““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Bell Helicopter's John L. Garrison, Jr.
The corporate executives who speak at trade-show press conferences frequently seem uncomfortable and wooden; and when it comes time for any sort of probing question, their eyes often fix firmly on the nearest exit. Maybe that’s why John Garrison stood out.
Bell Helicopter appointed him as president and CEO in August 2009. I attended his first big industry press conference the following February at Heli-Expo, the helicopter field’s premier trade show. Bell had been limping along for years with declining sales, a stagnant product line and faltering development programs. The stock of its parent, Textron, had done a spectacular faceplant, with its split-adjusted price falling from $67 in 2007 to $6 in 2009, and was only slowly crawling out of the gutter. Bell was poised to do a swan dive—maybe for good. In nine years, Bell had had six CEOs and no one seemed able to right the ship. Garrison likely would be the next enthusiast headed for the meat grinder, I thought.
Before the press conference began that day, Garrison did something I have never seen before or since from a CEO: he worked the room, introducing himself to everyone, shaking hands, looking people in the eye and thanking them for coming. It was a small but significant gesture that got my attention and made me think: Who is this guy?
The son of a career Air Force pilot, Garrison played linebacker at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduated, became an Army Ranger, was sent to Harvard to earn an MBA and then returned to West Point as an instructor. He left the Army after 10 years and joined the private sector, holding several senior management positions before being hired to turn around Textron’s E-Z-Go golf-cart division in 2002. Five years later, the company promoted him to head Textron’s entire industrial-products segment.
Since joining Bell, Garrison has moved at breakneck speed, fixing the troubled 429 light twin and getting it to market, revising legacy models such as the 407 and the 412 and launching products such as the 525 super medium twin (the largest commercial helicopter Bell has ever built), the SLS light single and the V-280 next-generation tiltrotor for the military. He also has led an aggressive charge to find new markets for the Bell/Boeing V-22 tiltrotor, which is currently in service with the Marines and the Air Force and was recently ordered by Israel.
Garrison has done others things to rejuvenate Bell and remake its culture, committing $1 billion to increasing research and development and updating the company’s facilities in Fort Worth. He has overseen the expansion of an “engineering boot camp” at Bell for promising college students and has challenged the aerospace industry to do more to recruit the best and the brightest away from tech behemoths such as Google and Apple. He is working to expand Bell’s global footprint on all fronts: service, sales and engineering. Bell is calling its new Model 525 helicopter the “Relentless.” The word could just as easily be applied to Garrison.
What are some of the most important books you have read and why?
Good to Great, by Jim Collins, shows how challenging it is to create a great organization and I really like his comments around leadership. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, is perhaps one of the best strategy books ever written and has withstood the test of time. There is a lot that is applicable to any form of strategy in that book. And Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, covers the challenge of leadership under incredibly difficult times. [It shows] President Lincoln’s ability to [turn] a band of rivals into a cohesive team to address arguably the most defining moment in our history. It was incredibly insightful.
What was the main thing the Army did to prepare you for your current job?
I think it helped me interact with military customers from all the services. The other thing the Army does is help you to become a pretty good problem solver. The engineering undergraduate degree helps you think analytically and my 10 years [on active duty] really helped me to think through problems and be creative.
Who was your favorite professor at Harvard?
Two stood out. Michael Porter for his classes in competitive strategy and his “five forces analysis” of understanding industry and industry trends was very helpful. Up until that time I had thought of strategy only in terms of a military context and it was interesting to be able to convert that to a business context.
The other professor I enjoyed was Richard Tedlow, who taught a very entertaining and insightful course, looking at things businesses did or did not do and the ultimate outcome from those decisions. You know that old saying: if we don’t learn from the past we are damned to repeat it. I thought that class was pretty helpful as well.
What do you find to be the major similarities between the military and business worlds when it comes to strategy?
Strategy has to encompass both the near and long term. Then there has to be an in-depth analysis of competitive forces and anticipating what actions and reactions your competitors will take, given your actions and reactions. The other area is allocation of scarce resources to achieve your strategy. How do you conduct resource allocation to move the needle toward the accomplishment of your strategy? The decision cycle is faster often in the private sector unless you are engaged in combat.
Are there any particular business leaders who inspire you?
I’ve worked for many great business leaders who have had the confidence in me to place me in some very difficult situations and problem-solving scenarios.
I enjoy reading Warren Buffett’s annual shareholders’ letters. They are filled with great insight across a multitude of subjects. I do read quite a bit about former military and business leaders. [Former Intel CEO] Andy Grove’s book, Only the Paranoid Survive, I liked a lot.
You were an instructur at West Point. To what extent do you need to be a good instructor to be a good CEO?
I think it helps. The ability to communicate clearly and concisely, the ability to engage in almost the Socratic method [instructing by asking questions] in terms of problem solving, and the ability to continue learning no matter where you are in the organization are critical to be able to grow. You have to be a pretty good teacher, but you have to be a pretty good student as well.
What was your top priority when you joined Bell and how did you accomplish it?
The top priority was to tap back into the emotion this great company has had for 75 years. We really didn’t have a sense of direction or a clear mission. We got the team together and created a mission statement that represented the great legacy of this company. We’ve changed the way the world flies, but we also wanted to create exceptional value for our customers.
Once we had a clear vision, we set four strategic priorities: Grow our balanced business by making organic investments in the military, commercial and customer-support businesses. Then differentiate our products and services in a way that adds value from the customer’s perspective. Third, be more responsive and cost-competitive. Finally, practice execution excellence. When Bell makes a commitment we want to deliver on that commitment to the customers, shareholders and employees.
What has been your proudest moment at Bell so far?
There have been a lot of great moments and it generally centers on the team accomplishing something outstanding. The 525 launch [in 2012] represented years of work with the team interacting with customers. Several hundred Bell employees were present when we formally launched it at the Heli-Expo [trade show] and to see the pride on their faces was a special moment. The V-22 [military tiltrotor] has won several awards for affordability and availability from the military.
Aircraft development programs can be long and difficult. How do you keep your team motivated and on target?
It starts with heavy customer engagement before you even think about designing anything. What are their business and mission needs and value parameters today and 20 years from now? On the 525, our customer advisory panel has advised us on all phases of the design. Now we are focusing on what they need in terms of support when the product comes to market. That’s the first thing. When our team has the opportunity to spend time with the customer, it keeps them focused and motivated.
These programs are long and tough, so along the way we keep people engaged by celebrating the little wins that will ultimately deliver big wins. Things like receiving the first casting [when] it comes through with zero defects. Or the first jig load in the assembly operation.
On both the 525 and our recently announced Short Light Single [SLS light helicopter], we are fundamentally changing the way products are developed and brought to market. The people on these teams are on the leading edge, helping to drive transformational change within the organization with the latest digital design software and fully integrated product teams, things we really hadn’t done before at Bell.
These teams are not only helping to design a product, they’re helping to transform the company. We let them know that what they are doing is incredibly important. That keeps them motivated and helps them get through the tough days.
What’s Bell’s strategy for dealing with the government in the age of federal budget sequestration? Doesn’t that have the potential to create a lot of uncertainty when it comes to FAA oversight of the commercial sector and military product funding?
First and foremost, you have to develop strong working relationships. So we work hard at establishing those with the FAA, Transport Canada and EASA [the European Aviation Safety Agency]. On the military side, we are working very closely with the agencies we deal with inside the Pentagon.
We also spend a lot of time understanding priorities. I think a lot of conflict can occur when priorities are not clear. That is going to become even more important in the sequestration world, especially on the military spending side.
On the commercial side, how do you balance the need to gain international market share with the need to safeguard the company’s intellectual property?
Seventy percent of our commercial helicopter sales are international. Those markets are incredibly important to us. So we look at how we can best meet the needs of each market and country. In the case of the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] nations, they may ask for final assembly plants, but is that what is really needed in the market? In some cases, the answer is no. What is really needed is partnerships on flight and maintenance training, starting with service centers, completion centers and then ultimately moving up to final assembly. You can’t build helicopters in every country in the world. You have to mix the needs of the market with the needs of our company for return on investment and capital utilization. We spend a lot of time developing the right strategy for each market.
On the new SLS light helicopter you are using a collaborative team of Bell engineers from Canada, India and Texas. Is that the future model for all new products that have a global appeal?
I think it is. It is a global, competitive marketplace—a 24/7, 365-day-a-year marketplace. Companies need to be able to leverage capabilities in different areas and to interact digitally in these markets in real time. It’s not [just] the way of the future. We’re doing it today. n