What AIAC’s Vision 2025 could mean for smaller sized enterprises

When the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada in June released its blueprint for the next five years, Vision 2025: Charting a New Course, support for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was one of its core themes.

Small companies make up over 90 per cent of the sector and the report argued for greater government support to help them scale up, generate more jobs, and enhance their global competitiveness. AIAC Photo
Small companies make up over 90 per cent of the sector and the report argued for greater government support to help them scale up, generate more jobs, and enhance their global competitiveness. AIAC Photo
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Small companies make up over 90 per cent of the sector and the report argued for greater government support to help them scale up, generate more jobs, and enhance their global competitiveness. That could include new funding to pursue digital business transformation, a reduction in the complexity of government contracting, and greater priority in the value propositions of prime contractors chasing defence procurements.

“If our small- and mid-sized companies are left at risk, the negative impacts will be felt across Canada’s aerospace industry as a whole,” according to the report, prepared by Jean Charest, a former premier of Quebec and deputy prime minister of Canada.

Small companies are viewed as the prime creators of aerospace jobs and, in a sector buffeted by changing technology and new players, many may be more agile and better able to adapt than larger counterparts that must answer to corporate headquarters outside of Canada. But support from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and governments is essential to their survival, according to a panel of SMEs at the Canadian Aerospace Summit in November.

There is no one-size-fits-all to helping SMEs scale up. Companies at different stages of growth require different types of support, they noted. But help with skilled labour shortages and easier access to government programs are common challenges for all.

A solid position on a major platform is critical to initial success, but long-term growth requires diversification, observed Barney Bangs, chief executive officer of Tulmar Safety Systems.

Located between Ottawa and Montreal in the small community of Hawkesbury, Ont., the company manufactures protective and safety equipment, associated components and in-flight training products. Traditionally, its focus has been 80 per cent defence — Tulmar has been a supplier to a military platform for over 25 years and benefitted from a strong aftermarket. In recent years, though, the company has sought a better balance between military and commercial customers.

“As of last year, we were 65 per cent defence and 35 per cent (civilian) aerospace,” he said.

Tulmar has also become more of what he called “a solution provider,” integrating components from other suppliers to provide an OEM with a final, certified piece of equipment such as an aircraft seat rather than just the safety harness or seatbelt. “We are doing more in-house and saving customer-costs for the OEM,” said Bangs.

Diversification has also been a priority for Apex Industries, a machining, components, subassembly and structures manufacturer in Moncton, N.B. Twelve years ago, its aerospace business was five per cent defence and 95 per cent civil, much of it geared to Bell Helicopter and Bombardier.

“We made a conscious effort to diversify into the military side a lot more,” said vice-president Keith Donaldson. “We are very conscious of not allowing our sales to go too high on one platform or with one customer.”

Challenged by cost-savings pressures in commercial aviation contracts, military platforms offer a company like APEX “good visibility,” he said. However, militaries have long been trading quantity for technological superiority, meaning fewer platforms and a relatively short production cycle. And ramping up quickly with people and equipment to meet tight delivery schedules is a challenge for small businesses that need other options to justify and sustain the investment when the contract ends. “It is very tough for a SME like ourselves to invest.”

However, defence procurement and government programs can go a long way to supporting the scale-up of SMEs, said Patrick Mann, president of Patlon Aircraft & Industries, a technical sales force for global manufacturers of custom components and systems. The scale-up program must be run by single entity within government committed to the Canadian SME community that would be “funded, independent and have the authority to make decisions.”

Mann suggested coping what has worked well in other jurisdictions, noting the success of the United States Small Business Administration’s set-aside program. “Within that, there is a small business innovation research program which has been highly successful in scaling up SMEs,” he said.

The Vision 2025 report called for a federal scale-up program to “provide advice, coaching, networking, value proposition development and consortium-building support to incentivize growth and build capacity–helping firms expand their global footprints and giving them the means and maturity to support OEMs effectively.”

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The report recommended the Office of Small and Medium Enterprises (OSME) within Public Services and Procurement Canada shoulder that responsibility. “Having OSME at the table as a contributor to the development of government procurement strategies and as a champion of small and medium-sized business interests will help ensure government policies and programs recognize the unique characteristics of small firms,” it stated.

“We are a pretty good example of a scale-up of an SME using competitive bid government procurement as a mechanism,” said Mann. However, developments over the past 10 years such as single point of accountability and bundling, where multiple small contracts are combined in one larger procurement that is awarded to one contractor, have been “devasting” to smaller suppliers. “It has been a real issue for us. Again, it is an issue where (OSME) can play a role.”

OEMs can bolster government programs by mentoring small companies within their supplier base on management and production processes, especially around digitization, added Donaldson. “OEMs have a lot of that knowledge … [but] I don’t think [they] do enough of that.”

He and Bangs both cautioned that the ability to scale up will be contingent on resolving talent shortages.  Developing and attracting skilled labour is a chronic problem affecting the entire sector, but it is particularly acute for SMEs in more remote locations that don’t have the resources to recruit as widely or navigate the immigration system. “Before we launch a scale-up program with support for financing and working capital, we have to make sure we have our skills done first,” said Donaldson.

However the Liberal government opts to respond to the Vision 2025 report, the value of investing in SMEs should be clear. Viking Air, KF Aerospace or IMP Aerospace & Defence were once small companies and are “now thriving global participants,” said Mann. “That is the reason why todays SMEs are an important part of our industry.”

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