One pictures the CEO of a large international aviation corporation sitting at the conference table in a mahogany boardroom, not at the wheel of a volunteer ambulance racing to give someone in Italy a second chance. After hearing his story, it’s not too surprising to find Mecaer Aviation Group CEO Bruno Spagnolini driving that ambulance. He often speaks in rich Italian tones about the importance of serving one’s community. And the former CEO of AgustaWestland knows firsthand that one does not have to be in the back of an ambulance to appreciate a second chance. Mecaer Aviation Group both took and gave a second chance to Spagnolini. The result: the company and CEO seem to be on a honeymoon flight.
“Executive Watch” is more painted portrait than stark, grainy black-and-white negative. Realistic portraits incorporate shadows when the subject calls for it. Spagnolini, an art enthusiast, seemed to sense his portrait would need some subdued tones as within the first minute on the record he brought up “the India scandal.” It’s understandable that he would—he’s lived in the shadows of indictments, trials, and appeals for over five years. It’s also understandable that our first brushstrokes on the canvas would lay down darker hues, as the 2013 AgustaWestland scandal with the government of India was big business and Indian political news—and it gave Mecaer Aviation their opportunity to hire a top-tier aviation CEO.
Darker colors enhance brighter brushstrokes for the lighter pigments appear to shine all the more against a somber background. That is, if the darker color doesn’t dominate the canvas. Spagnolini’s career—and life—are not defined by darkness. Many years have been brilliant.
Farmer Boy’s Son
Spagnolini’s life in aviation began when his father ran away from the family’s poor, farming roots. Yes, there was sustenance to be found in the fertile Italian soil of their rural village, but the father, in youthful searching, wanted to add more spice to his life. He found his bounty as a pilot in the Italian air force. “He gained a lot of experience and three Silver Star awards during the war in Spain and World War II,” says his son with adulation. The former farm boy rose through the military ranks all the way to three-star general. He also saw to it that young Bruno would spend his formative years in Rome. “I was lucky to stay there through my schooling up until my secondary education when I went to the Italian air force Academy in Naples. So, the military and aviation are in my blood from my family.” Not only can love for aviation be inherited, Once acquired, Spagnolini has discovered that aviation is integral to one’s life. “You can make a lot more money in business by selling consumer goods like shoes or phones,” he says, “but if aerospace is inside you, it’s hard to leave it.”
While in the Naple’s academy, Spagnolini eventually acquired the equivalence of a U.S. master’s degree in aerospace engineering. From there it was on to active duty as an engineer in Italy’s Air Force. He recalls the camaraderie of those days, “It was quite an experience spending five years with your colleagues, living day and night together.”
Like his father before him, Spagnolini wanted something more. “After my air force experience in maintenance and procurement, I wanted to go into a bit more competitive market. I was interviewed for a job by fixed-wing manufacturer Aermacchi and also by (Italian helicopter OEM) Agusta to be chief of sales and marketing to the Italian government. I thought the future of rotorcraft advancement was more open than in the fixed-wing sector and I went with Agusta. I was so lucky to immediately be involved in Agusta’s international projects. Then I moved into operations.”
While Spagnolini was moving up the corporate ladder, Agusta made a move of its own by merging with British aerospace company Westland Helicopters to form AgustaWestland, predecessor of today’s Leonardo Helicopters. Spagnolini would be chosen by his mentor, Agusta CEO Amadeo Caporaletti, to lead Agusta, which led to the decades-loyal employee eventually taking over the reins of the merged AgustaWestland as CEO in 2011. The one-time air force engineer had risen in the civilian world from sales to CEO of one of the largest aerospace companies on the planet. But alleged bribes would diminish Spagnolini’s time at the top when Italian police came to arrest him.
In February 2010, India’s government signed a contract to purchase 12 AW101 choppers from AgustaWestland. These aircraft were primarily purchased for flying VVIPs, such as India’s president, prime minister, and others. In 2013, CEO Spagnolini and other corporate officers were charged with paying bribes to the Indian government to secure the sale. Spagnolini and another corporate officer were given prison sentences for false bookkeeping and ordered to pay the equivalence of millions of dollars in restitution. On appeal, a Milan court acquitted Spagnolini and the other officer, stating “There isn’t sufficient proof” to convict. The Wall Street Journal reported that the judge stated at the verdict reading that “while prosecutors had proven that fake invoices had been issued, there was no corruption.” The Journal concluded that the statement was an apparent rejection of the prosecution's argument that there existed a direct connection between the false invoices and the payment of kickbacks.
Spagnolini says that he emerged “totally acquitted.” Still, as it is for many who enter a courtroom, a stressful toll was extracted from him during the legal battle. He lost his executive office at AgustaWestland. “I resigned to protect the company and to protect myself also. The scandal was a tough time,” he says, but a silver lining in the storm clouds sustained him. “I was well supported by my former colleagues at AgustaWestland as well as by my local community who knew me through my social work.” (Not only is Spagnolini a volunteer ambulance driver, he also mentors young boys in academic subjects.)
Another sunray burst through when Mecaer Aviation Group seized their opportunity to recruit the now semi-retired CEO, who since his resignation had started offering his services as a consultant while indulging his hobbies of gardening and cooking. Armando Sassoli, Mecaer’s co-general manager, gives insight into what his company was thinking, “We at Mecaer have been trying for many years to be the best at what we do. (Their primary business is providing fixed-wing and rotorcraft landing gear and actuation as well as creating rotorcraft interiors.) We went from a $30 million company to a $150 million company in 15 years. Now, we are ready for the next step. All of us, our shareholders and executives like me, thought we needed the right leader to take us to the next step. This is why Mr. Spagnolini is here with us. At first we didn’t have hope that we could get someone with so much experience and someone who had been at a top position at a company like AgustaWestland.”
Despite Mecaer’s initial doubt that they could land their prize catch, intense recruiting reeled in Spagnolini. “I joined Mecaer because they really wanted me—but there was no salary increase,” he adds with amusement.
Spagnolini also wanted Mecaer because he sees potential for the aerospace company to still fly higher into business blue sky. “Mecaer has good business fundamentals and good technical capabilities,” he says. “We need to grow internally and have the financials to buy an opportunity. Maybe we will go public in a few years by issuing stock, but our 3-year plan is to increase revenue by 60% from internal, organic growth. We plan to consolidate the company in a way that allows us to maintain our customer support.”
While that sounds like Spagnolini is focusing on Mecaer’s financials. He adds that overly emphasizing numbers can be counterproductive. “I believe more in industry than finance because finance is sometimes narrowly focused. In aerospace particularly, when you focus just on the finances, you can lose your presence in the market. I want people with the courage to innovate and develop. Of course, with the support of the shareholders. I want people on my team willing to take risks for long-term success,” he says.
Spagnolini doesn’t say that he foresees a crisis impacting Mecaer or the industry, but he doesn’t necessarily fear disruption. “When there is a crisis, if you stop investing for the future, you kill the company. A crisis is when you should seize the moment because there is usually a niche you can serve and move into that’s created by others cutting back.” He saw this philosophy enacted by his old mentor, Caporaletti, when the CEO guided Agusta as it skirted bankruptcy in the ‘90s. “He headed the company through a tough time and initiated the redesign of the (model) 109. He also started the launch of the 139. It was a big risk that became a big success,” says Spagnolini.
Where does Spagnolini foresee future success for the company he now leads? He answers, “Our landing gear and actuation business is growing exponentially, based on our top notch record in design reliability, quality and on-time delivery performance. In regards to rotorcraft interiors overall, the U.S. market is fundamentally different from the European approach. In the U.S., it is common for the customer to purchase a ‘green’ (unfinished) aircraft and then take it to a completion center for the interior. In Europe, approx. 90% of interiors are done at the OEM level.” He concludes, “We want to make Mecaer very successful. As part of the Italian Aerospace sector, after the big companies like Leonardo, we want to be the leader in our segment through both domestic and international growth.”
That lofty, yet seemingly attainable goal, will be accomplished by building relationships, says Spagnolini. “Rotorcraft, and aviation in general, is built on relationships. It’s a small industry where everyone knows one another. If you treat somebody wrong, word will get out fast. The first rule is to always respect your competition. At AgustaWestland we competed every day against Eurocopter. We wanted to beat them, but we always respected them. In aviation, you fight, but at the end of the day you drink together.”
That’s a summarizing sentiment to which most in aviation will raise a glass. Salute!