Published January 11, 2013
An airplane mechanic by training with an aversion to anything even resembling the spotlight, Boeing's Ray Conner now finds himself front and center of a growing crisis over the safety of the company's flagship 787 passenger jet.
Conner was a last-minute addition to a U.S. Department of Transportation press conference on Friday announcing a comprehensive review of the 787 after a series of incidents called its reliability into question.
"We welcome any opportunity to further assure people outside of the industry about the integrity of the airplane and the process of bringing it to life," Conner said, speaking to more than 100 reporters along-side Federal Aviation Administration head Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
It was the first serious test in this role for the Boeing lifer, who became chief executive of the commercial planes unit last June after a 35-year career with the company, much of it ultimately spent in sales.
In an industry full of brash back-slappers with outsized personalities, Conner stands out by not standing out. When he assumed his new role, the governor of Washington even spelled his name wrong in a press release.
"He's approachable, but was thrust into the leadership position in a sudden fashion that would make anybody slow to open up and be on the stage. That doesn't mean he can't. He was a salesman," said Barclays analyst Carter Copeland, who met Conner several times before he took his current job.
Conner's low-key but determined style matches that of his counterpart at Airbus, Fabrice Bregier. The two men were appointed within weeks of each other but will be under pressure to protect margins by executing complex projects in addition to fighting for markets.
Quiet or not, Conner remains a dogged pitchman for his company's planes. Some in the aviation press have said Conner is much more like Airbus's top salesman John Leahy than Conner's predecessor Jim Albaugh ever was -- the kind of hail-fellow-well-met that people like to talk to when they can.
Whereas Albaugh, a top defense executive, had been credited with bringing discipline to production after delays, Conner's arrival re-energized Boeing's sales team as the word went out to go after every order in a brutal competition with Airbus.
Under Conner, Boeing seems determined to defend an average 50-50 split of the narrowbody market that pits the A320 against Boeing's 737.
Weeks after Conner's promotion to CEO, Boeing shocked its rival by grabbing a $5 billion order from Singapore's Silkair, which had previously bought European.
In December, Airbus retaliated by persuading Turkey's Pegasus Airlines to defect to its planes, but this was not enough to prevent Boeing winning the 2012 order race.
A graduate of two colleges in Washington state, Conner also serves as Boeing's top executive in the Pacific Northwest region, and his ascendancy was taken as a good sign by locals who rely on Boeing.
The mayor of the Washington city of Renton even sent a letter to the editor of a local website congratulating him.
"He played a key role in the decision to build the 737 MAX in Renton and in keeping thousands of aerospace workers employed in Renton and throughout the region for many years to come," Mayor Denis Law wrote.
(Additional reporting by Alwyn Scott in New York; Editing by M.D. Golan)