After capping a 21-year-long career in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a CF-18 fighter pilot, Jonathan never expected that he would one day find himself deep a jungle in southern Africa discussing C-130 modernization plans with an Air Force general. He never thought he would be talking about maritime communication retrofits with an Israeli admiral either. But such are the demands of his new career and Jonathan has risen to the challenges quite well.

As president and managing director of Rockwell Collins Canada, Jonathan leads a team of highly capable and innovative people engaged in some of the most exciting projects in the industry.

Q How did you start out in this industry and how has it brought you to where you are today?

I started out in the Aerospace and Defence industry after 21-years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a fighter (CF-18) and experimental test pilot. This naturally drove my interest in aviation, technology and innovation that enables a safe, connected and informed military and commercial applications.

I joined Rockwell Collins in 2000.  During my 11 years at our company headquarters in the U.S., I was exposed to multiple domestic and international programs including all branches of service as well as commercial aviation applications.  This experience has prepared me well to bring the best our company has to offer to the Canadian aerospace and defence sector as the senior Rockwell Collins executive in Canada.

Q What is your role today?

Today, I am thrilled to be leading a team of highly innovative and motivated people as the president and managing director of Rockwell Collins Canada.

Jonathan Obst
Jonathan Obst


Q What was your most challenging moment?

When I was first introduced to the team in Ottawa as the new managing director, I was the fifth person to be introduced in that role in a short period of time. The facility was in need of an upgrade; morale and sales were down.  My most challenging moment in this role, which is also the most rewarding, was rebuilding the trust and confidence in the team, our customers, and the corporation to make the investments that resulted in a doubling of our sales.

My most challenging moment in this role, which is also the most rewarding, was rebuilding the trust and confidence in the team, our customers, and the corporation to make the investments that resulted in a doubling of our sales, facility, and staff within the first year.  Developing truly compelling business cases and convincing customers to choose our solutions over others is never easy.  This is why we are continuing to innovate, and develop cutting-edge technologies and solutions that best meet the needs of our customers to achieve mission success.

Q What was your aha moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our readers, tell us that story.

I cannot pinpoint just one single moment, but rather it has been a series of lessons learned and re-learned.  What I have found in this industry is that you never know where opportunities will take you.  When I left the RCAF as a CF-18 pilot, I never imagined that I would be meeting with an Air Force general in the jungles of Botswana to discuss C-130 modernizations; or maritime communication retrofits with an Israeli admiral; or a Future Combat Systems with a U.S. Army general in Fort Kentucky; or even in Ottawa leading a team of skilled engineers developing a whole new wideband HF technology.  If you are willing to accept new challenges and go with the flow, there is no limit to what one can do.

Q What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

The opportunities I receive to participate in national forums such as with the AIAC as a board member or participating directly on the National Defence Policy review roundtable discussion hosted by Minister Sajjan get me fired up.  Having the opportunity to help shape defence policy for years to come and gaining the knowledge and insight from my peers and customers is exciting and an honour.

Q What is the best advice you received?

Follow your heart and be open to taking assignments that don’t seem to be perfectly aligned with your career trajectory.  It all seems to work out in the long run.

Q What is a habit that contributes to your success?

It is always about putting the people first.  I have been blessed by having strong role models, mentors, and superiors throughout my military and civilian career and now I am surrounded by talented and motivated employees that I rely on for any success that I enjoy.  Where you are, it is always the people that make the difference.

Q What is your parting piece of advice?

My advice to others is to take calculated risks, fight for what you believe in and stick to your guns.

Q What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?

I think leaders driving game-changing new technologies across all industries embody the innovation mindset.  Those who push boundaries and do what others have said can’t be done, such as Elon Musk and Space X, come to mind.  Those driving disruptive technologies in the areas of UAVs, cybersecurity, the Internet of Things, robotics, and artificial intelligence are also good examples.

Questions regarding Rockwell Collins

Q How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?

Rockwell Collins is a leader in critical innovative technologies such as next-gen avionics, connectivity in the aviation ecosystem, networking for air, land and sea, and simulation and training including live, virtual and constructive training.  In Canada we are developing next generation communications systems – like wideband HF and networking waveforms – that enable the seamless transmission of voice and data, securely across long distances.

Q What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in our industry sector?

Two things come to mind.  One of the biggest impediments to innovation is the lack of a clear and compelling need for change.  By that, I mean a vision and the will to commit the resources needed to bring innovative ideas to market quickly, yet in a safe and reliable way.  Industry is great at coming up with all sorts of creative ideas that help us to be more interconnected, or adding automation and decision aids, however the barriers to implement these ideas are high.

It is very expensive to make major changes or add in new ideas in our industry due to the necessary safety and regulatory environment we operate in.  Deeply integrated systems, the need to consider all aspects, safety and security risks, etc. adds to the complexity of implementing innovation.

In Canada, we are blessed with a highly educated workforce and many small & medium creative enterprises that are doing great things – many of them featured in your Game Changer series.  However, we are a large country and our business approach and processes tend to be fragmented into regional or market segment differences.

It is difficult to pull together the great ideas that are all around us to be able to more effectively compete in a truly global market.  We need to figure out how not to reinvent the wheel in different locations and instead leverage the great innovation that is being done and use available funding sources in a more coordinated and efficient way.

Q How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?

Rockwell Collins started working with a small very innovative company in Ottawa called IP Unwired that was creating a unique networking capability for global maritime operations in early 2000.  These entrepreneurs became Rockwell Collins Canada (Ottawa) in 2006 and nearly all of the employees remain with the company today.  Rockwell Collins is continuing to invest in our subsidiary here and today we are seen as a centre of excellence for mobile ad-hoc networking and leading the development of an alternative to SATCOM through the development of wideband HF technologies.  To accomplish these things, we have had to be very creative not only technologically, but also financially.

Q What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

We live in an interconnected world with unprecedented levels of service at our fingertips.  Whether it be a passenger on a commercial flight or a soldier on some remote battlefield, people are not only coming to expect this connectivity in the everyday lives, they are becoming dependent on it.  This is driving the trend for smarter, more efficient networks, autonomous systems, and machine to machine transactions and the like.  In turn, that creates a need for better security systems and the need to protect vulnerable networks and data.

There are many exciting technology trends in our industry that we are leveraging, such as remote networking, live, virtual and constructive training, unmanned systems, and aviation connectivity to and from the ground, in the air and in the cabin.  These are all key growth areas for our company.  Applying these trends to the aerospace and defence markets will also require updated business models with more collaboration and risk sharing among industry partners.

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