Ron Woodard: Not Bitter, But Incredulous At His Ouster

Pausing on the fairway on a cool October morning, a tall, silver-haired golfer hears the drone of a Boeing 737 overhead, cranes his neck skyward, and feels his emotions swell.

The big fellow out on the links is Ron Woodard, 55, until a few months ago the hard-charging president of Boeing's 100,000-employee Commercial Airplane Group. In late August, Woodard was dislodged by Chairman Phil Condit and President Harry Stonecipher, who said his division wasn't recovering fast enough from a difficult and profitless year.

Since then, most of his senior staff has been removed and an internal rival, Alan Mulally, has his job.

Woodard is somewhat grateful to be out of the limelight. The entanglements in Boeing's booming factories are smoothing out under remedies he and his charges initiated. The division nonetheless struggles on, awash in conflict and with layoffs looming as its production peaks and profit potential dwindles. In his first interview since his departure, Woodard struggled to refrain from criticizing former colleagues as he looked back on a three-decade run he remembers both as a family experience and "a religion."

Yet Woodard was eager to defend his achievements and couldn't entirely suppress feelings of betrayal. His former bosses say they're pushing for a cultural shift from loyalty-driven "family" values to the notion of a performance-based "team."

Woodard speaks in measured tones, however it's clear that Boeing

management is not always a collegial family.

"I've been working my way through this," Woodard explains. "I'm definitely not bitter. But I'm so incredulous that my Boeing career has ended now, and that it's ended the way that it's ended."

Woodard's exit came suddenly, with a stark public announcement that Woodard had been offered and was considering another, lower-level post. But there was no paving over his brutal removal, an act that broke an unspoken code in Boeing's most senior management: In their memory, none among them had ever been fired so publicly.

"I'm . . . certainly disappointed that it was so public, and I would have liked to have had the whole thing handled delicately and quietly," Woodard said.

The degree to which Woodard was traumatized is apparent at every conversational turn. A tough and true-blue Boeing man in the mold of the larger-than-life characters such as former chairman T. Wilson and former Airplane Group chief Dean Thornton, he still constantly uses the pronoun "we" in talking of Boeing.

In his view, the notion that Boeing management was a kind of family was integral to the company's historic success; the problems besetting the Commercial Airplane Group had little to do with an excess of loyalty. Over the years, Woodard said, he and his staff never lost sight of the difference between a bond of loyalty and the need to make the business perform as a team.

"There's no doubt that I spent 32 years at a company that I viewed as very protective," he said. "Our mantra was `the Boeing family.' " While they had differences, he said, "we'd all take care of each other. . . . It doesn't mean you're all buddies, but you respect each other, you listen to each other and you support each other."

As Boeing attempts the family-to-team shift now, Woodard observes that such a change invites "a lot of uncertainty and insecurity and trauma. . . . There's uncertainty because you have to decide what gets rewarded and why, and what values make them feel comfortable and secure. . . . Anytime you're trying to change a culture, I think its very, very tough, and because you're dealing with people, it's fraught with risks."

`Every man for himself'

One risk stemming from Woodard's removal is the spawning of fear among managers who remain.

"It's every man for himself, and it's who you know," confides one high-ranking manager.

"I know I'd be looking over my shoulder," Woodard remarked.

In hindsight, Woodard is conciliatory, though he chooses his words carefully. He suggests Condit is under tremendous pressure and "taking actions that he thinks are appropriate given the environment he sees and the future state he's driving toward."

Woodard slips at times, however, in his efforts to be diplomatic about his departure. When asked about suggestions at Boeing that Condit has kept too low a profile, he first declines comment, then adds that there are advantages to lying low.

"I was out in the open the whole time," Woodard said, "and look what happened to me."

Certain allies of Woodard remain troubled by his exit. Most visible among them is Gordon Bethune, the outspoken former Boeing executive who is now chairman of Continental Airlines. Bethune, a personal friend of both Woodard and Condit, criticizes as unfair the decision to oust Woodard and the way it was done.

Woodard has taken heat for some of Boeing's most controversial decisions in the past two years, including the rapid doubling of production rates and the sale of planes at discount prices that would require a dramatic cut in costs.

Bethune, who helped devise the new-generation 737 as a senior manager at Boeing, recalls that top Boeing executives and directors always signed off on risks and pricing strategies. He also remembers that, by agreement among all of senior management, Woodard was to be the "Mr. Outside" who focused on landing big orders, while others were to track the factories more closely.

Woodard did as they'd agreed, Bethune said. "Ron got fired for that. I thought that was wrong."

Bethune noted that executives usually get shuffled out quietly at big companies, behind a facade of public excuses. That this was not done for Woodard "says to me that they're not the same guys I've known and loved for years."

Asked about Bethune's concerns, Condit said he considers the Continental chief a good friend. But he must weigh Bethune's views "in context of what a lot of other customers say, and what their expectations are, and how I can go about meeting their expectations."

In some ways, Woodard appears to have been a casualty of poor communication between corporate headquarters and the Commercial Airplane Group. "Their perception is that we kind of thought we were independent," Woodard said. "I don't know where that came from."

In a company that wrestles constantly with consensus-building and strategic decision-making, Woodard was perceived as a suffer-no-fools commander who had little trouble making decisions.

Ironically, his ouster was explained by Condit and Stonecipher as a result of shortcomings in the company's business acumen, as manifested in its need for what they've labeled "a better business plan."

Even Woodard's internal detractors agree that, for much of the last three years, he'd demanded management turn its attention to "business competence," even though other leaders sought expanded sensitivity training and building worker involvement. "Those are good things," Woodard said, but "we gotta get people to understand that this is business and we have to be driven by business considerations."

Woodard acknowledged the problems that put Boeing off course, from Asia's economy to strains in the company's subcontractor base to costly delays in certifying new airplanes with foreign regulators.

At the same time, he cited a string of accomplishments during his tenure at the helm of the airplane group: the introduction of new 737 models, the plan to overhaul Boeing's antiquated manufacturing and engineering system and the sole-supplier agreements signed with three of the nation's biggest airlines.

In fact, Woodard believes that he and his staff did "a marvelous job" in laying plans to extricate the company from "a horrible mess."

A stack of job offers from inside and outside the aerospace industry awaits him now, as he looks to move beyond his unhappy exit from Boeing.

"For me, it was so much more than a career. It was a way of life," Woodard said. He noted that he spent 13 wedding anniversaries at air shows in the last 26 years. "It was almost a religious kind of thing, a true belief that we were making great products for great people and we can do it better than anyone else."