General Dynamics European Land Systems is one of Europe’s leading military vehicle and bridge systems manufacturers. We caught up with Dr Thomas Kauffmann, vice president of international business and services, to hear about executive life in this most challenging of fields.
General Dynamic’s European land systems business unit GDELS, headquartered in Madrid with sites in Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Romania and the Czech Republic, produces a range of wheeled and tracked armoured combat vehicles, along with amphibious bridge and ferry systems. In common with all manufacturing sectors, as technology advances, so do the products. What is perhaps different is that in the business of military mobility, staying ahead of the curve is literally a matter of life and death.
That’s a weighty responsibility, but one which the current vice president of international business and services at GDELS, Dr Thomas Kauffmann, relishes. He joined the company twelve years ago from a non-commercial background which uniquely prepared him for the role.
Building the foundation
“I actually started my professional career in the military,” Dr Kauffmann explains. “I served as an officer in the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces). So you could say that politics, defence, leadership, all these things which are the core of what I do now, these were part of my basic education. I then studied economics and politics, while my PhD was in strategy.”
It was natural that this starting point would lead the young executive into a post-military career in the defence industry. Roles at European aerospace and thereafter at a German defence company followed before taking up a position with GD. Immediately, he felt a great affinity with his transatlantic employer, something he has retained to the present day.
“There is so much at GDELS which represents my way of thinking,” he says. “I am a transatlantic person, and I view the relationship between Europe and the US as indispensable. I don’t just mean that in a business sense, but for far-reaching reasons, especially security. This relationship is extremely important for our mutual future. At the end of the day, when we work together, we are defending liberty. This is what motivates me and why I work in this sector. It is not just a job. It is far more than that.”
From the outset of his career with GDELS, it was clear to Dr Kauffmann that he had joined a major player with an international scope. Yet, despite the company’s presence in multiple countries, he also saw that it was important to maintain a unified approach. In this way, his initial focus was on what he describes as the “softer” side of the job.
Inter-cultural competence is a key element if you want to be successful.
“I placed a great deal of importance on co-operation,” the VP recalls. “On encouraging teamwork and so on. I know this is something everyone says as a kind of marketing gimmick, but for me, it was a very real part of the process. It’s so important in a company like ours to co-operate beyond your cultural background. That’s what our business is all about and what our clients look for. Inter-cultural competence is a key element if you want to be successful. So we structured our company in a way that brings the strengths from all the different nationalities we have working with us, in pursuit of one common goal. To me, this is one of our greatest achievements, during my time, that we have implemented this culture so successfully.”
With the new culture embedded, GDELS was in a far stronger position to deliver on its business objectives. It positioned itself as the transatlantic partner for those seeking state-of-the-art land defence solutions in Europe and beyond. This in turn, enabled a laser-sharp focus on longer-term goals.
“Our aim is to be a trusted partner with many European governments,” Dr Kauffmann says, with reference to the next three- to five-year period. “That’s all about the needs our customers have and our ability to anticipate and satisfy those needs. Of course, that is something that is heavily affected by the current situation.”
While the current war in Ukraine impacts industries all over Europe and even beyond, particularly regarding energy costs, it has had a special impact on the defence industry. General Dynamics European Land Systems works closely with countries who are keeping a close eye on developments in Ukraine. Sensitivities over future events and the unwelcome possibility of escalation mean that the company may be called upon by its clients at a moment’s notice. Under such circumstances, it is imperative that they deliver to expectations immediately. Dr Kauffmann acknowledges this and confronts the realities of it with total confidence.
“In several areas, we are a world market leader,” the VP explains. “For example, in amphibious bridging systems. We are constantly fielding new demands from within our customer community, of whom NATO is a big part. We have to ensure that we meet their needs of course, as any business must do with its clients, but at times of heightened tensions, in our industry, those needs become more pressing. But this is baked into our corporate DNA. Flexibility and reliability are our two key qualities.”
In addition to anticipating the future and responding, GDELS has had to hold on to certain characteristics which help to differentiate it from competitors in class. Defence is a competitive sector, and a company simply manufacturing new products and marketing them will not stand out. There is a recognition of the need to engage with and provide solutions to clients in an ever-evolving and agile way. Through this, the vice president has been able to retain the company’s position as a leader in its field.
“We do not just sell a product, but we also provide an economic stimulus to our customers,” he says. “Our customers are governments, of course. That is why we started an industrial participation strategy, years ago. That means we have our own factories where we manufacture our products and ideally transfer technology and know-how for the production into our clients’ countries to create an extra economic stimulus for them.”
A unified approach
In this way, GDELS has created a network of over 4500 industry partners. This has provided a sense of flexibility when it comes to securing the supply chains and delivery, as the company’s products can be produced at various sites, under the same processes, and to the same specifications. Through this, a competitive edge is maintained.
We have clear ethics and values. Perhaps above all, our word remains our word
As a result, and under Dr Kauffmann’s continued guidance, there is little doubt that GDELS will continue to forge ahead in its sector.
“I am proud to be part of a great senior leadership team. Our diverse cultural backgrounds and complementary competences constitute our continued business success. Our team approach is simple,” the VP concludes. “Our customers can count on us. We understand the critical role we have for them. We are trusted partners. We are reliable. We have clear ethics and values. Perhaps above all, our word remains our word. Our handshake constitutes a pledge, a commitment. This is how we do business at GDELS.”