Michimasa Fujino's peers could be excused for wondering what planet he lives on. While the chief executives of most business jet makers have watched the economic world crash around their ears, Fujino has been busy doubling his workforce to 420 over the past year. Many of those hired by his HondaJet operation have been cut loose by established rivals.
Fujino, who is also Honda Aircraft's chief engineer, says the company is "now reaching near maximum, but we are still hiring experts", with the headcount expected to grow by another 10% to 20% as it prepares to fly its first conforming prototype in the first quarter of next year. Fujino acknowledges recruitment became easier as other manufacturers slashed their workforces in response to the current downturn. But he says there are always engineers who are attracted to Honda and are "looking for a more engineering-driven rather than sales-driven company".
A second aircraft will join the flight-test programme later next year followed by a third in 2011, when the HondaJet is scheduled to be certificated and enter service late in the year. Honda plans to deliver two or three aircraft in 2011, followed by 70 aircraft in 2012 and 100 aircraft a year from 2013.
Fujino says the workforce will grow to 650-700 for the start of production. The manufacturer has the capacity to add a second line at its North Carolina production facility, which is now under construction, giving it the capacity to potentially turn out 200 aircraft a year and cut customer wait times. But Fujino says that in the current economy the plan is to stick with just the one line.
Honda has not publicly updated its orderbook since it secured more than 100 orders in the first three days after the aircraft was launched in 2006. But given the current three-year backlog and the current production plan, the orderbook is at least 270 aircraft.
Honda's bid to enter the business jet fray may, ironically, be coming at just the right time. Fujino admits that this year's order take has been "quite slow" after "lots of orders" in the two years after the aircraft was launched. But, he says there have been a "minimal" number of cancellations this year, mostly in the first quarter, and net orders are still positive for 2009.
He adds that in recent months several new orders have come from customers who have decided to cancel their orders for more expensive jets. "Some of our customers want a more efficient, lower cost airplane," Fujino says, arguing that the HondaJet is in a "higher category than other light jets in terms of performance" and fuel efficiency.
The company is also aiming to outgun its rivals by achieving production efficiency on a par with its automotive business.
Fujino, who has led Honda Aircraft from the day it was established it 2006 and has worked on aircraft projects at Honda for over two decades along with about 20 other Japanese engineers who now work under him, says being chief engineer and chief executive makes for a "very busy" working life. But he quickly points out being chief executive of Honda Aircraft is not quite like being head of other aircraft manufacturers.
"Our definition of chief executive is different. At American companies the chief executive focuses on financial performance. A Honda chief executive is more focused on product," he says.
"When Honda chooses a chief executive they choose someone who doesn't want to be chief executive. A person who wants to be chief executive, their focus is more political. When Honda chooses a chief executive, they really want someone to focus on product. We are a very product oriented company."