Spotlight on... Gavin Willoughby
In the latest edition to our team spotlight series, we speak to Gavin Willoughby, Business Development Manager, about his role, our defence offering and his love of rugby.
How would you describe your role at aae technologies, in your own words?
My position as Business Development Manager is extremely varied, and I’ve been really lucky that it’s a role that has evolved as the company has grown. I’m now in my 18th year with aae technologies, and as a member of the senior management team, I’m working across the whole group of companies, liaising with all departments, advising and implementing strategy and representing the group on the international stage.
If I could describe my day-to-day role, it would predominantly involve the sales function of the business and how that is managed and run. I also manage direct sales, contact and communication with customers, existing and qualified leads, as well as finding new opportunities, industry connections and product ranges. It’s a whole lot of everything, and although it’s a cliché, it’s a fact that no two days are the same.
When I started with aae technologies, there were around 15-20 people in the company, and as the only sales person in the organisation, it was for me to build up the sales and commercial side of the business. Fast forward 17 years and we now have a company of 50+ people serving many industries with a much wider product range; and as the company has evolved so has my role, becoming a Director with a specific focus on the company’s defence division.
What was your background prior to joining aae technologies?
I studied mechanical engineering at Norwich City College, after which I took on a temporary sales role with an engineering company, where I ended up staying there for 14 years. It turns out sales is my comfort zone!
The company operates in a very niche industry. What attracted you to it?
At that time, I was in need of a change of direction and scenery, looking for something specifically in technical sales, which blended my sales and business experience with my technical knowledge. I saw that applied acoustic engineering (as it was known at the time) was advertising for a technical sales person, and after looking further into the company and its operating environment, I knew that was the role for me.
I was drawn to the fact that applied acoustics was a small independent business with a good reputation, successfully operating in the global arena. International travel has always been a fascination of mine; I’m very interested in other countries, their people, and their cultures. Growing up in Norfolk with its 130km coastline has also made me very at home with the sea, so the attraction to an ocean technology company was not easy to ignore. I met with Adam, our CEO, a couple of times and he gave me the opportunity to join the team, all these years later it’s an opportunity I’m still enormously grateful for.
What do you enjoy about this industry?
This is an extremely niche business that takes on the challenges of the subsea environment and overcomes them with our design capabilities and engineering output, something which is hugely satisfying as it is enjoyable. I love hearing from customers, finding out about what they are trying to achieve, challenges that they have and finding the right product that is going to support them to achieve their goals. I like to grow working partnerships with customers, developing close relationships with people that become long-term partners; many customers we work with now have been working with us since the formation of the company. Customers know they can come to me to discuss their next project and they know I will do everything in my power to find the right products to support; and circling back to my formative years in Norfolk, to be lucky enough to work in an environment where I can spend lots of time on the water demonstrating products or travelling to different countries is a huge draw.
I also love the fact that technology is evolving and advancing to keep pace with the requirements of our customers and the wider industry. I’m learning something new every day, and I doubt that will ever stop.
How would you summarise aae technologies’ expertise in the military/defence industry?
When I first started at aae technologies, our business largely focussed around the offshore oil & gas industry, though it quickly became apparent that we should strengthen our business through diversification into other industries and addressing new applications. Maritime defence was an area that we had limited knowledge of, so I started going to defence trade events, meeting key industry personnel and learning about this market sector, quickly realising it had similar challenges to the oil & gas sectors. Underwater acoustics can be tailored to meet lots of different needs and the defence organisations and naval groups of the world have requirements that can be met using our technology.
Having worked with international navies of vastly differing sizes, capabilities and budgets, I’ve learnt that all have contrasting needs, and face all manner of challenges, but all equally require advanced solutions within their constraints to meet their primary objectives. In 2005, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Royal Navy provided an opportunity for us to successfully demonstrate our capabilities, resulting in a long-term partnership that continues to this day. With the Royal Navy held in such high esteem worldwide, this partnership has allowed a great deal of pre-qualification for supplying our products and services to many of the world’s navies, particularly those within the NATO group of countries, leaving us proudly flying the flag for British engineering and manufacturing.
Defence contracts are very different to standard commercial work; their timescales are far lengthier, there is more admin for their teams, more government intervention, more testing and qualification involved in the process, so they tend to take longer to come to fruition. We’ve had to adapt our processes to create tailored solutions, which the industry has grown to know and admire and we’re seeing more and more business coming to us for bespoke engineering support.
What would you say sets the company apart in this area?
We have the agility and flexibility to be able to change what we are doing. Within the defence industry there are always multiple stakeholders involved in large scale projects, all who need to have input in products and differing needs. We are flexible to take on board all the requirements and come back with relevant solutions. By having an area of aae technologies group that focuses solely on defence contracts, we are specialists in the industry for our field of expertise.
We know some of the larger defence contractors are more than capable of providing for the industry, however we provide a more realistic and competitive option, we meet the objectives within the confines of government budgets.
What are your plans for aae’s defence offering moving forward? Any new products or developments in the pipeline?
Many countries are developing and investing in their submarine capabilities, equally many countries are growing their capabilities in anti-submarine warfare (ASW). This heightened awareness of the underwater battlespace is leading to an increased need to have effective products to counter potential threats.
Furthermore, the concern that that subsea pipelines, cables and other infrastructure could become targets is also increasing, and so naval organisations need to be equipped to protect these environments and have greater underwater monitoring capabilities. We continually carry out R&D to support this sector, developing acoustic systems that can keep us ahead of the curve.
Away from defence, we’re heavily involved in the offshore wind industry, something that’s taken off in a huge way in recent years, particularly along North America’s eastern seaboard. It’s an area of specific interest to us, and a market where we’ll continue to focus our attention. And though I am responsible for the group’s defence business, by spending more of my time on the other side of the Atlantic I’ll be better placed to develop our North and South America commercial offshore activities too.
What are your main interests outside of work? Any interesting facts?
Rugby has always been a big part of my life, I started playing when I was 10 and played my last game 35 years later. Rugby feeds into my business persona – being a decision-maker within a team of like-minded individuals, there’s a lot I take from sport into business. You also come into contact with people from all other walks of life, all with stories to tell and experiences to share. Like my aae technologies career, rugby has taken me all the way around the world as a player and a supporter. Playing in Australia and South Africa, in particular, will be forever etched in my memory.
I am a bit of a wine lover too, I have a very small share in a vineyard in Southern France, and although it’s been a very long time since my last trip, I’m looking forward to revisiting that soon.
In 2019, aae technologies opened an office in North America (Canada), which I was running prior to the pandemic, in support of the North American defence industry. Once the world opens up to international travel again, I’ll be back in North America on a semi-permanent basis to grow the region into a major part of the group’s business activities.