Ray Conner Discusses Leadership, Failure, and Strategy in Annual Raisbeck Speaker Series
As part of an annual tradition initiated by Dr. James Raisbeck, former Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO and Vice Chairman Ray Conner visited the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott campus on Monday, Oct. 7 as this year’s distinguished guest. Dr. Raisbeck, founder of Raisbeck Engineering (Seattle, Wash.) and namesake and key donor of Raisbeck Aviation High School, has been visiting the campus for this event since the early 2000s.
In the early evening, a crowd of students gathered in the Lower Hangar to hear a discussion between Raisbeck and Conner: the former asked Conner a series of questions about his career, professional trajectory, major events while he was with the company, and philosophy. Now retired, Conner has reflected a lot on his time with Boeing.
Conner joined The Boeing Company as a mechanic in 1977 after his previous job working on fishing boats suffered a bad year. It was his first job with a real company, and it did not fail to impress. “I felt like, at Boeing, you could be and do anything,” said Conner. He was working his way through school as a factory employee for the wing spars on the 727, which flew its last passenger flight earlier this year.
The inspiration for Conner’s career trajectory came from an issue of the now-electronic Boeing newspaper that featured a sales representative handing over aircraft keys to an airline customer. “That’s where I set my goals,” said Conner. “Maybe at the time I wasn’t bright enough to understand that was a tall task.” Indeed, being a key-holding sales representative with the company is a prestigious position and has to be earned through no small means.
After completing an undergraduate degree at Central Washington University in Biology, Conner transitioned to working for the company full-time while working on his MBA through the University of Puget Sound, and was promoted to a supervisor not long after. “You learn to listen and lead,” he said of the leadership role that set the stage for the many to come. Conner sold his first airplane in 1994, 17 years after he first dreamed of handing over the keys.
After touching on Conner’s career trajectory, Raisbeck launched into more difficult questions about the soft skills required to be an executive. “When did you realize you needed to perfect your problem-solving skills?” Raisbeck asked. “When you’re putting together an aircraft, it’s not an easy task,” Conner commented of the emphasis his first role placed on problem-solving. From the very beginning, it was a critical skill he would take into the rest of his career. Later, he used this foundation to manage production rate increases, known as rate breaks; taking on mass amounts of new staff; and issues that would arise in the manufacturing of the 747 program where he came to be the Vice President and General Manager.
Raisbeck, who worked for Boeing in the 1960s, has seen the company go through several ups and downs. “There was a time when Boeing was selling more [airplanes] than it could build,” he recalled. “What was the lack of communication there?” This was in the late 1990s when Boeing was going through the McDonnell-Douglas merger, a peak in the 737NG’s production, and production rate increases while introducing new airline customers.
“It’s your responsibility to tell leadership when it’s going to break. [Tell them,] ‘If you do this, the system will break,’” said Conner, who was the vice president of Asia/Pacific commercial sales at the time. However, the company still struggled to keep up with the mass amount of changes it was initiating, but hesitated to hire enough personnel before it was too late. In his time as CEO of Boeing Commercial, Conner corrected this problem by insisting the head count be raised before new employees were needed, not retroactively. “Finance would always push back on spending for this, but the little bit of money you spend getting people on early and getting them trained is nothing compared to the money you spend when you get behind,” he said.
The 787 complications were a hot topic of conversation. In 2007, Conner became the Vice President of Sales for Commercial Airplanes, and was quickly wrapped into the challenges that came with releasing the 787. Reminiscent of a previous struggle, the company had tried to create a new fuselage design, incorporate loads of carbon fiber, and outsource much more engineering and manufacturing to suppliers than it had done with previous airplane programs. “I can remember the day that I had the realization that we were going to be late,” said Conner.
The decision was made to delay the release of the aircraft by four months, which was the first of several delays that compounded to three years. “They were like doggy years. Seriously, every year was like seven years,” recalled Conner of the excruciating delay. “We had lost control of where we were.” The goal with this new aircraft was to reduce nonrecurring design costs by contracting external engineers, but the program ended up incurring so much debt it just broke even recently, almost 10 years later.
“The step we took was an even bigger step than from the 707 to 747,” said Conner. “But I tell ‘ya: It’s a good airplane now.” Boeing’s leadership learned a lot from the tricky situation of the 787, and was able to apply many of these lessons to the latest-and-greatest, the 777X, which boasts the longest composite structure in the world with its state-of-the-art wings. “That autoclave is a monster,” Conner jokes.
Raisbeck circled back to Conner’s incredible time as CEO, which began in June 2012, the year after the 787 finally started delivering. “We were supposed to deliver 37 aircraft in 2012, and we had delivered 7 so far,” he said. In his new promotion, Conner started by checking out the 787 factory line. “I wanted to get a sense of how things were going and the intensity of the work that was going on,” he said. There, he met a factory team lead named Jack.
“I introduced myself as Ray Conner, and he said, ‘Yeah, I know,’” Conner recalled. “He said, ‘Do you want to know how to deliver these airplanes? Myself and the other team leads want to tell you what you need to do.’ I said, ‘I’m all ears, Jack.’” Jack brought 20 team leads together for a session that ended with Conner taking a list of action items to an executive meeting. “We have to show these guys that we’re going to react to what they’re saying,” he said, and they did.
Ending the annual Raisbeck Speaker Series session on a high note, Conner reflected on the lessons that led to his success as CEO of Commercial. “[We had] 21 rate breaks when I was CEO and we never missed one,” he says. “It’s the power of listening to the people that really know what they’re doing. We delivered every one of them.”
Since retiring in 2017, Conner lives in Bellevue, Wash. and currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Alaska Air Group, which manages Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, and Adient, an automotive seating company.