General Dynamics Mission Systems in Pittsfield is the largest high-tech employer in the Berkshires. It employs about 1500 in the city, has grown in headcount in 18 out of the past 19 years and expects to add 100 more people next year. With General Dynamic’s rapid growth, Carlo Zaffanella, vice president and general manager, believes that there are opportunities for new and existing local businesses to supply the company.
“Our Pittsfield operation spends many millions of dollars outsourcing to other companies. But, only a portion of that stays in the Berkshires,” says Carlo Zaffanella. “What we need is an innovation ecosystem with smaller companies filling these outsourced opportunities. It could be centered in Pittsfield around the Berkshire Innovation Center.”
General Dynamics designs and builds electronic systems that go onto military platforms. A major part of their business is supporting the United States Navy and Air Force.
“Think about submarines and surface ships. We either make things that go in them or on them, such as computer networks and specialty electronic devices. We also take things that other people create and make them all work together. Then, we go to the shipyards and bring the ships and submarines to life,” Carlo said.
As an example, Carlo cited the work General Dynamics does on electronics for submarines. Many years ago, GD made all of the components. They were unique and proprietary, but also expensive and difficult to upgrade.
In a major innovative change in the 1990s, a change that created a new future for the business in Pittsfield, GD transitioned to Commercial Off The Shelf hardware. Now, GD outsources all of that hardware for submarines and surface ships, and then develops the software and integrates them together into their systems, allowing GD to deliver their products faster and cheaper.
“We decided that we would bring the world to us: sensors, communications gear, navigational equipment, weapons. You name it, we are looking for everything that goes on a ship,” said Carlo.
Unfortunately, there are very few local suppliers for these high tech products.
“As I go around the country, I see a lot of companies like aerospace companies with long-term contracts. Often, around them are a lot of small companies that tend to fill the voids that the aerospace company has,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity for small companies here to fill the niches, the voids, the opportunities that arise because General Dynamics is in Pittsfield.”
“And, by the way, you would be hard-pressed to find a more stable company to work with than us. Some of our contracts last literally decades,” he added. “Take the Columbia class submarines, the next generation of submarines, which have a life span until 2084. The parents of the commanding officers of those last submarines are being born now.”
He sees the Berkshire Innovation Center as a way to spark the innovation ecosystem. General Dynamics joined the BIC at its inception.
“The Berkshire Innovation Center is specifically for this kind of thing – connecting businesses together. I hope to use it as much as possible. I would like to find the appropriate forums to do the kind of things we do to find suppliers internationally right here at the BIC,” Carlo said.
As an example, he said that he plans to bring the 2020 General Dynamics annual supplier conference to Pittsfield. General Dynamics Mission Systems is the parent of the Pittsfield location and is a global company with 13,000+ employees.
“Once a year, our whole corporation has one big global supplier conference. We will lay out the things that we need, especially in the short term. The conference will be in the BIC if they can fit it,” he said. “Why will we do it here? Because I want to use it as the kind of catalyst to give people ideas for businesses they can do.”
He explained that Pittsfield has a rich history of building ecosystems that could be emulated today.
“In the heyday of GE Power Transformers and Sprague Electric, we had some big, powerful electrical engineering powerhouses here. Out of that sprung a lot of small specialty houses that did electrical work of all sorts. Think about plastics. We had a lot of plastics companies, and GE Plastics was a powerhouse. From it, tons of small businesses sprouted. Paper was another big industry here with Onyx and Crane. The pipeline of paper-related businesses formed and survived based on having such a large business located here.”
Potential suppliers should also be confident that GD is committed to staying in the Berkshires for the long haul.
“Why are we committed to staying in the Berkshires? There are many reasons, but mostly it is the people. We could not replace the people that we have here if we moved to another location,” he said. “You are trusting our people to develop systems here that have kept world peace since World War II. It is the exacting precision of what we make here that makes that happen. You don’t learn that in a day or a month or a year. It is something that you learn over a lifetime. We have people with 50 or more years of experience in Pittsfield and they mentor new employees.”
He also added that many employees want to stay in the Berkshires
“One of the big advantages of being in the Berkshires is the retention rate for the people we depend upon,” he said. “I travel all over the world, and when I come back here, I say to myself, ‘what a wonderful place to live.’ What could be better than that?”
– by Roger Matus