Chris Jenkins, Thales Australia CEO
When engineering really makes a difference. Chris Jenkins talks about his experience in Thales
In some of the proudest moments of his career, the CEO of Thales Australia Chris Jenkins has personally been thanked by soldiers returning from Afghanistan for his company’s role in creating the Bushmaster personnel carrier.
“I didn’t design the vehicle, but I’m fortunate to be operating the company that does the design,” he says. “I’ve met many soldiers that have come back from Afghanistan and they say ‘you’re from Thales – I just wanted to thank you because I’m alive today because you created the Bushmaster’. That’s just massively rewarding – to have that come from so many soldiers.”
Chris says the vehicle, which was first used in 2005 and is now exported to the Netherlands and UK, has saved between 60 and 300 lives. An alumnus of the UNSW Faculty of Engineering, Chris has been involved in the defence industry since 1981, and an employee of Thales for almost 20 years. He became Managing Director and now CEO in 2008.
In Australia, Thales has 3,200 employees spread across 10 major sites, and about 25 other sites. About 75% of the work in Australia is defence-related – designing and building systems for the next submarines, the next ships, the next armaments, secure communications – but it is also involved in major non-military projects, such as air traffic control systems, encryption systems for banks and systems that can digitally recognise vehicles and number plates.
“I get to involve myself in many really neat and exciting engineering programs. I have to say it’s one of the best jobs around,” Chris says. “Best of all we engineer solutions that create good for the country. We don’t do toasters, and we don’t do flat-screen TVs. We do things that make a big difference.”
Chris’s career has involved a lot of engineering design and breakthroughs in sonar systems, but now as head of such a large entity, he rarely gets to be as involved in engineering design. Instead he calls himself an “organisational engineer”. “You can design organisations so they better deliver the designs and the engineering results,” he says. He compared it to getting the most out of individual compoments in a system. “You’re finding ways of managing people to be more successful when they work together.”
In 2012, Chris and some of his engineering team began mentoring UNSW students involved in design and building the new Sunswift vehicle.
“Sunswift’s a great project,” he says. “I’m a mechanical engineer and a bit of a petrol head, and it was a beautifully thought through concept – not only very efficient, but it looked great too. I saw that and couldn’t help but be enthusiastic in providing support.”
Senior engineers at Thales worked with the team at UNSW, particularly in terms of the robustness of the design, and decisions over whether to buy something existing in the marketplace or to make the component from scratch. “You get scars from making mistakes and scar tissue makes you stronger by learning from your mistakes,” he says. “Our senior guys were working with the students to share that experience – to ensure it’s going to work consistently, reliably. The excitement in the Sunswift team – you could feel it, and there was a benefit for my company to be involved, because for many of the engineers this is another cool thing to be involved with.”
One of the latest projects that Thales is involved with is another vehicle – a cut-down seven-tonne vehicle similar to the Bushmaster, called Hawkei. Chris believes that the vehicle, still in development, will save even more Australian lives. “It’s been blown up and it’s been subject to a whole bunch of testing and has met all of its performance objectives,” he says. “It’s a fantastic design.”
Chris’ top four career tips
- Look for a job that you’re enthusiastic about and passionate about. Migrate towards jobs that give you a sense of personal reward beyond the money. You perform a lot better – it energises your body and your brain, and your subconscious solves problems while you’re not even thinking about them
- Life is a fantastically precious thing and it goes really fast, so do something that is rewarding in terms of doing something that makes a difference. You don’t want to end your life having not achieved something of significance
- Learn to communicate well. The more you can engage people and get them excited about your idea, the more it will drive that idea faster. Energising others is the way to get results faster, and that comes through effectively communicating your ideas
- Show courage to be noticed every so often by taking a different direction to where the pack is going. Be noticed. Show that there is a different, better solution by taking the alternative path, and be recognised for that. If you’re right, it’ll be very important for your career