contract to help the coastguard.
Advanced sensors on 2 Excel’s aircraft can spot a human being in the sea from more than 20 miles away, so those in distress can be located more easily. In one episode, a Spanish fishing boat had a badly injured crew member on board.
‘He has to get to a hospital or he is going to die,’ says Andy. ‘But this is right on the limits of endurance for a search-and-rescue helicopter.
‘So the helicopter can’t faff around. The job of the our King Air plane was to find the fishing boat on its radar. They had a script in Spanish to talk to the trawler captain.
‘By the time the helicopter came, the crew knew what to do.
‘That meant the helicopter could be in and out as quickly as possible. They took the fisherman to hospital in Cornwall, and his life was saved.’
Another service is a 24/7 crisis spill response for the oil industry. 2 Excel has two Boeing 727s with a special oil dispersant system, operated out of Doncaster airport.
2 Excel is also designing a flight-test aircraft, based on a Boeing 757, for the Team Tempest fighter jet programme.
All the sensors and electronics will be tested on the aeroplane, the only flying test bed of its kind outside the US.
A sister operation, 2 Excel Engineering, which specialises in maintenance and repairs, is based in Lasham and is run by Chris.
Team work: Andy was leader of the Red Arrows, which are famous for their synchronised moves
He and Andy decided to buy the business out of administration in 2015, because it was providing the maintenance services for 2 Excel aircraft, and other options were thin on the ground.
‘When it went bust, we thought ‘Holy Cow, what do we do now?’ says Chris.
‘It went under overnight, and our aeroplane was in bits on the floor. So we decided to rebuild Lasham. We had to fix the reasons it went bust. Primarily it was lack of investment over a long period and it was losing customers.’
Chris set about investing in the site, putting down a new floor, revamping the derelict engineering workshop and creating a production line.
‘More importantly, we had to solve cultural issues. When I put everything on a chart that we needed to fix, my production manager resigned,’ he says.
‘But we are very important to 2 Excel Aviation.
‘We would never have won the contract for Team Tempest if we hadn’t had this place.’
Trying to turn around the engineering business at Lasham has been bruising.
One of the problems, Chris admits, is that staff with years of experience were reluctant to change the way they worked. ‘I had zero credibility with them because I was a pilot, not an engineer. You have to be quite thick-skinned,’ he says.
Ahead of the pandemic, his division had over-expanded ‘so we were in a cash hole when Covid hit’, he explains.
‘It was terrible, we were in a cash hurt locker.
‘We are reconfiguring for the new realities. We have taken some hard choices and we have been able to balance the books.’
The engineering division is likely to be folded into the main business ahead of a float.
Andy and Chris want to fly the flag for British aviation at a time when a string of firms in the aerospace sector including Ultra Electronics, Meggitt, Cobham, Senior and Signature have been targeted by US private equity predators.
‘For our industry, short-termism is not good,’ says Andy.
‘Our customers are long term and they don’t want us to be owned by a US private equity house because it will change what we do.
‘We nearly did a deal but we realised pretty quickly it would have been an asset strip.
‘We are proud of the fact we are British, that our money is staying here and that we are delivering UK solutions.’
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