Bruce Dickinson From Iron Maiden
The machine, a Brother CM-1000, came off the production line in November, was given to a museum for safe-keeping and that was that. For many, the sound of the Wrexham factory’s metal gates clanging shut for the final time was also the sound of the last nail being driven into the coffin of British industry. It was official, the experts announced: Britain was no longer a country that built things.
It’s now 11 months later and a lot of those same experts are going quiet. New studies have shown that while the economy is still a long way from rallying (unemployment hovers at around 7.8%), there are reasons to be cheerful. Chief among these reasons? We’re making stuff again. You read that right. Britain still makes stuff. And it’s good stuff, too. The sort of stuff everyone from newly minted young families in the suburbs of Shanghai to elite European militaries want to own.
In September, global financial boffins were stunned to discover the UK economy had been given a totally unexpected shot in the arm after the British manufacturing sector expanded sizably for its fifth consecutive month. The short of it: our country’s output is rising at its fastest rate for almost 20 years. FHM decided to pay a visit to a man whose never-say-die spirit and entrepreneurial attitude is helping reignite the touch paper of British industry. Situated by the mouth of the River Severn, surrounded
by 6,000 ft of the immaculate runway and housed inside two enormous hangars is Cardiff Aviation Limited – the aircraft business set up last year by one Bruce Dickinson. The Bruce Dickinson is most famous for fronting legendary heavy metal outfit Iron Maiden for the best part of 30 years.
And why not? It seems sort of fitting that in this period of uncertainty and economic turmoil, it should be a guy like Bruce that rushes to Britain’s aid. His on-stage persona is not a million miles away from denim and leather-clad Michael Palin, a swashbuckling storyteller thrilling the world with exceedingly British tales of high adventure featuring fighter pilots, cowboys and cavalry charges. He also bloody loves planes. The son of an engineer, Bruce became a qualified commercial pilot in 1998. Since then he’s used his proverbial wings to rescue stranded holidaymakers in Egypt and Lebanon, retrieve British RAF pilots from Afghanistan and ferry football teams — including Liverpool — to matches in Europe. That’s right — while most off-duty rockstars are happy to cultivate a paunch and wait for the royalties to roll in, Bruce Dickinson (a man who has played thousands of gigs and sold bazillions of records) went and got himself a day job.
We meet the main man on a sunny Welsh afternoon for a tour of his business’s base of operations. He appears remarkably chipper for a 55-year-old who, just 14 hours previously, was screaming his heart out in front of 25,000 people in Zagreb, Croatia. “I don’t know whether there’s a bit of OCD or whatever but when I get stuck into something, I get obsessive,” he says when we ask him about his work rate (apart from singing and flying, Bruce is also an Olympic-level fencer, broadcaster and a published novelist). “Every waking hour I’m thinking, ‘OK, I am going to sort this out, I am going to master this.’ It’s wanting to get it.”
Cardiff Aviation, launched in May last year, is Bruce’s attempt to “get” the business world. The goal is for the company to become a bustling one-stop shop for all your aircraft needs. Repairing, building and servicing parts, training pilots and chartering flights — if all goes to plan, its CV is going to look as busy as the man who founded it.
He walks us through the hangars, each one big enough to house a couple of Boeing 737s and still have room to spare. Towers of electric-blue scaffolding lend the interiors a distinctly space-age feel. Engines the size of vans are wheeled out as engineers potter about, tinkering with the underside of a freshly painted fuselage. Each time Bruce enters the orbit of a large piece of equipment, his face lights up. He’s not so much a kid in a sweet shop as the kid who owns the sweet shop. And the sweet factory.
“Look at these,” he says, running up to a set of heavy-duty machines that look like something Arnold Schwarzenegger might get crushed by at the end of The Terminator. “These things were used to build motorbikes. Can you believe they wanted to get rid of them?” The hangars — all 132,000 square feet of them — are full of aeronautical odds and ends. It’s a ginormous inventor’s workshop, but one that could shortly end up employing around 1,000 people.
“When they announced plans to open this place, everyone in Cardiff with an engineering background got excited,” says Jen, who works at the facility. She admits that when she went to the job interview, she’d never even heard of Bruce Dickinson, although her male friends went berserk with envy when they found out. “They want me to get him to sign stuff for them. But that seems like a weird thing to ask my boss to do.”
So what does this grizzled veteran of the heavy metal world make of Britain’s re-emergence as a player on the global manufacturing scene? Is the future all blue skies and plain sailing, or do the next generation of businessmen and entrepreneurs have a nasty patch of turbulence coming their way to be a trading nation,” declares Bruce, sitting down in a conference room. “An inventive trading nation. A stunning percentage of the inventions developed in Japan and Korea are of UK origin. We think outside the box because we’re a nation of eccentrics. We don’t see the world in the same way other people do. It’s rooted in our culture, our humour, in Shakespeare.”
The idea of our country not being the steel-bashing “workshop of the world” but, instead, a specialised manufacturer of high-quality goods is one that is slowly catching on. Julie Deane, the founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company, whose leather satchels you might have seen in a recent Google Chrome ad, has said as much in the past. “There is now an awareness of UK-based production that appeals to our customers as a mark of integrity and quality,” she says. According to Richard Holt, an economist at Capital Economics, this is even truer when the company isn’t actually British-owned. “Individual brands such as Jaguar do carry weight,” he tells FHM. “These are brands partly sold on Britishness. If customers start to feel that the Britishness is faked, sales could suffer.” At times that the mild-mannered middle-aged man currently talking to us in very businesslike terms about profit margins is one and the same as the rock colossus who has laid waste to sold-out arenas in places as far-flung as Jakarta and Rio De Janeiro. Yet every now and then, when he gets animated, you catch a glimpse of the other guy. His stance becomes lively and a bit theatrical. The voice takes on a booming, room-filling quality. It all serves as a reminder: unlike his colleagues, when this guy’s finished approving budgeting documents, he doesn't drive home, open a Stella and fall asleep in front of Coronation Street. No, he picks up a microphone and belts out the chorus to Fear Of The Dark in front of tens of thousands of rabid fans.
“We should be telling young people, ‘Go away and think up a crazy idea and don’t let anybody tell you it’s not going to work,’” he says, watching the Chinook wheel around and fly off into the distance. “Banks are meant to be helping normal people achieve their goals and build businesses. And we’ve lost that.” If we want to capitalise on the potential for manufacturing in Britain, we’ll need more individuals like Bruce willing to inject their own time, money and enthusiasm into kickstarting British industry, even when it feels like the system is working against them. Tony Boylan of stillmadeinbritain.co.uk is adamant there is a demand for things manufactured here. “There’s more and more of a demand for the ‘Made in the UK’ label, especially when it comes to clothes,” he says. “The big issue is the lack of trained personnel. We need more skilled professionals in this country. But no one’s training anyone.”
Meanwhile, Bruce and his team will continue to plug away at making Cardiff Aviation a barn-storming 21st-century success story. “You have to have the balls to go out and make big decisions,” he says. “It’s just down to the type of person you are — whether when you were beaten up in the playground, you turned around to the bully and said, ‘Fuck you-you didn’t hit me hard enough, you cunt."