EVER ONE STEP AHEAD

Ras Al Khaimah 2017 | INDUSTRY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Joseph J. McKeever, former CEO of Spatial Composite Solutions, on regional strategy, niche manufacturing, and developing cutting-edge technologies for the State Department.

Joseph J. McKeever,
BIOGRAPHY
Joseph J. McKeever first came to Dubai 20 years ago to help to rebuild a business for Scott Bader, the UK-based resins manufacturer whose plant in JAFZ had been destroyed by a fire. The turnaround was quite dramatic and within five years the Middle East operation had outperformed all of the groups overseas subsidiaries, including the company flagship in Northampton. He served as Scott Bader’s CEO for 10 years and was a member of the Group Board until he left the company to establish Spatial. McKeever held various marketing positions at BASF, ATO, and Athlone Extrusions based in Copenhagen, Dallas, and San Francisco before relocating to the UAE in 1996.

Why do prestigious clients such as Emirates, Etihad, and Virgin America choose you as their preferred manufacturer?

We have a strong reputation now, but of course we did not at the beginning. It was a cold start as no one was familiar with our name or brand. We were convinced that there was a need for a professional company that could build crew training simulators and offer local support to the “golden triangle" of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, three very large and powerful airlines that were previously being serviced by companies based in Germany and the UK. I felt that if we set up our operations here and stayed the course we should have a good future. This strategy appears to have worked.

Why have companies from other parts of the world, such as Virgin America, decided to use your products instead of those closer to home?

Firstly, we are focused on composites as this was our core business. Commercial aircraft have traditionally been manufactured from aluminum, but today they are manufactured from composites. Right from the beginning we were manufacturing simulators using the latest composites technology whereas our competitors in Europe and the US were using steel and aluminium. This gave us an advantage—it enabled us to be more creative and allowed us to innovate. On the other hand we had no government support or bank facilities. As it was a question of survival we just had to work harder.

Recently you signed an agreement with L-3 Link UK Ltd for the supply of full flight pilot simulator sub modules. What does this mean for Spatial Composite Solutions?

Our cabin crew training demand has always been contract based, which is not continuous business. Until now, we have never really been able to plan or discuss with our bank what our order book would look like for the following year or beyond. The contract with L-3 Link UK Ltd is a five-year renewable contract. We will build modules for pilot simulators exclusively for L-3 Link UK Ltd, but we will not be involved in any sales and marketing activity. We will build the units to L-3's specification and that work will be ongoing. While the profit margins are modest, this type of business gives us continuity. It allows us to put long-term plans and new procedures in place. It has given us a backbone of stability and enables us to look to the future with confidence.

How is Spatial Composite Solutions implementing state-of-the-art technologies into its products?

We decided in the early days to buy some quite sophisticated equipment including a five-axis CNC that we ordered from the US. Prior to issuing an export license we had an inspection visit from a US government official who advised us that the piece of equipment we had ordered was classified as a precision instrument, which apparently requires State Department approval before it can be shipped from the US. We were later advised that the device has “nuclear capability" and this was what triggered the interest from the State Department. When we made this investment I was worried whether we would have enough business to justify the outlay; however, it turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made.

What are your prospects for the year ahead?

We have witnessed the expansion of our manufacturing facility as well as our human capital. My challenge is to manage the expansion and new people whilst ensuring we can still retain what has made us special until now. Our business in the US in particular is growing apace, and we will announce some significant new contracts there soon. For an SME in Ras Al Khaimah to be in this position is a long way from where we started and is something we would not have thought possible in our early days.