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Q&A with Alex Burns, Millbrook CEO

Millbrook's new CEO discusses the recent change of ownership, a government grant for emissions testing and research, and his plans for the future

 

Tell us about your career background.
I trained as a mechanical engineer at Imperial College, London. After my degree I worked at Westland helicopters for a few years before joining Meggitt aerospace. I ended up running Meggitt electronic components until it was sold in 2001, when I left. I joined Williams in 2002. Formula 1 is quite similar to aerospace – there are similarities in terms of the materials, manufacturing processes and design processes.

What do you think your background brings to your role at Millbrook?
I have an engineering background so I understand what goes on here with a commercial bias, which is very important. One of the things they found most attractive was my last few years at Williams I spent a lot of time developing Williams Advanced Engineering from scratch to be quite a substantial business. I was therefore very involved in the automotive and public transport industries, both of which are very relevant here. I’ve got lots of background in defence and that covers most of the major markets that we serve here. I’ve got relevant marketing experience, relevant engineering experience and relevant commercial and business development experience. And I’m used to leading a business of this size or slightly larger.

Have you been given specific goals?
It’s a very broad brief. Rutland Partners have bought the business and they see an opportunity here that I absolutely share with them, which is that Millbrook is fundamentally a good business. It needs investment to take it through its next stages of development and they want to put that investment in. They want somebody to come in to lead, to have a good look at the business, decide what the strategic areas are, make the investments and implement the changes. They’ve hired me as someone who’s got the skillset to make the changes, and I’m working with a highly experienced team, they’ve got more than 100 years experience here between them.

Please tell me about the grant you’ve just received. What are your plans?
It’s from the UK Regional Growth Fund – the application was put in a long time ago, before I arrived, and involves us around moving forward as a center of excellence in emissions testing of vehicles and particularly in emissions testing of larger vehicles. We'll be upgrading some of our engine test cells so that they can take larger diesel engines and also building new dyno facilities that we can use for emissions testing. The total scope of the project is over £20m in capital and people's time, and the funded element of that is £9.5m. It’s a five-year project but a lot of the captial expenditure will be in the first two years of the project. The grant funding has been really important to the give the investors confidence that we’re doing something quite sensible to improve the return on our capital; a good chunk of the money is our own and we need to get a decent rate of return on it. The public funding is fundamental in helping us to establish what will be a world-class facility.

Have you got any other ideas of changes you'd like to implement?
Essentially the strategy is to reconfirm Millbrook as a key strategic asset in the UK transport industry. Now that we’re independent of GM we have the opportunity to build out the facilities and the capabilities to make this a world class facility and to be able to provide a comprehensive suite of services to our customers. We have very good test facilities, which are getting better, and we intend to expand the business and expand our engineering resource. We’ll be taking on more members of staff – part of the grant was given on the basis that we’d be employing more people and 45 new jobs were in the grant application. That also underpins some of the jobs here already.

Are Rutland Partners in it for the long haul? What’s your relationship with GM now?
At some stage Rutland will sell the business, yes – they’re a private equity house and that’s what they do. But they aren’t particularly focused on selling as they’ve only just bought it. They haven’t said when or given us a deadline. But that doesn’t concern me. They aren’t just the owners, they’re a supportive investor and it’s good to have them on board. My business planning is for the long term and between now and then, sometime there will be a change of ownership. One thing that Rutland have emphasized is that they want me to do the right thing with the business and they want to see fundamental growth. GM is still a key supplier, we have a very close relationship with them doing engineering and testing. They are our biggest client so they’re very important.

What are the pros and cons of being located in the UK?
We’re located close to quite a lot of customers, which means they have easy access to the facility and they don’t have to move their vehicles far. One of the advantages of being located in Millbrook is that it isn't just an airfield, there are quite significant elevation changes and therefore we’ve got hill routes and off-road courses. The tracks are quite different to other facilities where it’s just flat. That’s particularly useful for electric and hybrid vehicles because testers can coast a vehicle down a hill and recover energy or drive up a hill and see how much energy it’s using. The weather sometimes isn’t great here, which we have to acknowledge.

What are your key goals for the future?
Key goals are to put that capital into place and to move our service providing forward to be able to offer a much more integrated engineering, development and test offering to customers as well as low-volume manufacturing. We are looking at new technologies around fuel cells and batteries in the future, and the new capability we’re putting in place will be a lot more EV and hybrid-friendly as well.

Millbrook's new Portable Emissions Measurement System supplied by Sensors Inc in preparation for future emissions legislation changes, will allow it to record more consistent and accurate data. 

 

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