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."

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