Sudbury: High-flying MEL Aviation plots its own course

Gary Harvey. left, and Nick Harvey of MEL Aviation.

Gary Harvey. left, and Nick Harvey of MEL Aviation. - Credit: Archant

Aerospace engineering firm MEL Aviation has had to overcome some turbulent episodes in its history. Managing director Gary Harvey tells ROSS BENTLEY about some of the key moments in the firm’s past that have led to its current success.

For Gary Harvey, managing director of Sudbury-based aerospace engineering firm MEL Aviation, there are a number of important landmarks in the history of the firm that have made it the company it is today.

Currently, it is a thriving business with a turnover of £24million that employs over 100 people in Suffolk and around 60 other workers in smaller satellite businesses located in Hampshire, Nottingham and Sussex. Since its launch in 1968, the firm has moved from its original business of producing liquid oxygen for military aircraft to now also operating in the civil aircraft and industrial sectors repairing and manufacturing components as diverse as pilot headsets and emergency escape slides.

But back in 1977, this level of success must have seemed a long way off after news broke that the company’s founder Laurence Smith, had been tragically killed in a plane accident at Luton Airport.

“It was a huge shock,” says Gary. “I was in the last year of my apprenticeship and one of only seven employees, which also included his son, Nick.

“Nick’s first words were: ‘We must keep the company going’. It’s a bit of a strange thing to say when your father has just been killed but that was what he was thinking.”

Since that day, according to Gary, everything he and Nick have done has been carried out in accordance with Laurence’s founding principles.

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“Each Christmas we hold our sales meeting and the first thing we do is raise our glasses to the founder,” continues Gary, a fit-looking 57-year-old. “He gave me a chance and took me on as an apprentice and all we try and do is make him proud. Nick and I simply see ourselves as guardians of the business who are looking after it, so we can pass it on to the next generation.”

Indeed, Gary’s son, Nicholas, has been working within the business for the past eight years, while Nick’s son, Lewis, is due to join the company from school later this year. It is expected that they will manage the firm one day.

“The business will never be for sale,” says Gary. “We’ve had countless offers over the years but we have told all parties we are not interested. If someone wrote a cheque for a billion pounds we would tell them we do not want it.”

Today MEL Aviation brands itself as an engineering solutions provider that can offer airlines a complete solution from fabrication and machining of products to hydraulics and gases. Several recent acquisitions of small firms specialising in plastic mouldings and electronic circuit boards have further extended the services the firm can offer.

According to Gary, this trend towards continual diversification was evident from the early days.

“At that time we were keen to get into the Ministry of Defence - we were going down to London with long hair and trying tell wing commanders and other senior people that we could do lots of things,” he says.

“Basically, they said here’s some nuts and bolts - go away and make a few things and come back to us.”

“In those days, people would ring up and ask us if we could do something. We’d say ‘yes’ and then ask them what it was.”

He continues: “When you are a small company you have to have a can-do mentality. We have a hunger just to keep driving the business forward. If you take your foot off and believe you’ve made it, then you are in for a shock.”

That willingness to diversify now sees MEL Aviation carry out work for the likes of British Airways, Virgin and Emirates, as well as no-frills carriers such as EasyJet. The firm works on aircraft waste systems, escape slides, oxygen masks, pilot headsets and fire extinguishers. It sends a van down to Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports on a daily basis to pick up parts for repair.

Another area where it has forged a healthy business is helping airlines when components become obsolete because the original company who makes a part stops doing so.

“We are very good at re-engineering components and that enables airlines to keep their aircraft flying,” says Gary.

“We like to sit across the desk from clients and ask them to tell us their problems. We say: ‘Give us something you’ve got a headache with and we’ll go and find a solution.’ We are not interested in the easy jobs because we know they will follow if we get the difficult jobs right.”

Gary says a key turning point for the firm’s reputation came about in the mid-1980s when they took the decision to “invest almost everything we had” in tools to make oxygen masks for fighter jet pilots.

“It was for a Ministry of Defence contract but we had to send it to one of our rival companies for approval,” he continues

“If you can imagine - it didn’t seem very fair to us but we managed to get it through. But when later we saw the report of how extensively they had tested it we couldn’t believe it. They had stressed tested it in a decompression chamber and everything was specified in depth right down to the size of the hexagon on the little nuts.

“Had we known how far they were going to go I’m not sure we would have gone for it but we earnt a huge amount of respect from our rival because of the quality of the product. That was a changing point for us in terms of how other companies viewed us.”

Another landmark in MEL Aviation’s history happened seven years ago when the company embarked on a major expansion drive after key clients in the aerospace sector, such as the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems, announced they intended to drastically reduce their supplier base.

“They said they had too many small suppliers and that they were going to reduce their base from around 4,000 down to 1,000,” explains Gary.

“This meant that small firms would have to go through prime contractors and no longer have a relationship with their clients – it put the smaller suppliers in a vulnerable position and most of them have probably gone to the wall since then.”

MEL Aviation’s response was to go out and purchase a number of small firms to bolster their offering. These included Aerosmith Headset Services, which has allowed the company to start developing their own pilot headsets with its own brand name.

“I saw the situation as an opportunity,” says Gary. “Back in 2007 we had a turnover of £11m and this year we should turnover around £24m.

“At the time I went to a lot of conferences where I saw people from small companies picking up the microphone and saying; ‘You don’t care about us’.

He adds: “But I didn’t want to feel like that - I wanted to do something about it. We all had the same choice but it was about whether people were brave enough to do what we did. If you want to grow your business you have to go through the turbulent times.”