The next time someone tells you that there are no more big, world-class engineering and technology companies left in the UK, mention Rolls-Royce.
When they tell you that the Germans bought Rolls-Royce years ago – and anyway, everyone wants to drive Bentleys these days – tell them about aircraft engines.
In the age of the quick fix and the short-term target, 30 years is an awfully long time. That is, however, the sort of timescale you need to think in if you want to build a successful business in aero-engines.
Decisions taken by senior engineers and executives now will have repercussions for the business, years after they have retired to the golf course.
Appropriately for a company celebrating its centenary year, Rolls-Royce is good at taking the long-term view. It knows that the engines it is delivering now will be hanging around in the world’s skies for a very long time.
Because it understands its own engines better than anyone else, it is increasingly convincing customers to enter into lucrative service agreements that ensure it will make money from its products many years after they leave the gates of its factories. Rolls is taking the base technology from its aerospace power systems and applying it to other markets – energy, marine and industrial engines.
A combination of this long-term thinking and some world-leading technology allows Rolls to fight toe-to-toe with US giants GE and Pratt & Whitney for business on the world’s biggest aircraft projects.
The long view is unfashionable in much of UK business. Instant results are what count, with success measured by the share price, the bonus target or the whims of the City analyst. If a company is undermined in the process, so what? The management gets fired (with a handsome ‘failure bonus’) and someone else will have to pick up the pieces.
Government is infected with the same malaise. Think up enough quick fixes to win an election, then some more to win the one after that. The long view extends no further than the next polling day.
Companies such as Rolls-Royce have to look to the long term. Of course events – September 11 springs to mind – can have a short-term impact, and will need to be deftly dealt with. But the ability to think in decades as well as months is a virtue the UK economy badly needs at the moment.