Development & Alumni Relations Office 

MEET CLIFFORD MCSPADDEN – AERONAUTICAL ENGINEERING GRADUATE AND LIFELONG ADVENTURER  Row of wind turbines on distant heavily wooded hillside with inset, image of Clifford McSpadden

31 May 2021

Born and raised in County Down between Rathfriland and Banbridge, Clifford McSpadden is a high performance and inspiring business leader who, despite losing his father when he was a teenager and ‘blowing’ his A-levels, has transformed the companies he has worked for over a twenty-five year career in the aerospace industry.

“Not achieving the required results in my A-levels was the best kick in the pants I ever received! With a number of my Banbridge Academy classmates I admit to getting lost somewhere along the way that year, but it made me realise that no one is going to do it for you; to succeed you have to do things for yourself.”  

One of three children, Clifford’s father Ray worked for McAlpine Engineering (now Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd), while his mother Barbara raised him and his two sisters. Ray was Clifford’s inspiration for a career in engineering and there’s no doubt that his father’s death when Clifford was just 14, was part of the reason his exam results would later fall short of expectation. It was also the trigger for Clifford subsequently turning his life around.

“In a world of no father it was very easy I suppose to go off the rails but I was very determined to turn things around so repeated the year in Belfast Technical College, now part of Belfast Met.

“Northern Ireland has a wonderful education system and it was at Belfast Tech that I learnt how to learn. I remember I was relaxing on a beach somewhere in Greece when I got the news that I had earned the grades to get into Queen’s – what a day that was!”   

Life at Queen's

While initially he had been considering a career in civil engineering, along the way Clifford discovered he was passionate about aeroplanes, so he applied instead to study Aeronautical Engineering.  

“I have many fabulous memories of my time at Queen’s in the David Keir Building, the Speakeasy Bar in the Students’ Union and in Livingstone Hall – or the animal house as it was known – in the Malone Road halls complex. I met some fabulous people and really enjoyed my course. There were just 15 of us in the class and the education I received was truly inspirational.”

During his three-year undergraduate adventure at Queen’s, Clifford also joined the University Air Squadron and learned how to fly with the RAF, something that may have signalled the likely direction of his future career.

The teenager who had fluffed his A-levels graduated top of the class in 1985 with a first-class BSc in Aeronautical Engineering and, determined to get away from Northern Ireland which was still in the grip of the Troubles, Clifford applied for just one job – to work on the design of a brand new fighter aircraft. He joined the Military Aircraft division of British Aerospace as an Aerodynamics Engineer, becoming Section Leader of the European Fighter Aircraft Design (Typhoon) just two years later.

“My Queen’s Aeronautical Engineering course was the perfect training ground for my new role; it taught me exactly what I needed to know to do the job and, importantly, how to problem solve.

“It was, however, strange to be joining a team of mainly 50-year-olds who had designed planes with pocket notebooks and slide rules! I was part of the Fortran 77 generation so I had to ask – and answer – a lot of questions.”

With his career in the ascendancy, Clifford went on to become Chief Aerodynamicist with British Aerospace Military Aircraft Ltd in 1989, and subsequently Manager Airframe Engineering with the company in 1992.

Two years later – almost a decade after joining British Aerospace – and with the offer of a new role in Germany, he realised that his next adventure actually lay back in Northern Ireland and it was time to come home.  

“It was a difficult conversation to have with my wife Joanne, who has a Bachelor of Library Studies (1985) from Queen’s and who was by this stage well settled in Yorkshire. I felt that I was meant to return, so with our two sons Scott (then aged six) and Glenn (aged three) who were both born in England, we headed back to Northern Ireland.”

From 1994 – 2003 Clifford worked at Bombardier Aerospace first as Director of Programme & Contracts, then Director of Work and Material Planning before becoming General Manager of the Composites Division. In this role he initiated the challenge to achieve 100% on-time delivery of manufactured components – considered by many an unachievable goal – but eventually succeeding in each of their two standalone facilities.

After 10 years in operations at Bombardier – which Clifford admits was a very different culture, discipline and intensity to his role in England – he had sold his house and handed in notice, as once again change beckoned. Three months later he set off on another adventure, this time to take over B/E Aerospace in Kilkeel, now one of the world's leading manufacturers of aircraft cabin interior products, then languishing at the bottom of international tables and on the brink of going out of business.

Another transformative success story. Another example of Clifford’s leadership. Another adventure completed.  

Winds of change    

Despite his successful track record in transforming companies and departments, once again it was time for change.

Then in 2008, following a chance conversation with a business associate, Clifford founded and became CEO of CMS Global Limited, an organisation based in Banbridge that is ‘dedicated to helping others engage and collaborate to make change happen’ across a variety of commercial, public and voluntary sectors, and specialising in the rapidly developing renewable energy market and in particular, wind.

“At the time, half of the offshore windfarms in the world were being built off the coast of the UK and Ireland,” said Clifford.

“As a market place there were three possible entry points or phases – the design stage (big multinational companies were already doing that); the installation stage (but again others were doing that and the entry costs were prohibitive); and the after-market. That’s where we reckoned the real money could be made.

“While each wind turbine could reasonably be expected to operate for 25 years or so, replacement gear box, blades and other parts would be required. We saw a niche in the market to source and supply parts around the world, not necessarily at the lowest cost but at highest value to client, turning parts into solutions.”  

Two years later he founded GWA Supplies Limited – his latest adventure – which now employs 18 people keeping wind farms running internationally.

“We’ve doubled the size of the business in the last two years. Our market is shared, currently one third is in Australasia, a further third in mainland Europe and the final third in the British Isles. It is 100 per cent an export market and I expect it, along with GWA, to continue growing in the coming years.”

The move away from oil and gas is well underway and society is now becoming increasingly more dependent on electricity generated from other sources. With wind seen as the answer to the question ‘where is that electricity going to come from?’ and consumers demanding green power from suppliers, Clifford is now looking for GWA licensees around the world to support the growing windfarm sector. The opportunities presented by the market are fantastic.

“People still undoubtedly prefer to buy from people rather than online. In this market, it’s more than a simple transaction, people are looking for advice, they need others to monitor aspects of their business for them, and that’s where we – or perhaps even a Queen’s graduate reading this article somewhere around the world – come in. We want to find that person – who speaks the language and knows the local culture – who can do business with our clients.

“So yes, we’re offering potentially up to eight Queen’s graduates each year an incredible adventure! They could be from this part of the world, or they could perhaps be the spouse, son or daughter of someone from here living overseas, who has that Northern Ireland ‘X factor’ and who wants to be successful.”

Family life

With the McSpadden family firmly re-established in Banbridge, Clifford still finds time to support Rhythm, a project run by a cross-community charity called Youth Outreach which he founded back in 2009 and which gives young people of the area the opportunity to reach their full potential.

It is a big part of Clifford’s life and affords him the chance to practise what he calls ‘practical Christianity’, a belief that is not defined or restricted to attendance at a particular church.

All three of Clifford’s children followed in their parents' footsteps and studied at Queen’s. Scott, an MSc (2012) graduate in Sustainable Aquaculture and Inshore Fisheries, who also has a BSc in Marine Biology (2011) and is Head of Sales at GWA Supplies; Glenn, who has an MEng in Chemical Engineering (2015) who is currently finishing a PhD at Queen’s and is teaching at INTO; and daughter Holly (born in 1994 when the family returned to County Down), who graduated with a BSc in Psychology (2016) and is now doing her Doctorate at Queen's.

And does Clifford have any words of advice for current students or recent graduates at Queen’s?

“Firstly, I would say to anyone…don’t pursue happiness but instead seek fulfilment. Ending any day with a sense of fulfilment, from wherever it arises, is a good day!

“Secondly, live life as a series of adventures; seize it, go with it and see where it takes you.

“And finally, if you are from Northern Ireland, or are a friend of Northern Ireland, and are ready for that adventure, give us a call!”

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

Images courtesy of GWA Supplies. 

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