Leadership Grit: Straight Talk from Bill Beard, Vice President and General Manager of GKN Aerospace operations in Orangeburg, SC

Bill Beard

Bill Beard

In the wake of GKN Aerospace’s $20 million expansion announcement to build inlet lip skins for the Boeing 737 Max and the 777-X, the company’s VP and General Manager sat down with the editors of South Carolina Manufacturing to discuss his background and GKN’s success in Orangeburg.

A native of North Augusta, Bill Beard, enlisted in the Navy following his high school graduation in 1977 and spent more than 20 years on active duty and 18 years in the aerospace and defense industry working his way from apprentice level technician to corporate executive.

While in the Navy, Bill served in a variety of special mission aircraft organizations and logged more than 4,000 flight hours in the EP-3E and P-3C Special Projects Aircraft earning Air Medals for missions flown during Operation Desert Storm and over Bosnia during the Balkans conflict.

Following his time in the service, the North Augusta native began working with L-3 Communications in the Navy program office at Waco, Texas. His last assignment at Waco was as Senior Director for Federal Programs where he led projects that upgraded Navy, Army and Customs and Border Protection aircraft.  Bill next served as Vice President of Operations at L-3 Vertex Aerospace in Madison, MS where he led more than 11,000 employees performing aircraft and vehicle maintenance around the world.

An opportunity to lead operations for DRS Technologies C3 and Aviation business unit moved him to the Washington, D.C. metro area for four years before he returned home full time to South Carolina in 2013.

Currently Vice President and General Manager of GKN Aerospace’s South Carolina operations in Orangeburg, Bill and his team produce flight critical components and assemblies for several aircraft original equipment manufacturers.

Bill holds a Bachelor’s degree in business from New Hampshire College and an MBA (with honors) from Baylor University.  He is also a graduate of the Imperial College of London’s Executive Leadership Program; Center for Creative Leadership’s Leadership at the Peak, and the Advanced Program Manager’s course at the Defense Acquisition University.

Bill and his wife Kathy of 31 years (also a Navy veteran) currently make their home in Prosperity, S.C.  Bill and Kathy are the proud parents of two sons who answered the call of duty after 9/11, serving in the United States Marine Corps.


  1. As you look back on your early career, what were the most important lessons learned along the way?

I would say the most important lessons learned along the way are all centered on integrity.  One of the first things a young technician learns is that there is no room for a lackadaisical attitude toward quality or safety in aerospace.  Simply put, aerospace workers learn very early in their careers that their word is their bond, and that people are in many cases putting their lives in their hands based on assurances that the work is performed to the exacting standards required by our industry.  The very real life and death situations and scenarios possible in aviation were never far from my mind flying in the Navy.  I unfortunately, lost many friends and shipmates to accidents over the years.

  1. How is GKN addressing workforce development?

We are partnered with Ready SC and Orangeburg Calhoun Technical College to select and train our assembly technicians.  We are also developing in-house training programs for specific job skills.  We’re very excited about the pilot program launched through the technical college system late last year where several new courses are being offered around the state.  These courses will teach structural assembly, sealant application, composite structures, FOD/5S and equipment installation.

  1. What advice would you give to school counselors, teachers and parents regarding careers in aerospace?

I would make students aware of the opportunities that our industry offers through the growth in commercial aircraft sales, and due to what we refer to as the graying of the workforce.  Large numbers of engineers, artisans and technicians will retire in the coming decade.  This situation will present opportunities for rapid advancement for those willing to apply themselves.  So, I would emphasize the shortage of engineers in the industry, and I would also stress the availability of good paying technician level opportunities available in the industry.

I speak from personal experience when I say I realize that a 4 year degree is not for every student graduating high school.  I would likely have not been successful entering college straight from high school, even if the funding had been available, which it was not.  For me, the military offered an outstanding opportunity to gain a technical education and skills, that when coupled with a degree earned over a 12 year period while on active duty, opened the door for me to lead exciting programs that eventually led me to lead GKN’s South Carolina operations.   Likewise, the military is not for everyone, but very similar opportunities exist for those who wish to enter the manufacturing segment of the industry.

  1. Why is this location strategic to GKN? What are the long term goals for the operation?

The location is geographically strategic due to its proximity to Boeing in Charleston, Gulfstream in Savannah, HondaJet in Greensboro and other potential partners and customers.  Our long term vision is to develop into the state’s #1 provider of aerostructures assemblies, and structural components such as engine inlet lip skins for 737 MAX and 777-X.

  1. How important is infrastructure to your future growth? What would you like to see addressed or improved regarding roads, power, water, sewer, etc.? If you could prioritize a number one improvement for SC infrastructure to help set up GKN for even greater success in the future what would that be?

We enjoy outstanding support from the Orangeburg community (County and City), all of our immediate and foreseeable infrastructure needs have been met.   However, for the industry to continue to grow and expand, we must fix our crumbling road system.

  1. Expansion?…As Boeing continues increasing already advertised production rates, what total employment could be expected? Are there other facility expansions in the future?

The growth of our existing programs will drive employment growth to over 300 in the next 2 to 3 years.  Our existing assembly building can accommodate growth resulting from new programs that could drive that number even higher.

  1. How defensible are your products? Boeing usually shops products out every five years to collect new competitive bids. What strategies and methods make GKN unique so they can protect their work content?

Our philosophy is to protect current programs through sustained superior performance while maintaining a very competitive cost structure.

  1. With the new expansion in mind, what do you consider the biggest challenge getting ready for production?

We are working diligently to industrialize our new facility, and are adding skilled team members on a weekly basis.  We will be ready to begin production on schedule later this year.

  1. How prepared is GKN for the 737 rate and is their manufacturing process stable enough to support the high rate volume?

We are currently delivering lip skins for the 737 MAX program through our Camarillo, California facility.  This capacity in this facility, which developed the manufacturing processes for the 737 MAX and 777-X lip skins, provides us the ability to exceed the rate requirements of the program while we stand up production in Orangeburg.

  1. The 777-X is a very large part. Are the manufacturing processes for the 777X the same as the 737 MAX?

Our facility and equipment are being sized for the 777-X lip skin.  The manufacturing process is essentially the same.

  1. Has your manufacturing process been done on 777-X sized parts before?

The process has been used on other parts very similar in size to the 777-X.

  1. How much of your manufacturing equipment is brand new design and new vendors versus a move from an existing operation? Is this a concern? Does GKN Orangeburg have the right resources to integrate this manufacturing process or is the expertise coming from others? (external GKN or sister divisions)?

We have the resources required to make the program successful.  We are employing a very talented team organic to Orangeburg that is being supplemented by expertise from other GKN sites.

  1. What are the challenges of getting your production facility to Boeing production quality standards, and where is GKN in the process?

We are progressing well preparing the new facility for certification to Boeing standards as well as NADCAP certification of special processes.

  1. In November, Boeing announced they were taking work away from GKN. Essentially, Boeing took away the 737 MAX thrust reverser over concerns that GKN could keep up with the rate. How is your facility ensuring Boeing will not have the same concerns with the lip skins?

We have invested a great deal of time, money and effort to ensure that we resource the program for success.  We are applying lessons learned from across our company.  We are on track to begin production as originally scheduled, and feel very positive that we will have all the resources and processes required, under one roof, to meet the demanding rate ramp of the 737 MAX.

  1. With GKN located in Orangeburg, how successful have you been in recruiting the right people (manufacturing, engineering, quality assurance) and how much autonomy does your division have to control your own destiny?

As the leader of the South Carolina operations, I have the autonomy, but also the support, to ensure our success in Orangeburg.

We have been very successful in recruiting a very talented team to Orangeburg.  Our engineering team has been in place for some months, and we are in the process of staffing and training our operations team.

  1. As you set up your operation, how much support are you getting from local sub-contractors versus out of state providers?

We have a good mix of local and out of state providers industrializing our facility and providing materials for our programs.

  1. Will GKN produce parts other than lip skins in Orangeburg?

We will have to see what the future holds.

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