As president of Switzerland-based Jet Aviation, Rob Smith spends half his time on the road, overseeing a vast international business aviation services enterprise that includes everything from aircraft management, completions, FBOs, and maintenance to jet charter and sales. General Dynamics owns the company, which started as a family business in 1967 and now employs 4,500 people in 30 locations.
A Florida native who today calls Basel, Switzerland home, Smith has been with General Dynamics since 1989 and in charge of Jet Aviation since 2014. He has a calm, self-effacing, conservative exterior, but as you get to know him, you discover his witty humor, fierce intellect, and diverse interests. (Years ago, we spent much of our first meeting discussing Mike Tyson’s autobiography.) He is unshakable in his commitment to ethical behavior and hard work.
Jet Aviation is a complex operation. Is it challenging to keep track of all your divisions and locations?
Jet Aviation is complicated because we are so broadly focused. We touch much of the business aviation traffic everywhere in one way or another. The goal is to bring all of our services together so that customers see us as one integrated company.
Are there plans to expand to more locations?
Basel is our largest location by far, then Teterboro, and major hubs in Singapore and Dubai, so that kind of touches the full spectrum of business aviation. But there are some dark spots on the map, so we’re looking to grow. We want to find locations that help us stay connected with our prime customer base.
How has Jet Aviation evolved from the days of being family-owned?
The family-owned business was decentralized. Today, we have an opportunity to bring the organization together and make sure our employees feel like they work for one organization. I like to think that from an operational standpoint we act more like a larger company but we keep the spirit and warmth of the family business throughout our network. I want to make sure our customers still feel they get the same level of service and dedication from our employees.
How do you stay in touch with so many employees in so many places?
We’ve started a video chat series at least once a month from either myself or one of the other leaders of the company to try and get messages out consistently. I also travel quite a bit to the locations to make sure we are passing on the same messages.
When we were very decentralized, it was difficult [to communicate company-wide]. We had separate systems for things like crew resource management, maintenance service, FBO services, aircraft management. Now we have more of a matrix organization. This allows us to think more globally and have more consistent support operations and sales, marketing, human resources, and IT across the entire company.
Have there been any growing pains?
Change is always a challenge for those who see it as a threat. We have to make sure that the communication is there.
I assume communication doesn’t just mean more meetings.
No. It’s really about understanding when a stakeholder [for any particular project] needs to be consulted. We want to push accountability down as low as we can in the organization. But if people are going to take the responsibility for making a decision, they need to consult with the folks who may be impacted by that decision. It doesn’t mean they have to always make the decision that everybody agrees with, because then we will have a paralyzed organization that can’t make any decisions. But if you take into account the needs and opinions of the folks who are going to be impacted, you can make a good decision. When people don’t feel they've had their chance to be heard, the process breaks down from lack of trust.
How do you react when someone makes a huge mistake?
The most important thing is acknowledging that a mistake happened and not trying to hide it or do something that ends up making the mistake worse. Mistakes happen—we are all human—but making the same mistake twice is unacceptable. If you make a mistake on an aircraft, there are lives at stake. We are not forgiving of folks who cover up or sign for work having been done that hasn’t been done. We can always recover from an honest mistake, but we have much less tolerance for dishonest mistakes.
What’s a typical day in the office?
The best part of my job is that there isn’t really a typical day. I travel 50 percent of the time. [At home] there are some things that are constant, like trying to get to the gym in the morning. And I always order the same chopped salad from my favorite salad place—Escasano in Basel.
What’s in the salad?
Chicken, blue cheese, apples, walnuts, cranberries, spinach, lettuce, jalapenos, Dijon vinaigrette, and Tabasco.
What was the path that brought you to General Dynamics?
Junior year [at South Carolina’s Clemson University], I decided I didn’t really want to be an electrical engineer, but I couldn’t afford to change majors, so I finished school. Then a friend of my dad’s got me an interview at Electric Boat [General Dynamics’ submarine division]. I got the job and moved to Connecticut, got my M.B.A. at night, and have been working for General Dynamics ever since.
How did you meet your wife?
She was an engineer at Electric Boat and I was in finance. We were on the same softball team. We had our first child in August of 2005, and then four months later I started a job as CFO of a [General Dynamics] shipyard in San Diego. My wife drove from Connecticut to San Diego with a baby, two dogs, and two rabbits, picking up her parents in Pittsburgh to help with the driving.
Then six years later you moved to Switzerland?
When I told my wife about the opportunity at Jet Aviation [where Smith began as vice president and CFO], she said yes immediately. She was 100 percent up for the adventure. She and our girls have now traveled extensively through Europe.
How do your kids like living in Switzerland?
They are doing great. They probably don’t understand sometimes why they have to go see all these cities and museums, but it certainly is going to leave a lasting impression. They are only a year apart [10 and 11], so they bicker a lot with each other. I don’t worry about it, because growing up, I used to fight like crazy with my little sister. But then I went off to college, and soon after I got a letter from her. I opened it and a $20 bill fell out. She had saved up her waitressing money for me, and $20 was a lot back then. I will never forget it. We have been extremely close ever since.
What are your hopes for your daughters?
My parents always were very, very ethical. I want my kids to see my wife and me act in a way that we expect them to act. We try hard to instill ethical values, work ethic, and [our feelings about] how to treat people. My wife is an active animal-rights person, and she is instilling those values as well.
What animals do you have now?
Because of the travel we have only a cat and some fish. The dogs we had in the States were not going to be able to make it into Switzerland because they were pit bulls. One passed just before we moved, and the other was an older lab/pit mix and she wouldn’t be terribly welcome in Switzerland. She stayed with my in-laws until she passed last year. Someday we will certainly have a dog or multiple dogs again.
Getting back to Jet Aviation, how do you hire?
By the time I see a candidate, the qualification box has been checked, so I already know that the individual should be able to do the job. At that point, for me it’s a question of fit. Is there a connection with the team, a connection with me personally? How will this individual interact with our leadership team and the overall organization?
Was it hard for you to adjust to doing business in cultures radically different from your own?
It was. I’d been to Europe only once before I accepted this job. Every culture is just a little different, and it’s a process of trying to figure out where you have things in common and making sure you don’t offend in any way. I would never intentionally offend another culture but sometimes you can do so by accident. I try and get a little bit of coaching. If I go talk to a Chinese businessperson versus a Saudi sheik or whoever it may be—I get some [advance intelligence] on their existing relationship with Jet Aviation as well as on any local customs that I need to watch out for.
How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
I don’t believe anybody who works for me has any questions about whether I am going to make the ethical choice. They may not like every decision I make, but we are always going to be on the side of right. I push to make the business better, but we are going to do it in an ethical manner. Certain values are consistent with the values of our parent company: trust, honesty, and transparency. Those are the values that I want to exemplify and to make sure that all of our employees are demonstrating.
NAME: Robert E. Smith
BORN: August 16, 1967 in DeLand, Florida
POSITION: President, Jet Aviation, since January 2014, and vice president, General Dynamics, since September 2016.
FORMER POSITION: Vice president and CFO, Jet Aviation and General Dynamics NASSCO.
EDUCATION: B.S., Electrical Engineering, Clemson University (Clemson, South Carolina), 1989. M.B.A., Finance, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Groton, Connecticut), 1993.
BOARDS: European Aviation Association’s Board of Governors, since 2015.
PERSONAL: Lives in Basel, Switzerland, with wife, Robyn, and daughters Amber (age 10) and Danielle (age 11). Enjoys hiking and traveling.