Sustaining Navy's fleet
By Lauren Norton
The new General Manager of Fleet Support Unit Australia is ensuring sailors' skills are enhanced and driving a high performance culture.
TRANSITIONING from the private sector to Defence can be daunting at the best of times, but when the new General Manager of Fleet Support Unit (FSU) Australia, Jason Aquilina, came on board in March he was faced with a unique challenge.
"I am the first civilian to be appointed to the role," Jason says. "So there have been some interesting cultural shocks for me."
In charge of more than 700 sailors across Australia, Jason has had to get used to the quirks associated with working in a predominantly uniformed environment.
"One good example is the way I am addressed by my staff throughout the country - they refer to me as 'Sir'. This is obviously quite natural for staff in uniform and while it's very nice, it has taken some getting used to," he says. "I always insist that I am called by my first name, although the important thing is that I respect the culture. I don't want to erode traditions."
Jason says the two civilian staff reporting directly to him have been "very supportive" and provided him with guidance.
"It has been an intense learning journey over the last few months with the large number of acronyms and departments throughout Navy, but through interaction and observations I have been able to learn quite quickly."
Jason took the position heading up one of Navy's most vital areas after a 23-year career with Qantas where he worked his way from a technical apprentice to become one of Qantas' youngest executives in 2000.
"I wanted to take on a new role that provided a challenge and Defence so far has lived up to its promise of providing this," Jason says. "I still consider myself as young in terms of my career and wanted to ensure I didn't become stale, given 23 years in the one company, and predominantly in Qantas engineering.
"I wanted to take on a similar job profile associated with engineering and, in particular, one that is in a growth phase compared to my previous roles."
While it took a bit of time for him to step into the role, Jason says he knows he made the right decision.
"My journey in securing this role took more than eight months and throughout that period I had opportunities to go elsewhere or to stay with Qantas," he says. "However, two months in, I have not looked back once and thought, 'What have I done?'. I'm enjoying the new role and being able to influence and drive outcomes with my learning and experience in running a similar large maintenance service organisation."
Jason is one of a small handful of APS employees working within FSU Australia, but says the nine APS positions play a unique role.
"Since coming on board I have been able to assist with the development of the FSU team structure to support a national business," he says.
Reporting to Jason are an EL1 and EL2 - with six APS positions reporting to the team providing functions associated with planning, logistics and workforce planning.
"The EL2 position has one APS position associated with national workforce planning. FSU is a great example of where the APS leadership team works hand-in-hand with transforming and shaping FSU business. This is unique, as the APS normally provides a supporting function as opposed to leading," Jason says.
FSU reports to Navy Strategic Command, headed by the Head of Navy Engineering, Rear Admiral Michael Uzzell. It provides maintenance and repairs capability to all of Navy's ships and submarines through service-level agreements with Defence Materiel Organisation. It also provides support to systems project offices and works closely with each prime contractor and supplier.
Jason says one of FSU's key responsibilities is to ensure sailors' technical skills are enhanced and developed, which he says will help build sustainment of Navy's ships and submarines when they are at sea.
"One of the biggest challenges will be driving a high performance culture within FSU given over 12 months ago it was a place sailors went to get shore respite after being out at sea," he says.
"Also, given all sailors rotate on average every two years through different departments within Navy, and some sailors never rotate back into FSU, the challenge of retention of knowledge management is critical. I've spoken to sailors who have 20 years of service and they've been to FSU twice, so they are there for 18-24 months and then that knowledge has gone out the door."
To combat this, Jason and his team will be trialling new methods of communication.
"Due to the hierarchy in Defence, there is a lot of information that unfortunately gets filtered away from our junior sailors and I want to change that," he says.
"We have been talking about introducing social media into FSU as a pilot. On average the statistics are telling me that our sailors are around the 21-year-old mark - they're on these iPhones day-in and day-out, like myself, except I'm 41, but that's the way they connect.
"What I want to do is put out consistent messages associated with what's happening because the biggest feedback that I've received is, 'We're mushrooms and we're growing in the dark and we're not getting any information', and I believe that's one part of the reason why we have this exodus of young sailors leaving."
As well as developing new communication structures, Jason says this is where the integration of civilian staff into FSU is important and he says embracing change is essential to allow FSU to become an efficient business.
"I am quite impressed with the pride and passion of our sailors in trying to make their areas more efficient. This gives me an ideal opportunity to tap into this enthusiasm to ensure appropriate change momentum is achieved," he says. "Some of our junior sailors have highlighted opportunities to make things better and produced work-arounds that are safe, compliant, faster and smarter.
"Now I'd really like to work with senior sailors to embrace changes with new ways of thinking, new technology and capabilities and soft learnings around management styles that would see a 'pull effect' in attracting sailors to FSU. With the amount of training one receives, the number of fringe benefits and the lifestyle, it's not a bad gig."
As a mechanical engineer by trade, Jason's interest in how things work started at an early age.
"My parents had a farm and it was four-wheel drives and motorbikes - you know all those 'boys and their toys' type stuff," Jason says. "So when they broke down we used to play with them, fix them and repair them.
"I joined Qantas in 1990 as an apprentice and I guess that's what basically built those hand skills and capabilities and I haven't looked back."
Jason made a decision to follow a management path six years into what he calls his "hands-on-the-tools journey".
"After I finished my apprenticeship and further technical studies, I looked at my avenues and they were to go into a highly-technical specialist space or the other fork in the road was to go into leadership business management," he says.
"I liked to interact with people a whole lot more so I went down the leadership path and actually went off and did a diploma of leadership in business management and then eventually did an MBA."
However, it is the combination of his hands-on background, management and leadership skills that will stand him in good stead for his future with FSU.
"I'm not the expert, they're the experts - but because I worked my way up predominantly as a fitter machinist and aircraft mechanic working on gas turbine engines, and we have gas turbine engines on our ships, I think that goes a long way when I start connecting with the sailors," Jason says.
While he may have moved into a managerial role, he still likes working with engines.
"I love American muscle cars and Harley-Davidsons," he says. "I grew up in a predominantly ethnic suburb - I'm of Maltese heritage but I was born in Australia and very proud of that - and all of those guys were heavily into cars and motorbikes.
"I currently ride a Harley-Davidson V-Rod Night Rod Special. I had a Mustang in the past, a Fastback model, but I got rid of that a few years ago. Now my son's 13, and he wants a Mustang, so maybe we'll work on doing one up together one day, but I don't want to spoil him."