Although Brexit was looming, F/LIST opened a new facility at London’s Biggin Hill Airport in August 2019. The site had barely begun work when the coronavirus pandemic hit, but Managing Director Stefan Chevalier remains optimistic about the company’s future in the UK
It is fortunate that F/LIST UK Managing Director Stefan Chevalier relishes a challenge. With some aviation service providers doubting their post-Brexit future in Britain, F/LIST boldly moved in, only to find itself working through the COVID-19 crisis just a few months later. Yet the irrepressibly upbeat Chevalier seems to be taking the unexpected in his stride and he’s looking forward to expanding the UK business post-pandemic. He spoke to EVA late in April.
“We have our own hangar at Biggin Hill, located between two that Bombardier uses. Inside, we have a workshop and two spray booths – we rebuilt the hangar because it had previously been used only for storage.” Chevalier describes the hangar’s modification as a ‘huge project’, noting that he arrived on site only last August.
“For three months my focus was not only on construction and equipment installation but also on supporting our partner on site, and in December we started full production in the workshop alongside on-wing work. Our first Biggin Hill order came in at the beginning of the month and we were immediately into using the spray booths. We also have a second, fully-equipped shop where we work on soft goods – reupholstery, seat repairs, carpets and so on.
“We began hiring new, experienced people, but at the moment the staff of seven includes a 20-year old who’s joined the business as a trainee. He’s learning on the job and we’ll also send him to Austria for more experience; we’re expecting him to really grow from working alongside the other guys we have here and through learning all the products.”
Biggin Hill Potential
With Bombardier building a new hangar at Biggin, Chevalier sees great potential for
F/LIST at the Kent airfield. He emphasises that pre-COVID, construction was scheduled for completion in mid-2022 and though he’s mindful about any predictions at the moment, he remains thoroughly optimistic; even the uncertainties of Brexit seem to have little impact on his enthusiasm.
Indeed, while others are considering the future of their UK-based businesses, Chevalier is busily establishing a new one. “When I decided to move to the UK, friends said to me, ‘Most people are leaving the UK but you’re going there, what’s wrong with you?’ I said, ‘Look, Bombardier has undertaken huge development at Biggin Hill in the last three years and they see the demand for a quality on-site interiors partner. That’s why F/LIST decided to come here. It doesn’t matter what comes out of Brexit. So long as Bombardier is here, we’re pleased to be next door.’
“Also, look at all the other business aviation companies around London. I think there’s huge potential for us but I also expect a good, long future with Bombardier; some customers are coming to them because F/LIST is on site, which is a huge benefit for them, and a win-win for both of us.”
The Bombardier connection is vitally important to F/LIST and will remain so, but Chevalier has already cast an eye towards future interior refurbishment requests in the region. The possibility of sending a mobile repair team to any other London business aviation airfield is also very much on his radar.
Unfortunately, even unbridled enthusiasm isn’t sufficient to negotiate the myriad difficulties of working through coronavirus. Chevalier’s team was barely up and running when the pandemic hit. F/LIST UK has a small staff working in a spacious hangar, which simplifies social distancing somewhat, but the situation remains tricky.
“We started slowly in December, but then saw maybe 100% growth every month, just through orders from Bombardier. Right now we don’t have sufficient manpower to keep up, because coronavirus means we’re not receiving support from our subsidiaries or from Austria. But the guys here at Biggin are doing a great job and I’m really proud of them; they’re working hard to cover all the work that’s coming in.
“Social distancing is still a challenge, although we’re lucky we can have two people working in the spray booths and someone else sanding parts ready for spraying, for example, but the greater difficulty comes from interacting with the Bombardier staff. The problems are with collecting parts and working inside aircraft. We have to define a scheduled for when Bombardier is in the aircraft and when F/LIST can have access.”
With flying rates down, now might be the ideal time to place aircraft in maintenance, but Chevalier says he’s seeing owners deferring. “They are concerned that the crew of an aircraft flying into the UK might have to go into quarantine for 14 days, which no one wants. It’s not affecting our daily business, but may affect the bigger picture.”
Meanwhile, the Biggin Hill workshop is set up to complete component repairs and refurbishment, and partial cabin refit, but Chevalier says it’s more economical for full cabin projects to go to Austria. While Biggin’s two spray booths are more than adequate for its needs, a complete cabin might require support from the Austrian headquarters.
Meanwhile, F/LIST UK is an excellent gateway into the company’s catalogue. Customers interested in stone flooring or F/LIST’s extraordinary wash basins, for example, may be able to have the items installed at Biggin Hill or investigate possibilities and requirements before investing. “I know every product well and it’s always a pleasure to advise clients and provide recommendations,” Chevalier says.
“I saw moving to the UK as a great opportunity and I have a fantastic team. I like to work with local people and so we’ve recruited locally. Initially I had some experienced personnel from Austria and Germany come over to provide training on the products. The guys here know what they’re doing, but needed to understand the F/LIST range.
“Employing local people also means we give them the opportunity to grow with the company and I believe it’s really important that we pass our specialist skills on to the next generation. Many people begin their careers as aircraft technicians and then specialise in the cabin, there’s no real ‘interior refurbishment’ profession. So, I see us taking on more youngsters so that we always have someone new learning the skills. As a next step, I’m looking at how we can work with local colleges once we have the business properly established.”
That future vision also includes plans for a presence actually inside one of the Bombardier hangars, plus more people on the payroll, greater capability and a wider variety of customers – Chevalier doesn’t expect to remain dependent on Bombardier for work. Mobile repair teams could be an important component in this expansion. “Small repair jobs are really important, because when customers see the quality of the work I’m sure they’ll come back to us again.”
All of which shows the determination of
F/LIST and Stefan Chevalier to make Biggin Hill a success. Even in these unprecedented times, with an internationally recognised product line and the company’s high-tech take on traditional craftsmanship behind them, Chevalier and the UK team have every reason to be optimistic.