SME Profile: In defence of independence

Thursday, 01 June 2000

Fiona Stewart photo
Fiona Stewart

    Developing world's best radar and communications technology has meant a busy life after active service for two hard-working former naval officers. Fiona Stewart reports

    It was one of those quiet nights at sea in 1982 with nothing much to do. Two naval officers sat chatting about the future. Both were coming to the end of their time on active service and neither was looking forward to the "sea of desks" that awaited them.

    On this particular evening they were throwing ideas around and discovered a shared view. There really was nothing inherently lacking to prevent them developing their own defence equipment.

    This was the genesis of what today is a highly successful, Australian-owned, electronic system design company, CEA Technologies Pty Ltd. The two naval officers, David Gaul and Ian Croser have built the business from scratch to a leading edge technology company with 130 employees and offices in Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and San Diego in the US. The former looks after administration and the organisational framework, while the latter is in charge of technical development.

    However, it wasn't all smooth sailing in the early days of the business. David Gaul takes up the story.

    "For the first two to three years we existed on consultancy work for the Defence Department," he said. "We were mostly working at the lower end of the technical food chain such as reports on power supply problems or difficulties with sonar systems. At the same time we were trying to develop commercial products."

    The firm's big break came in 1986 when the department decided that CEA had survived three years in the real world and might be able to produce the goods.

    "They wanted a piece of equipment which looked at traffic on a particular frequency band and asked if we could develop it," said Gaul. We did that at a cost of $66,000 within six months. The overseas quote which the department received was for $300,000 and 18 months delivery time. We haven't been without a project from the department since and each one keeps getting bigger."

    CEA is now at the forefront of radar and communications technology. The Fyshwick head office includes an extensive test and system integration laboratory and antenna test facilities. Its radar surveillance systems have been recognised as world class which has resulted in the company developing a successful export market.

    Gaul maintains there are times when he is surprised by the success of the business saying it certainly has exceeded expectations. However, he credits perseverance and hard work as contributing to that success. Above all, he believes in making his staff the top priority.

    "You have to do the right thing by your staff in order to get the results, and that includes given them room for intellectual growth," he said. "CEA commits some 60 to 70 percent of its resources to research and development. Quality assurance is at the top level and we also rely a lot on having a good supply chain."

    Since 1991, CEA has won several major awards, including Australian Small Business of the Year in 1991 and ACT Exporter of the Year in 1994. Co-founder Ian Croser was awarded the 1998 Clunies Ross Foundation National Science and Technology Award for excellence in the application and commercialisation of Australian technology.

    Gaul, a founding fellow of the AICD's Canberra branch, was on the ACT council for many years. He credits the input from this association as a important contributor to his business success.

    "I did the original company director's course which I found very valuable when I was setting up the business,' he said. "I also get a lot of useful information from the reading matter and lists of business books. It is important to have on-going access to this type of material."

    CEA is not planning to rest on its laurels. It is now concentrating on forming strategic alliances worldwide. "There is no doubt that we will be going global, that is the only way to go," said Gaul.

    CEA staff commissioned a Jeff Isaacs painting of HMAS Canberra, the ship on which David Gaul (pictured) and his partner Ian Croser served, to celebrate the company's 15th anniversary. The guided missile frigate is currently undergoing an upgrade in which CEA Technologies are involved

    This CEA-FAR active phase radar system, developed in Australia by CEA Technologies, is one of four systems on order to the US Government


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