Let’s be honest. When hopping on a plane, back in the days when we took it for granted that we could, who really thinks about how that near-400 tonne aircraft carrying hundreds of people across thousands of kilometres actually manages to stay up in the air? Not many of us, probably.
Our focus is usually on comfort, trying to figure out the entertainment and wondering what’s for dinner. Simon Middlebrough does, however. As a physicist he thinks a lot about engines and airline safety, while as the CEO of Singapore Aero Engine Services Private Limited (SAESL) he makes sure it happens.
SAESL specialises in the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of Rolls-Royce Trent engines throughout Asia–Pacific. For the uninitiated, the Rolls-Royce Trent is a family of high-bypass turbofans that service the Airbus A330, A340, A350 and A380, and the Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner.
Before joining SAESL last year, Simon spent nearly 18 years at Rolls-Royce – two of them as Senior Vice President of Overhaul Services. Today, overseeing the sprawling SAESL campus just off Changi airport, he’s as comfortable popping into the testing facility for a chat about engine pressure ratios as he is talking finance in the boardroom.
Even more impressive, he can translate it all into layman’s terms. So how big are these engines? “Okay, what you see at the front of a jet engine is the fan and extending behind it is the core. With a Trent XWB, for example, the fan’s diameter is about three metres. So, it’s pretty big!” Simon says.
Big indeed. But it’s the cutting-edge technology powering them that triggers the real wow factor. Just 15 years ago, a twin-engine aircraft would never have flown more than an hour and a half from the nearest airport; that required four engines.
Today, however, aircraft such as the A350s and the 787s are flying up to 400 people at a time transpacific – nearly 12,000 kilometres – on just two Trent engines. In fact, as Simon explains, Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS) is common practice now across Airbus, Boeing and all the national agencies.
“The ETOPS limits are now well in excess of four hours – basically every route in the world,” he says. “There are a couple of transpacific routes that are just out of reach, but probably not for much longer. These engines are big, they’re powerful, they’re incredibly fuel-efficient, technologically advanced and incredibly safe. If needed, a plane could fly on just one engine for about four and a half hours.”
SAESL is a joint venture launched in 2001 between gas turbine engine maker Rolls-Royce and SIA Engineering Company, a company specialising in aircraft MRO.
The union followed Rolls-Royce’s inroads to the Asian region with its huge deal selling Trent 800s to SIA for the Boeing 777s. Part of the deal was to include MRO activity and, while the partnership focused almost exclusively on serving Singapore Airlines, it gradually grew into the biggest Rolls-Royce shop in the world.
Today, SAESL is a Trent Centre of Excellence and the world’s largest Trent engine MRO, servicing customers across six continents. The centre can support and overhaul all product variants in the Trent engine family, including the Trent 700, 800, 900, 1000, XWB and 7000, and has played a vital role in supporting Rolls-Royce’s efforts to fix its fleet of Trent 1000s after cracks were discovered in the engine blades in 2016.
Used to power the Boeing 787 Dreamliners, the faulty engines grounded up to 44 aircraft while inspections were carried out on hundreds of others. Rolls-Royce ramped up capacity at its MRO facilities, investing in new tools, equipment and people to fix the fleet, and recovery of the customer disruption was finally achieved in mid-2020.
“SAESL has had to respond to multiple exam questions as Rolls-Royce works to fix the technical issue,” Simon reflects. “If Rolls-Royce discovered something new, or changed its plan, SAESL upended its shop, sometimes two or three times a year, to support the company. I’ve been really surprised by the positivity, flexibility and can-do attitude our team has demonstrated to help the customer in its hour of need.”
Unsurprisingly, SAESL’s volume of business dropped significantly during COVID-19 restrictions from early 2020 with hundreds of aircraft grounded.
However, declared an essential service by the Singapore government, and with huge changes made to cater to the safety of its workforce, the company was able to restart burning through the backlog of Trent 1000 engines lined up to be repaired.
We never took our eye off the ball.
Engines usually complete up to 4,000– 5,000 flights before they’re serviced – on average, every five years. While grounded and not clocking up the kilometres, their limits have not been reached, but they will fly again and demand will return, leaving Simon to describe the impact of COVID-19 as more like “managing a dip rather than a fundamental correction”.
“When I had my midyear review with my leadership team and took some time to pause and reflect over the first half of the year, it was, ‘Wow, what happened there?’”, Simon says.
“But the positive thing is, while we’ve managed through COVID-19 safely and in a controlled way, and we’ve had to change the phasing of some of the activities we wanted to do, we’re still working towards the same customer-driven goals, financially driven goals, team engagement goals and process of improvement that we were before COVID-19.
“While the challenge could be all-consuming in some ways, particularly in the early weeks, you still have to maintain focus on your overall direction of the business plan. We never took our eye off the ball.”
Simon anticipates the level of regular business enjoyed in January this year to return by February 2021, which means that during the “dip”, he had to ensure his core workforce was protected.
It also meant catering for the safety of technicians and engineers responsible for repairing, overhauling and shipping the engines across three sites.
“We employ about 1,500 people and while those working in support functions had the option of working from home, the majority – our technicians – didn’t.
We still had around 1,000 on the floor working on the engines or in the repair cells.
Trying to figure out the logistics of segregating a business and safely managing that segregation to make sure you can comply with the various requirements was quite difficult.
“But when the workload comes back, it comes back hard,” Simon states. “So frankly, if I’m managing a six- to seven-month dip, I can’t let good people go, because I’ll never get back the workforce we need to go forwards. While we were forced to let some agency people go, we had to keep our core people.
This is not an industry where you can pick people off the street and trust they’re competent. It takes 6–12 months to get people to a level where they’re useful, so job preservation was essential.
“Naturally that presented some business challenges but, at least from a people point of view, it’s a very positive message because they can see strategically where you’re going. It was getting that balance right. The support from the Singapore government has also helped enormously; they’re playing the long game and trying to avoid knee-jerk reactions where organisations lay off people because it’s easy and tactical.”
Covering the Asia–Pacific region, SAESL currently looks after 38 airlines, although Simon says the company also does a lot of work for airlines operating from South America and is taking on more business from Europe.
With SAESL being the largest contributor to the Rolls-Royce connective, he admits the company enjoys a strong foothold in the ‘large’ engine market.
“Rolls-Royce has a number of shops around the world – clearly its shop in Germany, for example, will be mainly European focused as SAESL is primarily Asia–Pacific. You try and make sense of the region that you’re in,” Simon explains.
“You can’t go and source engine overhauls and repairs at random shops; the vast majority go either into Rolls-Royce or joint ventures like SAESL. SAESL is the single biggest shop in the Rolls-Royce network, and the only region we don’t source much work from is North America.”
As we grow, we know we can’t do all the engineering ourselves; that’s just not competitive.
Simon puts into perspective what SAESL’s ‘work’ does just by mentioning that he can see hundreds of planes taking off from Changi airport just by looking out of his office window.
It’s a constant reminder that many of those planes are powered by the very engines his company is responsible for maintaining. SAESL currently has the capacity to repair and overhaul around 300 engines a year, with a full overhaul requiring up to 9,000 hours of work and the attention of up to 700 employees.
“Most airlines carry spare engines or lease another from Rolls-Royce during the overhaul,” Simon says. “Unless we have a major problem like the Trent 1000, this allows airlines to manage their fleet through the repair cycles with no disruption.
“Obviously the test bed is integral to the campus. When we have finished building an engine, we literally wheel it 30 metres over the road and straight in for testing. The test bed is about a US$60 million investment and looks like a concrete cuboid, about 60–70 metres long, 25 metres wide and 20-odd metres high.
“We’re usually running a test a day and, yes, it’s very noisy if you’re in the test cell, but obviously we can’t pollute the rest of the neighbourhood, so if you’re outside and the engine is running at full power, you can hardly hear it. The walls are about one and a half metres of thick concrete, and you’ve got air gaps between the different skins, making it a triple sound barrier.”
Having carved out an important and lucrative niche for itself in the industry, Singapore is renowned as a major aviation hub. It is home to more than 130 aerospace organisations employing more than 21,000 people.
Dozens of the companies are global leaders, with 85% of them involved in maintaining and repairing aircraft, while local companies play a critical role in the global supply chain.
Simon recognises the need for very strong, long-term, local partnerships as being vital for supporting SAESL’s engineering work. The company’s partners include Professional Engineering, CK Shipping, Jebsen & Jessen, Transtherm, Ichisa Engineering and Dedienne Aerospace Singapore.
Lives depend on us and, at the end of the day, i’m accountable.
“These companies are what make SAESL tick,” Simon says. “As we grow, we know we can’t do all the engineering ourselves; that’s just not competitive. So, we have to be very clear about what core tasks SAESL wants to do itself and what we can get other people to help us with.
“For example, companies like Professional Engineering and Dedienne provide a lot of support in the critical stages of tooling and fixturing.
Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine the amount of tooling and fixturing required to take a jet engine apart and put it back together again.
It’s not trivial. We need partners we can rely on, not only in terms of quality and integrity, but also speed and flexibility. It’s really, really important.
“Then, of course, there’s safety. We need to be able to trust them to be as good as we are. We can’t take them lightly. We have to be very, very aware and thorough and we expect that same intensity of detail from our subcontractors. Lives depend on us and, at the end of the day, I’m accountable.”
Simon is no stranger to carrying responsibility. Before he led the civil aerospace engine overhaul network at Rolls-Royce in the UK, he held various executive appointments with the company, including Director of Assembly and Test, Senior Vice President of Business Development and Strategy, Project Executive in Brazil and Logistics Manager in South–East Asia.
Then there was “the chocolate job” – a summer internship at Mars where he worked in Competitor Intelligence and Inventory Planning and Control. While, apparently, eating a lot of the product along the way.
“Yes, I put on eight pounds in three weeks; dark chocolate Bounty bars, fresh off the production line,” Simon remembers.
“They were my favourite, although my interest in them waned after a few weeks. But it was a good experience. Mars is a well-regarded company and I learned a lot about supply chain management. I even made the chocolate for a bit!
“However, as much as I enjoyed eating chocolate, I needed to do something more technically interesting and straight after graduating from Warwick University in 2000, I went to Rolls-Royce, working in planning and operations.”
Simon admits his transition into general management was more evolved than strategised. He says that while he was “fairly” confident he would get technically good at whatever he was doing, he soon realised he was also actually “quite good” at getting other teams of people to “do stuff”, relying on a go-to piece of advice given to him by a former boss.
“He told me: ‘Go figure it out and call me when you get stuck,’” Simon reflects. “He gave me space and lots of rope to get on with things, be bold, and made me think about how I lead people. Gradually, as you realise that’s one of your skill sets, you go further and further and basically keep going until you bump into something you find too difficult. So far, I’ve managed to keep going and not bump into that.
“That’s one of the challenges, isn’t it? You’ve got to find where your level of incompetence is,” he laughs. “I’m ambitious; I want to stretch myself, do interesting things and fix interesting problems and figure out how organisations work. I get all that by heading SAESL in a genuine CEO role. It’s the whole train set.”
Natural talent and ambition aside, Simon says he fine-tuned the elements of leadership in 2008 while completing Global Leadership 2020 at Dartmouth College.
While he describes the course as a “fantastic mixture of academic input”, he says it was a perfect storm of global events that taught him how to exert command and maintain calm during a crisis.
The course offers a huge amount of experiential stuff spread over three modules and three completely different business environments – Dartmouth, India and China. Lucky or not, those modules coincided with three global events.
If you’re going to work several thousand hours on something, you might as well enjoy it.
“Our first in Dartmouth started in September – the same Sunday Lehman Brothers collapsed. Our lecturer in macroeconomics and global equity markets was a personal advisor to George Bush, so as soon as he finished his lecture, he flew to Washington to spend two days with the President and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson before returning on the Wednesday to present our second lecture. Of course, everyone was saying, ‘My God, the world has imploded. What is going to happen?’ and he said, ‘Honestly, no-one has got a clue.’ That gave us confidence,” Simon laughs.
“Module two, we almost didn’t get to India because three days before we left, there was the Mumbai terrorist bombings, and we almost didn’t make it to China and module three because swine flu broke out.
“We experienced a financial globalisation meltdown, terrorism and a pandemic in one year. You couldn’t have planned it better to have a prophetic lesson in how to lead through crisis. When it came to COVID-19, I said, ‘I’ve got some notes on this, just let me look in my book,’” Simon grins.
For the “school swat” and a self-confessed nerd, Simon laughs a lot. Armed with a very British tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and an accent still slightly twinged from growing up in Manchester, he says he was torn at school between the sciences and the arts, with maths and physics strong contenders against French and history.
He went down the science route, believing that amateur science could only be practised to a certain level, whereas French could be learned on holidays and history taught by book reading.
“It wasn’t because I saw myself as a physicist for the rest of my life either,” he explains. “It’s just what interested me most. I tell anyone seeking my advice that unless you are dead set on a particular job requiring a very specific degree, it’s best to do the subjects you enjoy the most. If you’re going to work several thousand hours on something, you might as well enjoy it.
“So yeah, physics crept up on me a little bit, but as much as I loved it, I realised that I’d probably end up with a job in academia. I looked at my bank balance and thought, ‘Yeah, I’m not doing that.’”
Simon says he never did get around to perfecting his French, although his stint in Taiwan enabled him to converse in “passable” Taiwanese Mandarin. Although, there was that time he upset someone when instead of ordering some food, he announced he was in love with the man’s sister.
“I think he hid her when I said that!” Simon chuckles. Simon is looking forward to a post-COVID-19 future and securing SAESL’s position for the next 20 years.
As part of the Rolls-Royce network, he believes SAESL is going to be part of an incredibly exciting journey over the next six years and he’s determined to secure its position for the next couple of decades. He says the relationship with Rolls-Royce is critical, pointing out that the company is a customer as well as the shareholder.
“It’s definitely a team sport between SAESL and Rolls-Royce,” he says. “A lot of time is spent figuring out how we as the MRO can proactively help Rolls-Royce as the customer with the new generation of engines, as well as delivering for the shareholders. You don’t very often get the chance to do those jobs where you’re at an inflexion point and can make such a difference. I feel very privileged to be here at this time.”
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