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Interview: Katherine Bennett, CEO, HVM Catapult

17 November 2023

‘I see in people’s eyes a determination to help the nation’

You do know I’m not an engineer? I never imagined I would work in engineering, but when I was appointed, they said they needed someone with my skill set. I did a combined arts degree, majoring in history, with music, English, and politics; but I’ve always worked alongside engineers and manufacturers. My husband is an engineer, and loves aeroplanes; so he was thrilled when I got this job.

High Value Manufacturing Catapult is a strategic research and innovation hub for industry,
formed in 2011, commercialising the UK’s most advanced manufacturing ideas. We have seven research and innovation centres across the UK, employing 3500 people.

We help businesses of all sizes bridge the gap between research and commercial reality,
helping overcome challenges in tech-driven sectors of high growth.

I began my career in public affairs with an international communications agency. I moved to HVM Catapult over two years ago after a career in automotive and aerospace. I was always aware of the Catapult, as Airbus worked with them closely, but the really strong interaction started as part of the Ventilator Challenge during Covid. The HVM Catapult convened 33 manufacturers to deliver an incredible 13,437 ventilators to the NHS in just 12 weeks.

We’re not a consultancy, depending, of course, on how you define a consultancy.
We’re government-funded and we’re a convener of people. We don’t have one person, team, or centre who knows everything about everything, but we have people who are radar-gazing and foresighting, who keep ahead of trends by speaking to industry partners and academics outside the manufacturing sector, who may sometimes be way ahead of everyone else, but need help to adapt their ideas into more commercial output.

The Government funds us to try to keep the innovative skills and intellectual property we have in Britain and bring them to fruition,
and, if possible, to keep their manufacture here. We do have a lot of manufacturing capability still; so maintaining and also building more is very important. Net-zero’s a real opportunity for us as a nation; so we must keep the momentum going and not let things slip.

So HVM Catapult and its seven centres addresses the nation’s strategic imperatives for manufacturing
— including sustainability, supply-chain transformation and resilience, critical national infrastructure, and delivery. I try to bring my creative ability to the organisation, particularly in communications, engaging with employees and stakeholders, forging relationships — and sometimes letting go and letting my team show what they can do.

We talk a lot about “green shoring”.
The pandemic influenced our resilience and showed the importance of supply chains; so we help companies measure their net impact, and look at things like emissions, transport costs, and so on, to help with efficiency. Sometimes it’s a long-term business case, which is difficult if you’re struggling.

I’m genuinely a glass half-full person.
When I’m with people in the industry, I see in people’s eyes a determination to help the nation. My job as a leader is to support that energy and optimism. Government can be very short-term; so we have to demonstrate our value for money, and make sure we do deliver results. We have great manufacturing companies in this country, and a huge number of small and medium enterprises — we’re a very entrepreneurial nation.

If a company has a manufacturing problem it’s trying to overcome,
we have the state-of-the-art equipment and the talented staff to help them overcome it. It’s not about persuading companies, but rather letting them know what they can achieve by working with us.

Every type of company can innovate.
For some it could be a huge step-change in their manufacturing process that massively reduces their emissions and makes them vastly more productive. But innovation doesn’t always need to be that big to be valuable. It could be a new cutting tool that lasts that little bit longer, or a new bit of data from a machine that helps them stay ahead of their competitors.

The most difficult thing so far in my work has been handling the management of external affairs
when a decision was made to close Vauxhall’s car plant in Luton over 20 years ago, which affected 2000 jobs. It was a very difficult time, because, although it’s now owned by a French company, it was then owned by General Motors in the US; so any announcements had to be on the US stockmarket timetable, which is five hours behind us. But the news leaked out before we could properly brief employees. We were dealing with people whose jobs were impacted — and just before Christmas. I had to go to meetings as public face of the company.

I really grew up around that period.
I was taking it all on myself, and I remember a moment when I was driving home one evening, and realised: you have to remember it’s not your family, it’s not your faith, it’s your job. I learned then about detachment, and I try to keep that in mind and speak about that moment to others.

We did help the people through retraining programmes,
and working with the local government; but dealing with the shock of news and the way it came out, and to demonstrate our care was very hard.

The most rewarding thing
has been the ability to encourage university undergraduate placement students or apprentices who worked in my teams to seize their opportunities. I’m so proud to follow the development of their careers, and love it when they keep in touch.

I’m surprised to discover that I have a reputation within teams of having some quite creative ideas.
Many of them are just not feasible to implement but I love it when we make one of them work.

The UK’s just overtaken France in design and manufacturing,
and we’re now the eighth country in the global list. There’s still a lot of work to do and, in light of many of the world leading companies and research talent, we have a lot of opportunity. My organisation should play a strong part in that opportunity and encourage more UK investment in innovation and manufacturing.

Yes, personal leadership and inspiration are paramount for productivity and innovation,
together with individual responsibility. Good government requires good consultation and feedback on policies which are effective, we endeavour to give good advice with respect to that.

Can government scupper even good companies?
They can put obstacles in the way, but good companies should be able to do enough horizon-scanning and relationship-building to ensure that doesn’t happen.

My first experience of God in a serious way
happened when my father was taken ill.

I very much enjoy the friendships I have made
through being involved in my local church and village life.

Usually, when I’m not working,
I’m doing something to do with singing — earlier this year, I sang at the Vatican with the Parliamentary Choir — or playing the piano and going to concerts or the theatre with family or friends. On a dry day, my husband and I tackle the garden and listen to podcasts. Live music and singing make me happy.

Discourtesy makes me angry.

The ending of an overly long video call is the best sound to me.

I’m greatly encouraged for the future by the next generation’s approach to diversity and inclusion.

I pray most for the health of my family and those dear to me.
Occasionally I give myself a good talking to.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Jane Austen. I love her sense of humour and her characterisations. There is also a local village reason: the BBC Pride and Prejudice and ITV’s Sanditon dramas were filmed in our church: St Mary and St Ethelbert, Luckington, in Wiltshire. I’d love to know what she’d have thought of that.

Katherine Bennett was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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