Mulally – out of the ordinary

I knew Alan Mulally was out of the ordinary within seconds of meeting him some 14 years ago. Just appointed to head Boeing’s newly created 777 division, his corner office at Everett looked more like a hobbyist’s workshop than an executive’s domain with large parts of aircraft structure and various components littering the floor.

My first mistake was to sit down. “Don’t do that…come here and see this!” he said. “This is going to be one the real stories of this airplane….just take a look at this floor beam!” In his enthusiasm he almost threw at me what seemed to be a massively long piece of dark and heavy looking structure. I caught it, expecting to sag at the knees, but – relieved at its light weight – held the composite piece and examined it closely while pretending to look like some sort of expert.

My PR minder, looking half scared and amused at the same time, watched as I almost had to chase Mulally around his personal Aladdin’s Cave of 777 parts. Next came the technical marvel of the ‘no-slam can’ – a quiet toilet seat developed by Jamco specially for the 777 at the request of a Japanese launch customer which did not want its first class clientele disturbed by such inappropriate economy class noises. Moving to a mock-up mounted on a seat by one wall, Mulally let the toilet seat drop soundlessly into place and, looking at me with a boyish grin, said “isn’t that neat!”

From that moment on every meeting with Mulally became an ‘experience’ rather than an interview. Indeed, over the subsequent years I would emerge from talks with him feeling flushed with success, only to spend the next few hours frantically going over my notes to find a ‘proper’ quote. This was my brush with Mulally’s inspirational power and a hint of the leadership that drove the entire 777 programme like a nuclear reactor and which, some 14 years later, would one day attract the attention of Ford Motor Company’s troubled CEO, Bill Ford.

Not everyone came under his spell, after all thousands of Boeing workers would eventually be axed under his watch as the company fought first through the desperate years of recovery from the production meltdowns of the late 1990s and secondly through the market collapse after 9/11. But Mulally drove the entire Boeing Commercial enterprise just as he had with the 777, and brought the best out of everyone who reported to him. People at Boeing told me if you performed as expected, Mulally would be the best boss you’d ever have. Customers liked him too, and airline CEOs would fly halfway around the world to inspect and collect their new aircraft if it meant face-to-face time with Mulally.

His charismatic mid-west charm, while too much for some hard-bitten hacks, would frequently provide a whole extra dimension to others, including myself. Once in 1994 at the Farnborough air show, he jumped off the Boeing bus which was stuck in traffic, to walk with me to the chalets and chat about the 777 special I had just written for Flight International. Mulally told me he enjoyed reading the entire thing with the only question being my description of his role in the programme. Did I really have to call him a ‘human dynamo?’ Wasn’t that going a bit too far maybe?’

I never thought so. In fact, for someone who can apparently toil tirelessly around the clock, yet seem – on the outside at least – like he’s just started work, I’d say it is an understatement. Mulally also has this uncanny knack of making you feel as if he is communicating directly to you, and you alone, and that he is about to dispense precious gems of wisdom in your direction which you had better use. An astronautical engineer and MIT graduate by training, he is a big believer in the best empirical techniques – a discipline which he attempted to spread with almost religious fervour during his Thursday staff meetings or during interviews with the media. More than once, during complex explanations of a production or programme plan he’s suddenly sit back in his seat, look me in the eye and say “Guy, you’ve just got to let the data set you free!”

At other times, perhaps sensing the ironic contrast between the startling order of the immense industrial Boeing machine and the chaotic lifestyle of the journalist across the table from him, he would also say “Guy, you’ve gotta have a PLAN!”

For most of us in aerospace journalism, the defection of Alan Mulally from Boeing to the Ford Motor Company is therefore a sad day. Mulally might not have always been the best Boeing exec to give you hard facts and figures, but his mere presence raised the tempo of any press conference and virtually guaranteed a headline or two. I wish him well in his new and terrifically challenging job and, although our paths may never cross again I sign off with this thought: I still don’t have a plan, but at least I drive a Ford!

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