There’s something soothing about the hum of a plane’s engines when you’re finally settled on board and about to take off. After the usual chaos of packing, scrambling to the airport and checking in, nothing more can be done except to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Meanwhile, as you peruse the inflight entertainment, the work behind the scenes for ADB SAFEGATE is nowhere near finished.

In fact, it’s just begun. Responsible for airfield ground lighting, docking guidance and air traffic control systems in more than 2,500 airports in 170 countries, the company is helping to ensure your safety during a flight’s most critical phases, take-off and landing.

While those few minutes may be the shortest stretch of your journey, they are also when a pilot and plane are most vulnerable to having an accident. That is when situational awareness among multiple teams is at its most acute and when ADB SAFEGATE’s products and solutions kick into action to ensure everything goes safely and smoothly.

The company employs 1,000 people worldwide and is responsible for integrated solutions at more than 260 air traffic control towers; 8,000 Safedock systems successfully completing 15 million safe dockings each year; and 1.5 million LED airfield lights.

Its groundbreaking, end-to-end solutions to support airport operations, congestion and environmental performance are vital to address the ongoing challenges faced by airports globally and, with estimates that air traffic will grow 4.5% annually, they are challenges ADB SAFEGATE’s CEO Christian Onselaere doesn’t underestimate.

Moving from a product supplier to a solution provider

“This is a highly complex business with many stakeholders involved, from management to pilots, from maintenance crews to navigation service providers, you name it,” he says. “Our products have to work in extremely harsh and fluctuating conditions, from very hot to very cold, from very wet to very dry. We need to ensure that despite all the variables and difficulties we encounter, we have a solution that works from beginning to end for each individual situation. And that’s not always easy.”

With 30 years’ experience, mostly in senior roles in the telecommunications and aviation industries, the software developer and electronics engineer is no stranger to finding solutions in a world driven by innovation.

Siemens acquired ADB in 1987, and in 2005, when Christian was Siemens’ Senior Vice President in Thailand, he was appointed head of ADB. Three years later, when ADB was sold to Montagu, “I was part of the furniture sold,” Christian laughs.

Finding the best and brightest people

“We have been in private equity ever since, acquired by PAI Partners in 2013 and last year by Carlyle. Under Montagu we worked a lot on the efficiency and processes of our internal organisation and under PAI we concentrated more on external growth through acquisitions. Of course, the merger with SAFEGATE two years ago was a huge step forward allowing us to broaden our portfolio and strengthen our presence in the world market.

Christian Onselaere CEO of ABD Safegate
Christian Onselaere, CEO of ABD Safegate

“Now, we are evolving from being a product supplier to being a solution provider,” Christian adds. “This is where we support our customers by solving problems in their increasingly complex environments, such as airport issues related to efficiency, safety and sustainability. It’s our mission to have a much bigger impact in all these areas by providing the right solutions.

“It’s not sufficient to just say, ‘Okay, here’s our product and you have to know what to do with it’,” Christian says. “Instead of selling the product, we need to sell the performance, its outcome. That’s a completely different way of thinking that requires us to transform ourselves.”

Over the past decade, during Christian’s leadership and renewed focus, company revenue has quadrupled, an achievement he regards with cautious optimism in what is a challenging market disrupted by acquisitions.

“We have managed quite well, handling the integration of companies acquired and merged with,” Christian says. “People are people, they have habits and traditions and this can sometimes lead to conflict when companies are combined.

Not because people like to fight, but because they think their way is better. “The good thing is that most of the time people want to do what is best for the company, enabling us to find solutions and compromises to move forward.”

Christian believes strong customer focus and ADB SAFEGATE’s priority to employ the best and brightest people needed to maintain a firm grip on changing technologies gives the company an advantage in the marketplace.

Striking the perfect balance

“Many of our competitors have a problem when there are challenges and hurdles to overcome. They don’t have the strength, or sometimes the financial means,
to really bring the solution through to the end,” he says. “This is something we have always been focused on and very careful about, even if we have to go the extra mile to achieve it.

“As CEO, I need to perfect the balance between the interests of all the company’s stakeholders, suppliers, partners, employees, customers and shareholders,” says Christian. “Sometimes, when that can be conflicting,
I have to intervene. We can only be successful if we can define the game in such a way that everybody wins.

As CEO, I need to perfect the balance … We can only be successful if we can define the game in such a way that everybody wins.

“Defining a vision for the company to move forward is also very much a leadership responsibility,” he adds. “While looking into new opportunities, including acquisitions, I’m also very interested in more software development as we move products towards solutions and services. That’s the most important change and it pushes us.

“While everything we did before is still valid, we need different competences now. We need to develop a broader and deeper process to understand the way our customers work and the way airports operate.”

Christian admits that measuring success is difficult. Although his company’s reputation has grown substantially and its change in strategy has resulted in considerable financial gains, he regards those achievements as more conventional.

“Measuring success? That’s a difficult one as there are many ways to measure success,” he says.

“Of course, there is the traditional way, and that’s to look at the financial results. But there is also finding satisfaction in developing a vision, the scenario you have in your mind.

That same scenario that involves financial success, the realisation of the strategy you set forward and the unique customer experience you want to realise – that scenario that you put on a piece of paper up front which you believe leads to a successful organisation.

“We have a massive responsibility with 1,000 people working for ADB SAFEGATE. That means 1,000 families who rely on the success of this organisation. That our employees can sustain a decent living for their growing families and raise their children to develop themselves, is another way to look at success. We are contributing to that. That is success.”