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January 11, 2021

New Kaman CEO Walsh’s priorities: operational efficiency, acquisitions, wooing top talent

Ian Walsh

Ian Walsh is a strategic thinker.

You only have to look at his educational and professional background to figure that out.

The former officer and naval aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

The 53-year-old manufacturing executive has also had a career-long focus on retooling the operations side of businesses, which often requires both big-picture and nuts-and-bolts thinking.

His latest task is running Bloomfield aerospace, defense and medical components manufacturer Kaman Corp., which he’s been doing as CEO since September.

In his first full year as chief executive in 2021, Walsh said he is focused on rolling out a companywide operations model that will ensure every segment of Kaman’s business is operating efficiently and in a complementary fashion. He also considers acquisitions a key growth strategy (with an emphasis on companies that make highly-engineered products), as Kaman keeps up with existing defense projects.

“I have a chance, in a publicly traded environment, to really drive a strategy at [Kaman], and get an operating model functioning at the level we need it to, to get to that top-level performance,” Walsh said. “That’s what I’ve been able to do in my career.”

This profile is part of HBJ’s 5 to Watch in 2021 special feature. Click here to see other top leaders we expect to make headlines in the year ahead. 

Kaman, like most aerospace companies, is coming off a turbulent 2020.

Throughout the pandemic, Kaman’s commercial aerospace and medical device divisions got caught up in the broader industry downdrafts, while its defense business remained strong.

Meantime, when COVID-19 hit, Kaman was still trying to get its arms around two major deals it completed in 2019 — the $700 million sale of its distribution unit and $300 million purchase of Bal Seal Engineering, which makes precision seals and springs for the medical, aerospace and defense markets.

There’s still integration work to be done, Walsh said, adding that Kaman has all the pieces for growth — it’s just a matter of putting them in order.

Filling the gaps

Before Kaman’s board hired Walsh for the corner office, he served as chief operating officer at REV Group Inc., a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of specialty vehicles and related aftermarket parts and services. Before that he worked at Textron Inc., serving as president and CEO of TRU Simulation and Training, a South Carolina-based maker of flight simulators and training devices.

All that experience, Walsh said, has prepared him to revamp Kaman’s organizational structure. It’s not clear yet what changes might come about; just four months into the job he’s still studying current practices and how each business segment complements each other.

Walsh said he intends to roll out a new companywide organizational model this year.

“Understanding the gap between where we are and where we need to be” is key, Walsh said. “Having all those dots connected is going to generate much stronger results.”

COVID-19 has created challenges for some of Kaman’s businesses, which are focused on making helicopters, aerospace parts, medical devices and military equipment. Through the first three quarters of 2020, the company reported a $38.3 million loss vs. a $170.4 million profit in the year-ago period.

Sales in its commercial aviation and medical components businesses were both down in 2021 — hurt, respectively, by a steep decline in air travel and elective medical procedures.

Walsh said he expects a quicker turnaround in the medical devices market — where Kaman makes highly engineered components like springs and seals used in medical imaging and other equipment — as COVID-19 subsides and elective surgeries are rescheduled.

“You can only put off surgery for so long, so there’s an expectation that the market will rebound relatively quickly,” Walsh said.

Commercial aerospace will eventually experience a resurgence — especially when the Boeing 737 Max returns to service — but it could take a couple years to reach pre-pandemic levels, he said.

Kaman’s defense business, which makes up about half its revenues, was a bright spot throughout 2020, with sales increasing 24% in the third quarter.

Kaman is currently working on the development of a commercial unmanned K-MAX helicopter, which it originally designed for military use. It’s also working with the U.S. Marine Corps on an improved next-generation unmanned K-MAX for military use, Walsh said.

Attracting top talent

Neal Keating, Walsh’s predecessor, became a fixture in Connecticut’s business community, often engaging with top industry leaders.

Walsh said he intends to keep up that tradition of engagement, especially in encouraging business-friendly state policies.

“If there are collaborative opportunities, I’d love to see Kaman play a role in that,” Walsh said.

Additionally, Walsh thinks it’s possible Hartford — and other smaller Northeast cities — could experience a post-pandemic economic resurgence. Individuals and businesses may likely have learned they don’t need to be in big, expensive cities like Boston and New York to do business there, and may find Hartford a good alternative.

“With everybody realizing that you can work in different places and be effective — you don’t need to be in the big cities necessarily — I think there’s a huge opportunity for Connecticut,” Walsh said.

A revitalized Hartford that can attract more young professionals could also help with Walsh’s goal to recruit top talent.

That’s important, he said, because Kaman needs a robust research and development operation to keep ahead of industry trends.

“One of the holy grails of business, in my mind, is you’re attractive to top talent because you’re doing things that are cutting edge,” Walsh said. “If you attract the best talent, you will get innovation. If you get innovation, you will grow.”

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