Boeing's Jet Propellant

Its sales ace is pushing the company ahead of Airbus in the rich Asia-Pacific market

For the past decade, Airbus dealmaker John J. Leahy has struck fear into the heart of Boeing Co. (BA ) executives. It was Leahy, after all, who helped the European jetmaker supplant Boeing as the world's top producer of commercial jetliners. And on Dec. 5, with Qantas Airways Ltd. executives debating whether to award one of the largest jet orders of the year to Airbus or Boeing, it looked like Leahy might triumph once again.

What had Boeing officials so worried that day was Leahy's last-minute flight to meet with Qantas executives in Sydney. Time and again, the Airbus super-salesman had pulled off victories at the 11th hour. But this time, the urbane Leahy met his match. His rival at Boeing, the decidedly less glamorous Larry S. Dickenson, won the day: On Dec. 13, Qantas decided to purchase up to 115 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, valued at roughly $10 billion at list prices. The news of the deal sent Boeing shares to $71.45 on Dec. 14 -- a record high.

The Qantas contract is Dickenson's second recent victory in the battle for control of the lucrative market for widebody airplanes in the Asia-Pacific region. On Dec. 1, Chicago-based Boeing won an order for 16 777 widebody jetliners from Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. It now controls more than 60% of the Asian widebody niche. With Asia-Pacific the world's fastest-growing market for new aircraft, and the biggest buyer of the longer-range and highly profitable widebody jets, Dickenson's Cathay Pacific and Qantas wins will help boost Boeing's bottom line for decades.

Of course, Dickenson knows it's easy to look good when customers are clamoring for your product. Boeing has a game-changing plane on its hands with the lightweight, fuel-sipping 787 Dreamliner. At the same time, Boeing, after reining in its salesmen during the '90s, has again given them more autonomy to cut deals without checking back with headquarters.

To hear Dickenson tell it, there's nothing particularly impressive about what he does for a living. "I'm just a jet salesman," he says. "We have good products, and we try to demonstrate [their] value." Of course, it's not so simple. Like his rival at Airbus, Dickenson, 62, is part of an exclusive club of über-salesmen. Not only do he and his peers battle over deals worth billions of dollars, they affect the balance of trade between countries. As such, they need to win over not just airline executives but politicians, too. And there is always the chance that the other guy will snatch away the big deal. "I'm always nervous when John [Leahy] is in Asia," Dickenson says. "I'd prefer he spend his time in Europe or the Middle East."


Maybe Dickenson shouldn't worry so much. He has connections in Asia-Pacific built up over 18 years. He plans meticulously for each sales campaign, overseeing the tiniest detail down to the wording of press releases. He comes up with creative solutions that often include a combination of attractive pricing, financing, and leasing arrangements, as well as training and service packages. And he's a big believer in creating "action-enforcing events" timed to spur airline executives to close the deal.

That, of course, requires good old-fashioned schmoozing. And how better to woo golf-mad Asians than at a Boeing golf tournament? Every November Dickenson hosts one in Hawaii for about 100 industry guests. The event has become a classic, heading into its 18th year. "One time we had a '50s night," recalls a former Boeing executive. "We had makeup artists to paint sideburns and hand out T-shirts, and guests just ate it up." The occasion includes meetings and the opportunity for senior Boeing officials to meet customers one-on-one. The tournament format, called scramble, puts Boeing and industry execs together in four-person teams. "When you play four hours of golf a day, you get to know your team," Dickenson says.

Boeing and its top salesman have now won two of three crucial campaigns in Asia-Pacific. And the most dramatic win may be just around the corner. The leader in the region, Singapore Airlines Ltd., is expected to announce a big purchase in January. If Singapore swings to Boeing, as insiders suggest it will, then the aerospace Goliath will have pulled off one of the biggest strategic reversals in commercial aviation history. And Dickenson will have made Leahy's job a lot harder.

By Stanley Holmes

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