Incoming Boeing chief no stranger to crises

Mr David Calhoun, who takes over as Boeing CEO next month, will have to steer the embattled airplane manufacturer out of a crisis that has consumed it for over a year. PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr David Calhoun, who takes over as Boeing CEO next month, will have to steer the embattled airplane manufacturer out of a crisis that has consumed it for over a year. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mr David Calhoun, who takes over as Boeing CEO next month, will have to steer the embattled airplane manufacturer out of a crisis that has consumed it for over a year. PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr David Calhoun, who takes over as Boeing CEO next month, will have to steer the embattled airplane manufacturer out of a crisis that has consumed it for over a year. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hailed as turnaround specialist, he faces task of tackling turmoil surrounding troubled B-737 Max

NEW YORK • As the new chief executive of Boeing, Mr David Calhoun will take on one of the most challenging tasks in corporate America: Steering the embattled airplane manufacturer out of a crisis that has consumed it for more than a year.

Boeing's best-selling jet, the B-737 Max, has been grounded for 10 months. This happened after two deadly crashes exposed serious flaws in its design and led to scrutiny of the company's manufacturing process and dealings with regulators, as well as to accusations that it overlooked safety concerns in its competitive zeal.

But while the magnitude of the task has little precedent, this is not the first time Mr Calhoun has had to navigate corporate turmoil. Over decades as an executive at General Electric (GE), Nielsen and Blackstone, he has been hailed as a "turnaround specialist" and described by colleagues as an experienced and decisive operator.

Mr Calhoun, 62, started his career at GE, rising to run the company's airplane-engine business after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. Later, as Nielsen chief executive, he was credited with rebuilding the data and information firm after a private-equity takeover. In 2017, he was made chairman of the board of Caterpillar as the construction-equipment firm faced scrutiny from the United States government over its tax and export practices.

"He is somebody people trust," said Mr Kevin Sharer, a former chief executive of drug-maker Amgen and a close friend of Mr Calhoun's who overlapped with him at GE. "He doesn't bring emotion. He brings logic and conviction."

Mr Calhoun will replace Mr Dennis Muilenburg as Boeing's chief executive on Jan 13, the firm said on Monday. A member of the board of directors since 2009, Mr Calhoun became chairman in October when Mr Muilenburg was stripped of the title as Boeing struggled in the aftermath of the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

Since joining GE after graduating from Virginia Tech in 1979, Mr Calhoun has built a career on firm decision-making and an ability to execute ambitious strategies step by step, said former colleagues.

He thrived under the mentorship of GE's long-time chief executive Jack Welch, and became known as a blunt and forceful leader. When he settled on a decision, he pursued it relentlessly, former colleagues said.

"He was very, very clear in his communication," said Mr Paul Mirabella, who ran GE's global diagnostic imaging unit from 2003 to 2006. "If you worked for David, you were never confused about what the mission was."

Towards the end of his tenure at GE, Mr Calhoun was courted by major companies. In 2006, The New York Times reported it was "common knowledge among analysts" that Boeing had offered him the chief executive job a year earlier.

But he went to Nielsen, which a group of private-equity firms had acquired. There, he streamlined the business by selling magazines such as The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard. He had a major victory in 2011 when Walmart agreed to share consumer sales information with Nielsen after keeping the data private for many years.

In 2017, he took over as chairman of Caterpillar shortly after federal agents raided its headquarters. And he has led the portfolio-operations group at Blackstone since 2013.

"Dave is an incredibly capable, super talented executive," said Blackstone president and chief operating officer Jonathan Gray. "I am sure Boeing saw in the boardroom how capable he was."

At Blackstone, Mr Calhoun discussed with senior executives the firm's new life sciences initiatives unveiled last year. At a meeting three years ago, most of the officials in the room spoke in broad strokes about the future of healthcare, recalled Mr Sharer, who was at the meeting. But not Mr Calhoun. He focused on the nuts and bolts: Where do we invest? Whom do we hire? "We are all dreaming about how beautiful the cathedral is going to look," Mr Sharer said. "And he kept saying, 'How are we going to build it?' "

Throughout Boeing's crisis, Mr Calhoun has been the face of the board, often reaffirming its support for Mr Muilenburg. But it was never entirely clear whether he had his eyes on the top job.

In an interview with Virginia Tech Daily last year, Mr Calhoun emphasised his desire to maintain an even work-life balance, noting that he learnt the importance of setting aside time for his family from one of his mentors at GE.

"He had found this wonderful balance. He clearly told me how imbalanced I was," said Mr Calhoun, who is married and has four children. "I can probably work around the clock, but that is not a healthy thing, and you miss out on a lot."

Still, over the course of his career, he has repeatedly shown an appetite for new challenges. In 2010, he told an interviewer that he had left GE partly because he wanted "a little anxiety" in his professional life.

He will get plenty of that as Boeing chief executive. Over the past year, the company has faced intense criticism from regulators, Congress and families of the people who died in the two crashes.

Last week, Boeing temporarily suspended production of the Max, disrupting a vast international supply chain across thousands of companies. Mr Calhoun spent much of Monday speaking with customers, government regulators and public officials, a Boeing spokesman said.

In an interview with The Times in May, Mr Calhoun made clear what he viewed as Boeing's main priority. "There is really only one thing to do, and that is to get a safe airplane back up in the sky and let it fly," he said. "I mean, that is really all we can do."

"Oh, by the way," he added. "That will all happen. That is what we do."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2019, with the headline 'Incoming Boeing chief no stranger to crises'. Print Edition | Subscribe