Doing business in Italy -- Philadelphia-style

If you can't handle working internationally, you probably won't get hired at AgustaWestland Philadelphia, the Italian-owned helicopter manufacturing plant in Northeast Philadelphia.

"You have to be open to that mindset," said William Hunt, the chief executive, during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Inquirer.

William Hunt, left, talks to City Councilman Bobby Henon at a recent gathering at AgustaWestland Philadelphia.

Hunt grew up in Philadelphia and worked most of his career at Boeing in Delaware County. Recruited to AgustaWestland, he had to learn a whole new skill set, and buttress all of it with patience.

At Boeing, Hunt said, engineers are on site and there's an American-style of design and manufacturing that's understood by all. At AgustaWestland, the main design engineers are in Italy and the husks of the helicopters come from Poland.  A huge component of the company is in the United Kingdom.

The American contribution, Hunt said, is efficiency in modern manufacturing, "adopting new techniques in terms of industrialization." That's worked very well in Northeast Philadelphia where the plant has surpassed its production goals by a wide margin, working two shifts.

The trickiness comes in communication with the Italian engineers. Philadelphia employees, particularly the engineering staff in the Northeast  Philadelphia plant "are working very hard at the level of communication it takes to be successful with some of the support coming from a different place, like the engineering from Italy," Hunt said.

It's a delicate dance to get the engineers in Italy to understand what is required to move along the manufacturing process in Philadelphia, although Hunt said, both sides are getting much better at it. The more successful the Philadelphia plant is in making its production goals, Hunt said, the more clout it has in influencing the work flow so Philadelphia can continue to make those goals.

"Part of our job has to be to be successful enough so we can tug on the skirt, or the apron and say, `We need attention, and that attention is needed to help us to continue to be as successful as we’ve been in terms of growing and becoming more efficient.'"

I asked Hunt what the Italians brought to the equation, if the Americans were supplying the manufacturing expertise.

"Extremely creative, I mean the designs. The design engineering that comes with the aircraft is all Italian – the 119, the 139 and soon to be the 169, are all Italian design," he said, talking about the three models produced at the plant. He also credits the Italians with fostering a spirit of openness to change. The Italians were so committed to making sure that all components of the business understood each other that they changed the company's official language to English.

That showed, Hunt said, that the company was "open to changing and ... open to having these influences come in. There are, for example, some production engineering techniques that we adopted from Italy. The build process from the very beginning came over from Italy and what we’ve done is become more and more of a player and share those best practices across our different geographies."

Hunt is wise enough to know where his expertise stops.

At one of the monthly management meetings in Italy (where, by the way, Hunt sees it as his job to talk up AgustaWestland Philadelphia), Hunt was asked to select the wine a company meal to accompany the "fantastic" food. Hunt declined. "I said, `I don't think you want me to pick out the wine.'"