Cobham flies high

Earlier this month, UK aerospace and defence group Cobham bagged a $100m (£54m) contract to supply sub-systems to the Boeing 7E7 and bought a new company.

It was business as usual for Cobham earlier this month when the UK aerospace and defence group bagged a $100m (£54m) contract to supply sub-systems to the Boeing 7E7 and bought a new company.

Cobham has been winning a lot of contracts and buying a lot of companies recently. The latest addition is Pentar, a US specialist in airborne communications technologies, which was snapped up for $2.6m (£1.4m).

Pentar joins the 13 acquisitions made by Cobham last year, and the Dorset group has made it clear that more will follow when the opportunity arises.

The ever-expanding clan of companies under the Cobham umbrella includes Chelton, Flight Refuelling, Sargent Fletcher,Carleton Technologies and Stanley Aviation.

Via these and others, Cobham offers the world’s aerospace and defence industries expertise in flight refuelling, radio and satellite communications, cockpit avionics, composites and defence countermeasures.

Airborne refuelling has proved a particularly fruitful area for Cobham. In January, the AirTanker consortium, of which the group owns 25 per cent, was named by the MoD as preferred bidder for its £13bn, 27-year air-to-air refuelling contract for the RAF.

Cobham, in conjunction with EADS, Rolls-Royce and Thales, saw off a rival heavyweight consortium including Boeing and BAE Systems to secure the MoD’s backing.

The news was a huge boost to Cobham, which followed it up with the announcement of a 17 per cent rise in underlying profits to £135m and a bulging £1.2bn order book.

The reasons for Cobham’s success are not hard too find. By scouring the world for niche hi-tech business that seemed peripheral to their previous owners it has built up a formidably wide-ranging portfolio, enabling it to compete in a broad range of defence projects. Its acquisitions in the US look particularly canny given the vast defence R&D spending there compared to Europe.

By concentrating its firepower on defence, Cobham has also insulated itself from the problems afflicting its commercial aerospace operations.

Most significantly, the group has tapped into areas of defence technology where it can build up world-class positions. Refuelling is one example, another is its life support division, specialising in aviation oxygen systems.

Cobham has achieved these leading positions through investment in technology – £40m in 2003 – amounting to a hefty six per cent of the income of its aerospace systems and avionics operations.

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