Women in Composites – Leona Reif, Director, FDP Composites Pty Ltd, President, Composites Australia

In 2008, Leona made the pivotal decision to leave her secure job to take over her father’s composite fabricating business along with her brother John. Leona admits that “To have grown the business from a small family company to a national manufacturing enterprise is an achievement which has brought me significant career satisfaction.”

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc.

In 2008, Leona made the pivotal decision to leave her secure job to take over her father’s composite fabricating business along with her brother John. With Leona leading in business development and John at the helm of production and sales, they forged new careers in manufacturing composite components for some of Australia’s largest bus, coach and camper vehicle builders, as well as a range of other industry sectors. Leona admits that “To have grown the business from a small family company to a national manufacturing enterprise is an achievement which has brought me significant career satisfaction.”

Their Brisbane-based company, FDP Composites, specialises in manufacturing composite components for the transport, bus and coach industries across two facilities. Large roofs and sides, as well as external bumpers, front and rear headers and flooring are fabricated in Brisbane, while the high-quality cosmetic finished internal components, such as dashboards, lockers and pillars are manufactured in their second facility on the Sunshine Coast using a range of closed moulding processes.

For many, a dramatic career change from public to private sector would be embarked on with caution. But for Leona it was an opportunity enthusiastically embraced, making the transition to her father’s business at a time when he was looking to retire, and she wanted a change. “Dad always worked in the motor and bus building industry. He was late in his career when he started the business, then known as Fibreglass Design Panels, in 1999, and was hoping to pass on his legacy and enjoy a well deserve retirement. John and I were up for the challenge and I’m glad we were. I was eager to bring my knowledge of business process review into practice. Since coming into the business, we have seen significant growth as well as a shift in focus from hand lamination to closed moulding”.

Like many Australian industries, bus and coach manufacture is transforming to a lower carbon footprint. Lighter, stronger components help improve fuel economy and range and reduce vehicular noise and air emissions. With customers pushing for change, fleet operators and bus and coach manufacturers are responding with the rapid introduction of more efficient electric buses. A lighter bus gives extended range per charge cycle which helps to achieve greater journey distances.

“The sector’s shift to sustainable mobility wasn’t quite on the horizon when I started in FDP Composites, but I am proud that we have the opportunity to make a difference to the environmental performance of public transport,’ says Leona.

FDP Composites gelcoat finish for coaches and buses
FDP Composites long components
FDP Composites Bustech-skybus
FDP Composites component inspection

FDP Composites introduced a closed mould reusable silicone bag infusion process which has the added advantages of producing less waste and emissions. Producing a more uniform finish, the product addresses the dual challenges of reducing weight while preserving strength. At 13 metres long and three metres wide, FDP Composite’s largest silicone vacuum bag has resulted in both time and consumables savings, doubling output from the production mould. “Empowering employees to focus on continuous improvement makes good business sense, because investment in improved processes ultimately increases productivity, quality and output. It’s what makes running a business so rewarding”.

Before joining FDP Composites, Leona was expert in management of service operations and business process review within government services. “With a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities, majoring in Applied Ethics and Politics, I was interested in how the decisions we make have flow on effects, and how examining the effects of those decisions can lead to improved outcomes. Good decision making requires systems thinking – an approach that views the system as a whole, interacting with its environment to meet objectives. Working in government was an opportunity to make a difference in the community. Now in manufacturing, I am applying the same set of skills in systems thinking to continuous improvement. Lean manufacturing is fundamentally an implementation of systems thinking”.

In supporting the industry more broadly, Leona has also applied her governance and management skills to Composites Australia (CA). Her company became a financial member in their first year with FDPC, and Leona and John took a strong interest in the industry and developing relationships with other manufacturers. Appointed to the Board in 2014, Leona represented CA on an Austrade mission to Berlin in July 2015, as her experience in working within government made her the best candidate to ensure that CA was there to represent its members and promote Australian manufacturing.

JEC Asia in Seoul in November 2019 was another great collaboration, with CA facilitating a shared exhibition space between businesses, universities, and government to represent the Australian composites industry in the international arena. Leona joined the CA management team in hosting the Australian Trade Mission Pavilion. Her understanding of the benefits of research and knowledge, and how new technologies can improve a working environment is a driver for her in connecting with the wider composites industry and continually learning and seeking new ways to improve her manufacturing business.

Having developed a strong working relationship with the CA board members and executive team, Leona was elected as President in October 2016. “I see my contribution to the sector as the development of a strong collegiate culture where members of the industry can learn and support each other to grow the industry as a whole.

“Much of what I have learnt about manufacturing and ways to improve our business have come from insights other manufacturers have generously shared through their involvement with CA, be it site tours, presentations at our conference, or conversations shared when we have an opportunity to get together socially as an industry and share our passion for making things. Without these opportunities to learn, our industry will struggle to meet the demands of our economy as it transforms to the manufacturing environment Australia needed to compete in the world economy”.