My Engineering Apprenticeship - Tony Belisario

My Dowty Apprentice Story

Having had a view from a craft and commercial apprentice (I worked with Ian Mence) I will take you through my experience as a Dowty Group student apprentice (1968 -1972).

I was encouraged to take up a career in engineering from a very enthusiastic and supportive schoolteacher.

Rather than read a straight engineering degree, he persuaded me to look for sponsorship and do a thin sandwich degree course attached to an apprenticeship .

Rolls Royce, Automotive Products and the Dowty Group offered to sponsor me and I chose Dowty because of the train journey through the Stroud valley. Having been brought up in the flat county of Norfolk, the rolling hills of the Cotswolds captured me. Norfolk was also a laid back quiet county and I love going back there now, but as an 18 year old I wanted to experience the life of the big city, so chose Brunel University on the outskirts of London in Uxbridge.

In those days, the popular upcoming bands of the day performed on the university circuit, so I was lucky enough to see Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, The Who and many more on campus, as well as going to all night gigs in the Lyceum and Royal Albert hall. Those days have gone for today’s students alas.

Sorry for the digression but it was all part of my apprenticeship.

There were many positives of doing a thin sandwich degree course over four years as a sponsored student rather than a straight three year course. The first three years consisted of two terms at university and two terms in industry, followed by a final year at university.

During my industrial training periods I worked on the machines in the Ashchurch apprentice school and the Arle Court apprentice drawing office. I experienced running machines at Dowty Rotol making product on both the day and night shift and spent time in various design , production and commercial departments at Dowty Seals, Dowty Fuel Systems and Dowty Hydraulics. So when I was awarded my degree in 1972 I had amassed much invaluable practical experience and was able to hit the ground running.

This type of apprenticeship was also beneficial financially, as I received a Local Education Authority grant, a grant from Dowty and earned a wage during the industrial terms. My experience on the shop floor proved invaluable to me in so many ways as I started to climb the management ladder.

What were the government thinking when they stopped supporting apprenticeships.

I owe much of my rewarding and satisfying career to my apprenticeship and not to forget the support given post apprenticeship by the Dowty Group training department (Sir George believed in training) headed by Ken Browning.

I started off in the methods department at Dowty Fuel Systems and to Ken’s annoyance, I found the pace too slow and applied for and was given a job at Dowty Mining, where the annual growth rate in sales made it a vibrant and exciting place to work.

I left Dowty in 1977 to join a fellow Dowty apprentice, Geoff Smith, and take up a management position at Lucas Bryce where I gained experience of high volume manufacture and managing a large production team.

In 1979 I returned to Dowty as Production Director of Dowty Hydaulics which operated in very competetive market place before moving to a similar position at Dowty Fuel Systems in 1984.

In 1987 I was appointed Managing Director of Dowty Fuel Systems where my challenge was to take it from a cost plus environment to make it competitive which meant changing the culture to suit whilst keeping it profitable .

By 1991 I was managing a group of defence and aerospace companies but had got disillusioned as the Group Board did not support a key acquisition in defence electronics which was key making our hydromechanical designs internationally competitive as technology was changing.

I then went to work for Arnold Weinstock, which was an interesting experience, as MD of GEC Aerospace. Whilst at GEC the Dowty Group fell to a hostile bid and was taken over by the TI group. In 1992

I was invited back and joined the TI Group as deputy Chief Executive of Dowty Aerospace and was later appointed Chief Executive of John Crane Polymer Engineering where all the Dowty Seals Companies fitted.

So I have worked at most of the original Dowty Group Companies in my career.

In 1996 I left TI to head up a management buy in and then later a management buy out of a group of companies originally owned by Farnel Electronics making electronic products.

I ended my full time working life in 2009 as MD of VT Shipbuilding, working for Paul Lester, a Dowty Group commercial apprentice, where we shared the design and manufacture with BAE of the Type 23 Frigate and the two new aircraft carriers which are now in service.

The association with my apprenticeship continued into semi–retirement where I served, from 2009, on the Management Board (Council) of Brunel university for 9 years which was an extremely rewarding experience.

I am still keeping my association with Dowty going as this year I complete 8 years as a Member Trustee Director on the Trustee Board of the TI Group Pension Scheme where we are on course to a ‘buy out’ which will give the members much greater security of their pensions.

If you look back at the Dowty Apprentices of my era through the late 60s and 70’s, although they did not all stay with Dowty, many of them went on to have successful careers elsewhere.

My partner had two brothers and a brother in law who were Dowty apprentices. The brother in law, Gerald Christie,  told me once that he was one of Sir George’s first five apprentices.

I now go to Pilates once a week (otherwise I would seize up), with another ex. Dowty apprentice, who I shared a house with in my first year!

There are a lot of us about because Sir George could see the benefit of training his own staff.

My degree gave me an understanding of the technology, engineering and manufacturing processes which was very helpful as I have worked in businesses using a diversity of technology. My apprenticeship quickly introduced me to the working environment whilst teaching me valuable practical and social skills which has enabled me to be more effective in my various work roles.

Bring back apprenticeships and sandwich academic study – the country can only benefit.

Tony Belisario

Dowty Fuel Systems 1989 A meeting to celebrate the 25 year service to the company of David Foster who kindly gave permission to use his photo. L-R right back row 1 to 10. Seated 11 to 15. 3. Tony Belisario. 4 David Foster. 5 Geoff Smith. 6. Pat Martin. 8 Frank Hopkins. 10 Albert Hall 11 Ernie Wathan? 12 Tim Davies. 13 Brian ?? 15 Brian Poolman
L-R: Tony Belisario, Colin Cox, Geoff Smith (on the left shaking hands) tall man on right is Tony Thatcher
Original photo in the Dowty archive at the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub

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