The biggest plane spotter of them all

profile : Phil Condit Richard Halstead on the Boeing boss who keeps an ear to the ground

PHIL CONDIT was 13 when the prototype for the Boeing 707 rolled off the production line and changed the world of commercial aircraft forever. Not that he was in the factory in Renton, in the state of Washington, with company founder William Boeing to see this event. He was at his Californian home, in his bedroom inspecting the PanAm route map of the world and wondering when he would see one of these fantastic four-engined jetliners land at San Francisco airport. As a plane-spotter, it was one of his favourite places to visit. The first sight of the 707 would be quite a coup.

Some 42 years, three degrees and only one employer (Boeing) later, Phil Condit has the plane-spotter's dream job. He is the chairman-elect and chief executive of Boeing, the world's largest commercial aeroplane manufacturer, and soon to be the proud owner of McDonnell Douglas, formerly its bitter rival in the aircraft business. Once that deal is completed, Condit will control the biggest aerospace group in the world, with a turnover estimated at $48bn next year.

It has been a long, and at times rocky, road to the top for both Condit and his company. He joined Boeing in 1965 to work on the company's ill- fated Supersonic Transport (SST) rival to Concorde. When that was cancelled after Congress withdrew funding, Condit worked on the 747, an engineering masterpiece that nearly bankrupted Boeing before it ever entered service. Then, as a rising engineering star, he was put in charge of the twin-engined 757 programme, a crucial mid-range plane to compete with its emerging rival, Airbus.

In 1989, he got his biggest break running the landmark programme to develop the Boeing 777, the company's first brand new design in 15 years. Condit introduced the novelty of Japanese-style "teams", drawn from all areas of the company, to work on the design and construction together. The project was also the first to have customers - the airlines - involved in every step of the process.

Now, as he takes the reins of the company, after three years as number two to chairman Frank Shrontz, he faces severalnew challenges. Most immediate is the task of integrating the company's two purchases - Rockwell's defence and aerospace businesses and McDonnell Douglas, which between them will virtually double the company's 118,000-strong workforce and increase the spread of the company's manufacturing sites from its bases around Seattle and Wichita, Kansas.

But then Condit must also keep an eye on the perennial challenge of Airbus, and decide whether the company's ambitious plans to build an even larger aircraft than the 747 are for real, and what threat that might pose. The forthcoming edict from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), possibly on design changes to commercial airliners after the crash of a TWA 747 off Long Island earlier this year, will also engage his mind.

Despite spending 30 years in one company, Condit is a very 1990s boss. A personality test recently defined him as an "intuitive, perceptual type", and he rarely finishes a speech or pep-talk without stressing the importance of communication. He prefers sweaters to suits, brings his wife's home-made muffins to strategy meetings, and has been known to sing Phantom of the Opera tunes to bemused colleagues. He says his role as chairman will be "to change the mindset of the people at Boeing" and convince them that market dominance does not mean the company can rest on its laurels.

His predecessor, Shrontz, a trained lawyer and former Pentagon official, piloted the company through a devastating recession, through political problems in opening up China's market to Boeing products, and through industrial disputes that last year alone lost the company more than two months' worth of production. But even Shrontz says that a different kind of skill is needed to take the aircraft giant into the next millennium. "There is a generational difference in leadership styles," he admitted recently.

While some newly elevated bosses, faced with a sprawling organisation, have retreated to the comfort of the executive suite, Condit has made it his business to go to the production line and press flesh with the rank and file. "Communication is his big skill, and he is going to need it to get 200,000 people going in the same direction," says William Whitlow, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities in Seattle who has followed Boeing for 20 years.

Another Condit reform is a greater degree of openness within the company to outsiders and their ideas. Airline executives and analysts used to refer jokingly to Boeing as "The Kremlin" because of the company's paranoia about secrecy. But when Condit took on the 777 project, he introduced the Boeing hierarchy to the concept of asking customers what they wanted from a plane - and invited representatives to participate in design and manufacture.

Central to Condit's message is that the aircraft manufacturing business has changed for good from the days when the company could bet its future on one aircraft - the 707 in the 1950s and the 747 in the 1970s - and wait for customers to show up. The 777 proved that customers were more interested in the size of the overhead storage bins in the cabin than they were in the composite wing materials. The outcome of the "customer focus" is that Boeing 777 customers are happy - and giving Boeing more business. The lesson: "We can't build airplanes just because we're excited about the technology," says Condit.

For all the touchy-feely ambience that Condit has created, not every problem will be solved by improved communication. The takeover of McDonnell Douglas means that Airbus is the only other volume manufacturer of airliners left in the world. Analysts believe it will take more than sweet-talk for customers to abandon the European consortium and allow Boeing a monopoly position in the world market.

As one analyst said: "Boeing may have a renaissance man at its head, and it may spend more time sorting out its own organisation in the next three years than bashing its competition, but it's the biggest name in aviation and no one should underestimate it."

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
News
people
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Senior Analyst - ALM Data - Banking - Halifax

£350 - £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Analyst, ALM Data, Halifax, ...

Java developer - Banking - London - Up to £600/day

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Java developer - Banking - London - Up to £600/d...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star