Q&A with Colin Smith, Founder and CEO

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

How did you become involved in the aviation industry?

I was originally an electrical switchgear and motor control engineer and had the opportunity to work in a wide range of different industries, including nuclear power stations, vehicle manufacturing and petrochemicals to name a few. It gave me experience of working on a whole host of diverse applications and an unparalleled insight into industry.

In time, I started to manufacture my own switch gear from my garage, quickly gained a reputation in the industry, then sold the design and concentrated on maintenance which led to my work with Heathrow Airport. Our work with airports and logistics operators grew rapidly from there.

Tell us something people would be surprised to learn about you...

I was the thermal consultant on the award-winning BBC television series The Human Body, which aired in 1998 and was presented by Lord Robert Winston. The pioneering series looked at the mechanics and emotions of the human body from birth to death.

Who encouraged your entrepreneurial spirit?

When I was first married and my wife was pregnant with our first child, I used to rewire yachts to earn extra money. A millionaire customer, who had already spread the word about my work to help me win a lot of new business, took me to one side and told me I should hand in my notice and start working for myself.

He lent me my first office space, gave me an initial £500 loan to get me started and gave me the support of his bookkeeper for the first two years in business. I will always be grateful for his encouragement, which gave me the confidence to start in business.

What do you consider your smartest business idea?

I was in hospital at the time and the medical staff were regular taking my temperature to check on my condition. It made me realise that if I could use thermal technology to monitor the temperature of electrical motor-gearboxes running the baggage handling systems at Heathrow airport, I could build a database to trend departure from established norms. This enabled me to identify units evoking warnings and over time radically reduce their faults by 50%. That was the beginning of Air Partner CHS’s flourishing airport operator, condition monitoring business.

What do you see as the biggest challenges currently facing airport operators?

Airport operators around the world, especially the smaller regional ones, are facing challenging times. They are at the centre of a perfect storm formed of pressures such as threatened profits, increasing regulatory demands and the need for additional investment in operational infrastructure. In the early days of commercial flying, the airport operators were in clover. Flying was an exotic, luxurious and relatively expensive pastime generating enough cash to keep all those involved in healthy profits. But times have changed and many regional airport operators are having to evolve to meet the demands of their new reality.

What is the answer to this challenge?

One is to harness the next wave of business efficiency, which has arrived in the evolution of technology and the promise of Cyber Physical Systems, sometimes known as the fourth industrial revolution, that can help to alleviate the pressure. Technologies such as the Internet of Things and Machine Learning are providing opportunities to make drastic operational savings with the introduction of automated monitoring and alerts systems for all electromechanical equipment across the airport engineering infrastructure and facilities.

Periodic manual and labor-intensive inspection of infrastructure such as baggage handling systems, is no comparison to 24/7 remote monitoring. For example, sensors can constantly monitor temperature, vibration and humidity providing information over the internet to autonomous systems about system health and condition.

The information can be collected efficiently and displayed on a dashboard to show asset health status at a glance and the views can be customised to organise assets by location or type.

Emails and alerts are sent to engineers the moment components begin to fall outside of optimum working parameters. This forewarning provides the airport operator with the maximum window of opportunity to prevent failure. Spares stock holding can be reduced, shut downs planned and maintenance activity scheduled well in advance of failure. Put simply it avoids unplanned outages, optimises the work schedule and reduces costs.

What are you most proud of achieving at Air Partner CHS?

I would not call it pride, but it is important to have standards and measure departure from them. Having run the company for the past 34 years we have built a platinum-coated reputation by taking on some of the toughest engineering challenges and delivering on time, to budget and at lowest cost. This is reflected in great relationships with our customers and with the people who work for us.

What is your management style?

Passion, aptitude and attitude are important to me, I try to hire talented people and then let them get on with the job. I value people, their ideas and their advice and just try to give them the confidence to grow and develop. It is important to have the right people doing the right things and doing those things right, not only in business!

What motivates you?

Primarily caring for my wife, family and those I have been fortunate enough to work with. Success drives me, I’m not a materialistic person, but judge success by the reputation we build and the continuity of our business as customers return.

What interests you outside of work?

My Christian faith, my wife and family. When I was very young, I liked to spend time with my grandad who had a hardware shop in Devons Road Bow in the East End of London. He played an autoharp and introduced me to a song called Nobodies Child, about a blind orphan child.

Since then, I always imagined building an orphanage and when I visited India the opportunity came up when I was approached to provide a new orphanage to replace one under threat. Friends rallied to support financially to secure the land and I designed and managed the building of a new orphanage for around 160 children. Their existing home was going to be knocked down to make way for a steel works. It was a two to three-year project and one that my heart is still very closely associated with. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to fulfill this life-long desire. I have been fortunate enough to be involved in other charitable activity for those in need which has centered around individual health and education.


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