The strain of fighting private equity’s 2019 raid on the Dorset-based aerospace pioneer bearing her family’s name has taken its toll on Nadine Cobham.
Some 18 months after the battle with Advent, she finds the whole affair painful especially when people seek to question her motives.
As long-term investors stood on the sidelines and ministers refused to intervene, Lady Cobham, daughter-in-law of the celebrated aviator Sir Alan Cobham and widow of his son Sir Michael Cobham, recognised that in the hands of American vultures, the famous old company would never be safe.
Brave: Lady Cobham is fighting to protect the aerospace firm bearing her name for the sake of Britain
The loss of brilliant technology, some of it critical to Britain’s national security, would be devastating.
In the manner of a latter-day Boudica, she saw it as her sacred duty to defend the valuable aerospace and satellite skills for the sake of Britain.
Lady Cobham was falsely accused by her critics in the financial community – anxious to buy and break-up Cobham whatever the costs to UK plc – of only being interested in aggrandising the family name. Nothing could be further from the truth.
‘If this was another country, the deal would not have been allowed,’ Lady Cobham says of the £4billion takeover.
The company was founded in 1934 by her father-in-law, who was believed to be the inspiration for WE Johns’s fictional pilot and adventurer, Biggles.
‘I was criticised about playing on the name as if it is a thing for me personally, but it was named because of the famous Alan Cobham and his flying exploits,’ she tells me.
The home of some of Britain’s leading-edge aerospace is being dismembered and disposed of by the US private equity group in rapid fire, and the jobs of 10,000 skilled workers compromised.
Flimsy national security undertakings belatedly made by the private equity predators to then business secretary Angela Leadsom have failed miserably to protect jobs, intellectual property and vital technology.
Within weeks of the takeover being approved, the company’s headquarters at Wimborne in Dorset were eviscerated and since then it has been death by a thousand cuts.
Pioneer: Sir Alan Cobham, who founded the company in 1934, was believed to be the inspiration for WE Johns’s fictional pilot and adventurer, Biggles
Lady Cobham tells me in a lockdown phone interview: ‘These private equity companies just do it for feathering their own nest and their friends making huge sums of money.
‘They don’t care where the technology goes as long as they get their money from it.’
In the short period of ownership by Advent International the break-up and sell-off of Cobham has been startlingly speedy.
Most sadly, the very core of the enterprise – the air-to-air flight refuelling engineering, which was a key factor in Britain’s 1982 Falklands war victory and is deployed by air forces across the globe – has ended up in American hands.
The arm was sold in unseemly haste to the US power systems giant Eaton Group for £2bn in February this year under the cover of lockdown.
Previously, the UK’s leadership in this area of aerospace had been second to none and constantly updated down the decades through home-grown research and development (R&D).
So far Advent has recovered £2.7billion and counting of the £4billion it paid for Cobham.
Now in her 70s, elegant and articulate Nadine Cobham thinks she earned the right to speak out not just because of the dissipated family stake, but because she and her late husband Michael had spent more than 30 years of their lives building Cobham into an aerospace champion, and a good place to work, by looking after the interests of staff.
‘He [Michael] was very keen on looking after employees,’ she says. ‘Staff all had share ownership and there was an amazing, very generous final salary pension scheme.’
But Lady Cobham worries about the impact on the UK’s national security, in particular the work being done for the Navy.
Windfalls: Senior directors at Chobham including chief exec David Lockwood (pictured) are estimated to have reaped £10m from the disposal to Advent
The biggest concern, raised in a highly redacted defence review, provided to Mrs Leadsom, was over a range of ground surveillance and communications equipment.
‘Now of course all that technology resides in the US,’ Nadine Cobham observes.
The Government is taking note. A bill making its way through Parliament seeks to clamp down on foreign takeovers particularly those where there is a strong national security interest.
But the wilful break-up of Cobham flies in the face of the principles on Advent International’s website, which boasts of completing $54billion (£39.4billion) of deals across 41 different territories as part of ‘our hands-on approach to helping these businesses flourish’.
At the time of the bid, Advent sought to divert Lady Cobham’s opposition by meeting her, but she valiantly resisted and continued her campaign. ‘I didn’t respond because I just felt so cross about it all because I knew what private equity companies were and they couldn’t persuade me otherwise,’ she says.
She holds Cobham’s board in special contempt. It gave in to Advent’s entreaties without putting up a serious defence.
A criticism of boards of directors is that it is in their personal interest to sell, whatever the merits of the bid, because it offers an opportunity to dispose of their shares and cash in future bonus shares at a profit.
She says: ‘I thought it was disappointing that they gave in so easily without a fight.’
Senior directors including chief executive David Lockwood and finance director David Mellors, who came in to run the company in 2017, are estimated to have reaped £10million from the disposal to Advent.
Among her most telling observations is that even in bad times, companies such as Cobham have to provide regular trading updates to shareholders.
But once they are in private equity ownership, public disclosure largely ends. She says: ‘The problem with a private equity company, is that it’s all hidden away. You can’t see what’s going on.’
One thing is certain. The pioneers behind the firm, adventurer Alan and his entrepreneurial son Michael, would be proud of the battle waged by Lady Cobham against the sharks tearing to shreds Britain’s aerospace heritage.