The Bollom line: the outgoing DE&S chief exec reflects on his time leading some of government's most complex and costly projects

As he steps down as chief executive of Defence Equipment and Support, Simon Bollom talks to Tevye Markson about handling criticism, tips for his successor and semi-retirement plans

By Tevye Markson

21 Mar 2022

Sir Simon Bollom is looking forward to irritating his kids. The Defence Equipment and Support chief executive is stepping down in May and plans to spend more time with family and his hobbies.
“You don’t get any younger in this game,” he says. “There are plenty of other things that I really want to do. These jobs are all consuming, seven days a week, a lot of unsociable hours. Although my kids are grown up and they live in different areas, I’m going to irritate them. I’ll probably be doing DIY for both of them.”

It’s not surprising that Bollom has been working unsociable hours: With 11,500 civil servants and military personnel located across the UK and abroad, a £10bn annual budget and responsibility for ensuring the UK’s armed forces have the equipment for all their operations, DE&S is a major cog in the Ministry of Defence machine.

Bollom took on the role in 2018, originally signing up for three years before extending the contract by an extra year.

One hopes his father would be proud: 40 years ago, when Bollom was studying mechanical engineering, his father persuaded him he needed to “find a proper job”.

He quickly chose the Royal Air Force, attracted by the opportunity to stick with engineering without being “sat behind the glowing screen all day”, as well as the operational nature of a forces career and the idea of assuming a position of responsibility at a young age. 

Joining in 1981, he rose up the RAF and ended up as director general for air, leaving after 35 years for the lure of the private sector. “I got to the point where I was probably of no further value to the RAF,” Bollom says.

Setting up his own consultancy in 2016, he was then asked by Tony Douglas, DE&S chief exec at the time, to run “the big ships organisation” as interim director general of ships.

“I don’t know very much about ships,” Bollom told Douglas. “You’re exactly the right man for the job,” Douglas replied.

Defence procurement is complex work; DE&S runs 600 programmes across the Royal Navy, British Army and RAF at any one time. Bollom relishes this aspect of the job, but complexity also means there are many things that can go wrong.

In CSW’s annual permanent secretaries’ roundup, Bollom used his entry to hit out at “negative publicity” about projects not being delivered on time.

The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have both raised concerns about the MoD’s defence equipment programmes in recent years, including overspending, missed deadlines, poor oversight and a lack of skilled workers. 

PAC criticised the MoD’s track record, saying it “continually fails to learn from its mistakes”, has 21 years of delays across 13 major programmes recently examined by the NAO and has “wasted billions of pounds”.

Explaining his frustration, Bollom says: “The NAO report was reasonably well balanced, to be honest, but I don’t mind saying I was very disappointed by PAC and the reports and media that followed on from that.

“Although we’ve got areas that we need to work on and get better at – and I have always been very straightforward about that in front of various committees – I thought it was quite a one-sided report, when it talks about billions wasted.

“Of my projects in the project performance table, a snapshot that the NAO take of the projects we manage, 81% of them have run under cost.

“The net cost of my programme has actually reduced over the last three years and my team have delivered something like £6bn in terms of efficiencies, so that is real money that’s been added back into the defence budget.”

Does criticism affect him and his staff personally?

"Does it bother me? Yes, because I’m competitive. I want to showcase the outstanding work this organisation does"

“You get irritated by it, but you hire people like me that have got a certain amount of experience and resilience,” he says. “Does it bother me? Yes, because I’m competitive. I want to showcase the outstanding work this organisation does. It’s more of a frustration than something that bothers me. It challenges both me – ‘why are you not getting the narrative out there properly?’ – and my organisation. It’s something that we’ve got to keep questioning. It does weigh on people heavily, people that are very proud of the job they do, when they see things misreported in the press. It hurts them deeply.”

This is not to say Bollom thinks the MoD can’t get better at learning from experience.
One of the most controversial defence programmes in recent years is the delayed £5.5bn procurement of Ajax armed vehicles, which reportedly caused damage to soldiers’ hearing during trials.

The MoD announced in December that it is planning to appoint a senior legal figure to investigate what has gone wrong.

Bollom says the noise and vibration issues were not escalated quickly enough.
“I very much regret that this may have been the cause of injury to soldiers. That absolutely is not where we should be in a trials programme. We’re absolutely determined to fix it. The actual vehicle itself is a phenomenal piece of kit. It is two steps beyond the capability that is currently out there, which is nearly 40 years of age. We’ve got to get this into the hands of the army, but clearly it’s got to be safe to operate.”

Asked about the achievements he is proudest of in his current role, Bollom is reluctant to take credit but fiercely proud of the work he and his colleagues do.

“I don’t think you can sit at the top of any large organisation and talk about your own achievements. I could talk about Carrier Strike [A Royal Navy force at sea for seven months that supported HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden operational deployment in 2021], I could talk about Poseidon [DE&S recently delivered nine Poseidon P-8A aircraft, which specialise in anti-submarine warfare]. I could talk about taking 30% out of support contracts and delivering improved availability to the frontline. But this is a team effort. That’s not done by any individual. And so the pinnacle of my career has been leading this organisation, improving it and delivering better outputs for defence.”

When asked about his own sources of inspiration, Bollom reveals his penchant for reading autobiographies – his bookshelf contains memoirs from military leaders like David Petraeus, Colin Powell and Peter Inge as well as business leaders like Richard Branson and Alan Sugar.

“The golden thread in there is that vision and focus and bringing your people with you,” he says.

“You can’t do any of this on your own. To be a successful leader, you’ve got to get the people wanting to work for you.”

Does Bollom have any tips for his successor?

“Hit your targets. You’ve got to be fiercely analytical because finding your targets is all about the data and spotting where things are going well, where things are going not so well and then getting engaged with them. You’ve got to be a good judge of people,” he says. “You’ve got to understand what the strengths and weaknesses of your teams are and make sure that you’re there to help them in their particular weaker areas. It’s also making sure that you’ve got a team that isn’t all of one type, one way of thinking, and that they complement each other and compensate for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

"You can’t do any of this on your own. To be a successful leader, you’ve got to get the people wanting to work for you"

Creating a more diverse workforce is one of the major aims in DE&S’ new strategy, launched last May, which focuses on people, technology and innovation.

One glaring issue in defence is the lack of women, with the MoD having the lowest percentage of women in government.

Last year, DE&S set a target for 35% of its civilian workforce to be female by 2022. It is currently on 34%, Bollom says, compared to the civil service overall, which is 54% female. The number of civil servants from ethnic minorities is 7%, compared to 14% in the overall workforce.

“The stats haven’t moved significantly,” Bollom says.

One of the difficulties is that the engineering profession makes up a large proportion of his workforce and is notoriously male-dominated.

“Twenty-three percent of my people are engineers and if you look at the national average for the engineering profession, it’s 12% female,” Bollom says. “So that makes my job doubly taxing to be able to hit those 45% or 50% targets, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying and I’m really proud of the diversity and inclusion plan that we put in place.”

That plan includes a focus on making sure people understand the standards and behaviours that are expected of them, updating outdated recruitment processes and having role models at the top.

“We’re getting there and I’m impatient that we make further progress, but it’s not going to happen overnight. One of the really important things is people realising their potential and finding mentors for women and for people of different ethnicities and making sure that we give them every opportunity to get through the system. For a long time, it was 100% white male on my executive group. We’re not on a 50:50 yet, but we’ve now got seven male, two female, and some ethnic diversity, so that’s helpful in terms of setting the trend.”

Bollom is keen to highlight a new element of the strategy: social value. “The thing that changed is that at least 10% of the marking that we will award to a bidder is now about social value,” he says.

“It’s about levelling up, diversity and inclusion, and supporting less economically benefited areas. That is a really new emphasis”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the eye-watering “21 years’ worth” of delays to major defence projects cited by the NAO, another emphasis in the strategy is increasing pace. While going faster can lead to more mistakes, Bollom is confident DE&S can avoid this.

He agrees that “you would instinctively say to go faster, you’re likely to make more mistakes” but does not think going faster and reducing mistakes are incompatible bedfellows.

For Bollom, going faster means removing non-value-added activity by using a bit of common sense. An example he gives is cutting back on unnecessary checks when producing value for money business cases “where the answer is reasonably obvious”.

“I think agility and speed can be achieved without incurring additional risk by applying judgement. We don’t have to be exhaustive in our assessments. We need to be more targeted. There are plenty of examples of where we can and have done that. The Type 31 frigate – we launched that programme in half the time it has taken previously. The national flagship project was initiated and brought into the programme inside a year.

“Look at the work that we’ve done with the National Health Service in response to the pandemic, like purchasing PPE when the country was within 24 hours of running out. My people got involved with that and we got the pipeline flowing again. The ventilator challenge was another area. We can move at pace and we will move at pace. And it’s not just about DE&S. This is a defence enterprise, which ministers, the permanent secretary, myself and the team are really invested in.”

With the government pledging to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050, in the race to stop the planet reaching 1.5c, climate change is another area where there is a need for speed.

“It’s front and centre of our strategy. It has really resonated with the workforce, particularly a lot of the younger people in the workforce,” he says. “It’s their planet. It’s their future.”

DE&S is aiming for its operations and infrastructure to be carbon neutral by 2035, a stretch target beyond the MoD’s 2040 goal.

Plans include solar panels, wind power, 600,000 trees, sequestering carbon, alternative fuels for aviation, electric and hybrid vehicles on land and sea, cutting down on electricity by turning lights off and reducing unnecessary travel.

The last of these has been sped up by Covid.

A lot of DE&S staff have not been able to work from home during the pandemic, such as those working on classified systems or in a munitions warehouse. But, for those who can, DE&S has set up smart working and hybrid working facilities, aiding the organisation’s ability to cut back on unnecessary travel.

“That’s where I wanted to get to actually, but I was looking at maybe a five-year horizon where we’ve had to do it in 12 months, so it’s quite positive from that perspective,” Bollom says.

Having discussed climate change and Covid, we could not end without touching upon Brexit.

“Brexit has been interesting in as much as Nato and defence, from my perspective, have transcended it"

“Brexit has been interesting in as much as Nato and defence, from my perspective, have transcended it,” he says. “It’s been interesting how keen [our allies] have been, particularly my European allies, to make sure that they get closer to the United Kingdom. There was a sense of ‘well, we don’t want you to drift away from us’. An essential part of the strength of Nato and the strength of Europe has been our international collaboration. So Brexit has produced a heightened sense of awareness. The UK is a very important part of Europe and Nato and that heightened sensitivity has probably opened more doors than might have hitherto been there.” 

That said, Bollom acknowledges that life outside the EU hasn’t all been plain sailing – Brexit did put pressure on the supply chain, which was only compounded by the Covid pandemic. However, Bollom adds that DE&S had, in relation to Brexit at least, “anticipated some of those issues” and worked closely with suppliers to minimise disruption. 

As his time as DE&S chief exec comes to an end – a role he describes as the “pinnacle” of his 40-year career – Bollom has many plans afoot.

Alongside bothering his kids, Bollom – a keen sportsman – wants to spend more time cycling and running. He is also planning to extend his qualifications as a tree feller to expand on his volunteering on woodland conservation projects.

But he’s not ready to leave defence behind entirely. He plans to take on a few non-executive positions “to keep the fire burning” and to continue doing what he enjoys most – problem solving on complex programmes.

“That’s nearly 40 years that I’ve been involved with defence and one of the reasons I came back when Tony Douglas gave me a call is because defence runs through my blood. I’m very proud to be part of the national defence effort,” he says. “And I can imagine that there will be things that will come up that will keep me close.” 

This interview was first published in CSW's March 2022 issue, which you can read in full here

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