Mark Burns

Mark Burns

If you met Mark Burns at a cocktail party, you might not learn a thing about his long, distinguished career at Gulfstream Aerospace. The self-effacing executive, who joined the company in 1983 as a computer-aided-design operator, worked in engineering and customer support before rising to become president in 2015. But he doesn’t talk much about his own achievements and says he prefers to think of himself as just a member of the team.

It’s a pretty spectacular team. Gulfstream—whose business aircraft are known for their innovative features, sleek design, and unique windows—has produced more than 2,800 airplanes since its founding in 1958. The company, which has nearly 17,000 employees, has introduced six models into the market since 2008, including the Collier Trophy–winning G650. Customer deliveries of its latest flagship, the ultra-long-range, $78 million G700, are expected to begin in 2022. Fourth-quarter 2019 sales rose 54 percent year-over-year at the company, making it the second-best quarter ever for Gulfstream, which delivered 147 aircraft during the year, 26 more than in 2018.

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Despite extensive travel all over the world and daily interactions with high-profile customers, Burns has managed to remain humble, unpretentious, and true to his modest Savannah, Georgia, roots. During our interview at Gulfstream’s headquarters, he repeatedly deflected credit to his colleagues and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to lead a company he loves. “When I was growing up,” he said, “it was ingrained in me that you respect the people you work with and make sure there is a team success for every individual success.”

Did you always want a career in aviation?
I actually wanted to be an architect when I was young. I always liked building things. I don’t think I ever even got on an airplane until I was 17.

When I was a junior in college, we built an ultralight airplane as part of our mechanical-engineering classes. We had some people from Gulfstream American [the company’s name between 1978 and 1982] come and critique the build, and they just happened to be starting the design of the GIV. Through happenstance, I ended up at Gulfstream when I was 22.

I had not intended to stay in Savannah. I was the first one from my family to ever graduate from college, so that was sort of a monumental thing, and I had assumed I needed to move away [to have a good career].

I was fortunate to be exposed to some really bright people when I got to Gulfstream. The very first manager that I worked for in engineering was one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. He taught me about solving problems and troubleshooting and getting to the simplest solution.

Why do aircraft owners stay loyal to the Gulfstream brand?
You can sell something to somebody one time, but if you don’t deliver on your promise it’s going to be hard to sell again to that customer. If we say an airplane will go so far or so fast, it does that. If we say we’re going to have service around the world 24 hours a day, we deliver on that. We build great airplanes, but I believe we’re [ultimately] a customer-service organization. It’s up to us to protect our brand and the customers’ ownership experience.

You have a customer advisory board.
We started that in 1997, and it’s integrated into the culture of our company. The customers are split up into [categories such as] cabin crew, flight crew, technicians, or maintenance, and then we split them up by the model airplane that they work on. We typically have about 100 customers on the board at any one time. We rotate customers often to make sure we have fresh ideas on the committees, and there is a waiting list of people who want to join.

Everybody in the leadership teams from various parts of Gulfstream attends the meetings, and they get to hear firsthand how our customers feel about the product, the service, the things we can do better. It’s a lively discussion and a great guiding light for us. 

What made Gulfstream commit to sustainable fuel as early as it did? 
Climate change is important to our customers and to our employees. We’ve been at the forefront of this for quite some time, and we’ve made significant breakthroughs. We fly all of our corporate, demonstration, and customer-support airplanes with sustainable aviation fuel [SAF]. A lot of our flight testing is done on sustainable fuel. This past year, we started selling SAF to customers in Southern California at Long Beach and Van Nuys. [World Fuel provides the SAF. —Ed.] There’s more and more customer demand. The sustainable fuel we are using produces 50 percent less carbon emissions, so it’s a significant [reduction]. It’s about $2 to $3 more [per gallon], but the price will come down as more people start to use it. And it’s fractionally lighter than regular fuel, so there are actually other benefits.

Sometimes the sustainability challenges feel overwhelming, and it’s easy to get discouraged or feel that one person can’t make a difference.
You know, the older I get, the more I understand that it really is up to each person to make a difference. You have to have a vision that allows other people to follow. Gulfstream setting the example in this area is important.

What do you look for when you hire?
If you’ve got the right attitude [toward customers and other employees] and you’re engaged, I think we can teach you some of the [rest], though when it’s a job with a technical component we’re not even going to interview somebody who doesn’t have the qualifications. 

Since you’ve been president, two women have been appointed to Gulfstream’s leadership team. 
The fact that we have two women on the team now is significant, but we found the right leaders. They happen to be women, but that wasn’t why they got the jobs. [Shortly after this interview took place, Gulfstream appointed a third woman to its leadership team. —Ed.]

With all job openings we do try to ensure there is a diverse slate of candidates. The good news is that we now have a significant [qualified and diverse] population to draw from. 

What advice would you give a young person who wants to get into engineering or business aviation?
We talk to a lot of young people, because we’re the largest employer in the area. It’s about finding something that has meaning to you. But math and science are where the world is heading. Aviation is one of the leading-edge industries in the world, and I think that we’re just now at the beginning. Think about what we’ve done in 100 years of aviation, think about the way the world population is growing and how interconnected industries are. Aviation is going to become exponentially bigger, and I think speed is the next frontier. Part of our job is to create an aspirational industry that people want to be part of.

Gulfstream puts a big emphasis on giving back to the community.
A lot of what we do is with school-age kids: reading programs, library programs, student-­leadership programs. We do a lot of speaking in the counties around Gulfstream where our engineers and businesspeople try to inspire kids to continue their education—but we also try to encourage them to look at aviation. [Business aviation is facing] pilot, technician, and engineer shortages, and it’s getting more difficult every year.

Mark Burns

What’s creating those shortages?
We’re fighting against other high-tech industries that didn’t exist 20 years ago. The internet has taken a larger role in the last 20 years, but aviation is still connecting the world. Although we compete against Silicon Valley and some other places for talent, we’ve got a great story to tell.

What business aviation markets do you think have the most growth potential?
The U.S. is still the strongest and most mature market. Brazil is improving. China is still trying to gain the infrastructure necessary to support a larger number of airplanes, but I think it’s going to be a huge market. There’s some growth in Southeast Asia now that wasn’t there a few years ago. 

How do you start your workday?
The first thing I do is read customer surveys—they could be from owners or pilots. The second thing I do is look to see what transpired overnight and what issues occurred. I am fortunate that I can call the [aircraft] owners directly and say, “Hey, I know about this” or “Can we help you with that?” 

How do you respond to a major mistake or internal problem?
I see us do some of our best work when there’s a challenge, because we are collaborating to solve the problem, and communication gets really focused. I would rather hear the concerns than have somebody just tell me it’s okay. It’s energizing for me to be able to help solve the problem. 

What are you most proud of?
You know, I get asked that all the time, but I guess I don’t look at it that way. I am amazed thinking about how far we’ve come and at the gravity of what we’re doing, because I can still remember working in that little hangar over there [points outside]. I maybe have a little bit of a larger voice here today than I did 37 years ago, but I look at my role as being part of the group.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


FAST FACTS

Name: Mark Burns

Born: Savannah, Georgia. Age 60.

Positions: President of Gulfstream Aerospace since July 2015. Vice president of parent company General Dynamics since February 2014. 

Previous positions: President and vice president of customer support. Vice president of Savannah service center. Vice president of Completions Engineering.

Memberships: Board of directors, Georgia Power and Corporate Angel Network. Immediate past chairman of the Executive Committee, General Aviation Manufacturers Association. 

Honors: 2018 recipient of National Aeronautic Association’s Wesley L. McDonald Distinguished Statesman of Aviation Award.

Education: B.A. in mechanical engineering, Georgia Southern University.

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