From a 16 year old apprentice to delivering contracts worth billions, in-Cumbria speaks to new BAE boss Steve Timms about the future of Barrow shipyard in its 150th year.

This year BAE plans to recruit another 850 apprentices, the majority of them in the north of England. It’s a recruitment scheme Steve Timms, the new managing director of BAE Systems Submarines, strongly believes in. After all, he worked his way up from entering British Aerospace’s apprenticeship scheme at the age of 16 with eight ‘good’ O-Levels to

overseeing billion-pound defence contracts and employing thousands of people.

“I was a bit fed up of school,” he said. “I was my father’s disappointment,” he jokes, saying he had two brothers at university but decided to follow his dad into British Aerospace where he became a craft apprentice. He quickly moved off the shopfloor and into management. After a decade learning on the job he attended the University of Warwick to do a Masters in Engineering Business Management and then went on to take some senior leadership positions on some of the company’s biggest and most high profile contracts, including Eurofighter Typhoon. “It was a once in a lifetime experience, it was hard yards. When I started out in my career I never imagined…you find your own way in life, as soon as I got to work I found a motivation,” he said.

He said landing the MD’s job - which he describes as the ‘pinnacle’ of his career - in the year Barrow shipyard marks its 150th anniversary has made it even more memorable. “You realise there’s a custodianship, it’s something quite special.”

That custodianship includes delivering the Dreadnought nuclear submarines programme - the single biggest defence programme in Europe. That contract alone is said to be supporting almost 15,000 jobs across the North West with a 1,500 supply chain across the UK as part of an estimated £7.5billion spend. The four Dreadnought submarines, designed to remain undetected for months at sea, is one of the largest and most complex engineering projects in the world. It is estimated it will take in the region of 150 million work hours to design and manufacture the boats for the Royal Navy which will begin to enter service in the early 2030s.

“The Dreadnought programme is delivering critical sovereign defence capability that is fundamental to our national security and makes an important contribution to the country’s economic prosperity. It will sustain thousands of jobs and generate billions of pounds of investment into the middle of the next decade, benefiting every region of the UK. Barrow may be the birthplace of the UK’s submarines, but the programme is truly a national endeavour that we, the suppliers who help deliver the programme and the whole country, should be proud of,” he says.

The first two submarines from the Dreadnought programme are well under construction and the first of class is on schedule for delivery in the early “It’s tremendously important and something we have not done for a few decades,” he said.

Steve spent most of his career in the aircraft sector, but worked for two years as MD of BAE Systems Naval Ships before taking the Barrow job. He says there are similarities between air and sea. “Quite a number of the challenges are very familiar, if you respect the differences,” he said.

Referring to the Astute programme and the Dreadnought, he says: “It is great for the outlook of the shipyard, but there is still a significant amount of work required to secure our future.”

He said the fifth Astute submarine, named Anson – one of the seven attack submarines being delivered to the Royal Navy – was launched In April at Barrow and is due to leave for sea trials in 2022. Work is also under way on Astute boats six and seven.

“If you look at the business and the local impact, it’s significant. It’s an exciting time for us.”

He said Covid had an obvious impact with many workers working from home for the first time in the firm’s history. “We have done things in months that would have taken us years. We can’t do the things we do somewhere else...we remain resilient and productive,” he said.

One of the things he has found interesting about working at the shipyard is its long history and also meeting people whose families have worked there for generations. “Three or four generations or on the odd occasion, five generations. You can feel the pride and people talk about the generational opportunities. It’s become quite an attractive place to work. I think historically it was not as receptive, but there’s a richness, a blend of ideas for the future and I think that’s really healthy. We have always considered the community impact,” he said. BAE Systems Submarines has given more than £50,000 to schools across south Cumbria to help pupils make up lost ground after coronavirus lockdowns as part of their fund specifically aimed at science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. “It’s an enduring commitment,” he said.

Next August Steve, 55, marks 40 years at BAE and he’s confident about the future. “We have a big emphasis on modernising how we do things,” he said. “We have a significant order book. I guess for now we can see that long term perspective and driving a level of performance, it’s an exciting period for us. It does not happen very often, it is a once in a lifetime thing that is playing out. I am excited because if I am being honest when I was here three years ago (he was the Manufacturing Director in the Chief Technology Office) we were stuck in how we did things, there’s now a renewed appetite, modernising for the 21st Century.” He said the key to the shipyard was its people. “You can buy facilities, but where the magic is is the people. There are lots of good people contributing to this effort.”

Married with two children, Steve spent much of his career working away from home with contracts in Europe, India and the US, although he never lived overseas. “I say I had 25 years where I did not get out much!” His wife continues to run her own hairdressing business in Lancashire, where they live. In what little spare time he has, spending it with his family is a priority. Although, when pushed, he admits to making and flying remote control helicopters.

He fondly remembers the conversation he had with his father – who died recently – all those decades ago as he had a similar conversation with his own son Lewis about going to university. Lewis, now 20, decided to take up an BAE apprenticeship instead. Like father like son….