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Originally published June 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 28, 2007 at 4:18 PM

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Boeing, Airbus sales chiefs seal the deal in different ways

The top salesmen at Airbus and Boeing both had a very good week at the Paris Air Show. But these two Americans in Paris approach the event...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

The top salesmen at Airbus and Boeing both had a very good week at the Paris Air Show.

But these two Americans in Paris approach the event with utterly different styles flashy crowing from Airbus and low-key confidence from Boeing.

Airbus supersaleman John Leahy, 56, is a silky talker, a ceaseless marketer, a sun-tanned, theatrical, youthful-looking figure in the mold of departing U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair or the new French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Some find the New York-born Leahy's public persona too brash to take, but one on one he's a charmer.

Boeing's Larry Dickenson, 64, is a steady, avuncular presence who made his mark by winning the trust of reserved Asian airline executives.

He's a golf fanatic — a member of Callaway's golf-club test panel — and values the quiet nurturing of clubby, long-term relationships.

Rather than a flamboyant politician, Dickenson resembles the indispensable civil servant in the background, the straight arrow who gets things done for a Blair or a Sarkozy.

In separate interviews in Paris, the two men described their very different air shows. What they shared was a week of grueling days.

Leahy more than doubled the record for orders announced at a single show and provided at last some much-needed credibility for the new A350 jet program.

Up until the show, Airbus had a total 210 firm orders this year for new jets. As of the end of Thursday, Leahy claimed firm orders in Paris for a blowout 479 new jets, with a total list price of $59 billion.

That blasts past Boeing's total for the year. And as Leahy keeps reminding everyone, he has more announcements today.

Dickenson, with his airplane programs selling steadily all year, didn't feel any need to match Leahy's grand total, and he didn't try.

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Instead, he announced just one big, high-impact contract: a 52-jet order for the 787 Dreamliner from blue-ribbon customer International Lease Finance Corp (ILFC).

As of Wednesday, Boeing had 510 net firm orders for the year.

Leahy rose at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and learned his sales team had labored all night, finally sealing a contract he had worked on until midnight the night before.

7 news conferences

He went to a 7:30 breakfast meeting with financial analysts in downtown Paris, then was driven to the air show, where at seven separate news conferences he announced seven jet deals, including the one finally reached early that morning with CIT Aerospace.

At the end of the sixth announcement, as one set of airline executives was leaving the room, he wearily bent over to ask Airbus Vice President Barbara Kracht when the next one was up, then headed out for a breather.

Yes, even Leahy can get tired. His heart gave him trouble earlier this year. But these days, his back is killing him.

"I've got to go to a health farm and get myself back in shape," he said.

In between the news conferences, Leahy had a long VIP lunch at the Airbus chalet and media interviews. When he isn't selling airplanes to customers, he's selling Airbus to journalists.

In the evening, he was off to a cocktail reception, followed by dinner and negotiations with customers, then back to the hotel and bed after midnight.

"I'm here until Saturday," Leahy said. "I'll probably sleep all weekend when I finally get home."

Quite a haul

He's delighted with his enormous sales haul in Paris, which includes some clearly solid customers.

He got some state-backed airlines and free-spenders, including Aeroflot and Middle Eastern giants Emirates and Qatar Airways.

But he also got some American customers that needed a stone-cold business case, including US Airways and leasing companies Aircastle and CIT.

The crucial sales were for the A350, the jet that will go up against the 787. It had just 13 firm orders before the show; it now has 134.

For Leahy, jet sales are nothing less than a validation of Airbus' prowess, an answer to skeptics who would count the company out.

"Airbus has had some problems," Leahy said, "But the customers have faith ... and they are able to vote with their order books."

Even faced with a difficult customer such as ILFC Chief Executive Steve Udvar-Hazy — who before and during the Air Show continued his public criticism of the A350 design — Leahy's confidence remains indefatigable.

"Even the famous Mr. Hazy is sometimes wrong," said Leahy with a twinkle in his eye, "and you can quote me on that."

Then he added that his personal friendship with Hazy goes back 20 years, and he still expects to sell ILFC the A350.

"Our friendship is strong enough," he said, that even Hazy's newly expanded order for the 787 Dreamliner won't disturb it. "A 74-airplane mistake is not going to come between us."

Leahy uses the air show as a deadline to concentrate the minds of prospective buyers.

"If you set it up the way we do it, you say, 'Gosh, guys, the delivery slots disappear at the end of the air show. We can't hold these positions,'" Leahy said.

That's not the Boeing way.

Dickenson is the tortoise to Leahy's hare. Instead of pushing, he dines, talks, shakes hands, looks customers in the eye and waits for them to be ready.

But he, too, has a punishing schedule. In Paris for his 34th consecutive air show (counting the London and Paris ones in alternate years), he rises at 4:45 each morning, talks to his team in Seattle and goes through his schedule of meetings in the car on the way to Le Bourget.

His days are a series of meetings with customers, suppliers, bankers and journalists.

He had two lunches Wednesday: the first at the Boeing chalet with representatives of General Electric's aircraft-leasing unit, the second at the Rolls-Royce chalet with Rolls CEO Sir John Rose.

Nights, he takes in a reception then goes to dinner with more customers. "If I'm lucky, I'm back at my hotel between 11 and midnight," Dickenson said.

Is this sales approach effective, too?

Boeing has had two record years of sales, and the strong momentum is likely to continue past Airbus' big Paris push.

Tuesday, Dickenson had lunch with Jim Whitehurst, Delta's chief operating officer. That day, The Wall Street Journal quoted Whitehurst saying he's likely to order 125 787s by year-end.

A Delta 787 order and a similar-sized one from American are considered all but inevitable.

Both airlines once had exclusivity agreements with Boeing and still maintain a strong partnership. That was evident after the aviation business collapsed after 9/11, when Boeing worked with the airlines to defer deliveries for years rather than holding them to their contracts.

Yet Dickenson takes nothing for granted.

"Nothing is ever in the bag," he said. "We work on these relationships every day."

"If you are partners, you work together to help each other out," he said. "That's clearly the relationship we believe we have not only with Delta and American but with many airlines around the world."

Dickenson is also negotiating potential big deals with United, Korean Air Lines and British Airways, all of which have large fleets of older 747s and are serious candidates to buy the 747-8.

He thinks United and American may buy the short-range version of the 787, the 787-3, for the U.S. domestic market.

Dickenson's approach may be tortoise-like, but he isn't rattled by that hare racing past.

As Paris drew to a close for Boeing, Dickenson said he's looking forward to another big customer event: the 787 rollout ceremony July 8.

He has arranged to fly in some 800 representatives of airline customers, including the CEOs of all 45 airlines that have ordered the Dreamliner.

Until then, Dickenson has to work on preparing the event, and he promises the occasion will be unforgettable.

Afterward, he says, he may play a little golf.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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