Boeing's New President Knows How To Listen

With a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from Princeton and 27 years at the world's top aircraft maker, Phil Condit has reason to think he knows more about manufacturing than the next guy. But when he visited a Toyota Motor Corp. engine factory in Japan in 1991, Condit had a sudden insight. At the point in the assembly process where workers needed to turn an engine there was a post. When the engine hit an arm on that post, the arm, set on a turntable, pushed the engine around. A simple device, yet Condit marveled. "We would probably have used a set of hydraulic actuators that turn a rotary table when triggered by a fiber-optic sensor," says Boeing Co.'s new president. "They just used a little post."

That's the thing about Philip M. Condit: He's always looking for new solutions. And in these troubled times for Boeing, his eyes and ears are sorely needed. CEO Frank A. Shrontz, a lawyer by training, picked Condit, 51, last August to be his president and likely successor. Condit oversees all Boeing's operations in commercial aircraft, defense, and computer services. But those who work with him say his influence goes far beyond the day-to-day workings of Boeing. Perhaps his greatest impact so far has been in customer relations. A large, friendly man with big brown eyes, he is leading the charge to turn Boeing from a technology-oriented company to a customer-oriented one. Says United Airlines Inc. President John C. Pope: "Condit's been preaching a new gospel."

It's not something he reserves for customers, either. Condit has spent his entire career at Boeing, but he brings a fresh, informal style to the once stuffy corporate headquarters. In his former job as head of the 777 program, he had teal green T-shirts designed to help build team spirit and encouraged everyone to wear them on Fridays. Lawrence W. Clarkson, corporate vice-president for planning and international development, says he and Condit sometimes retreat to Clarkson's boat with a bottle of wine to work out thorny problems. Condit has been known to serenade colleagues with his renditions of songs from Phantom of the Opera.

But as Condit tries to steer Boeing through the massive changes facing the industry, he is going to be in for a lot of listening himself. "I try to spend time really understanding where the customer is trying to go, what he's trying to accomplish--how does what we're doing fit into that?" With current airline woes, he's getting an earful.

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