Jeff Turner, who has led Spirit AeroSystems since its formation in 2005, will retire early next year, the company announced Monday.
Turner, 60, is the only Wichita native heading up a major local aircraft operation.
Spirit is Wichita’s largest employer, with about 10,800 employees.
Turner’s departure leaves questions about who will succeed him. He will serve as president and CEO until his replacement takes office, information from Spirit said. Turner was not available for interviews Monday.
Board members at Spirit already have convened a special CEO search committee comprised of Spirit board members Robert Johnson, Tawfiq Popatia, Francis Raborn, Paul Fulchino and Ronald Kadish. It said it would target qualified internal and external candidates.
“I decided to inform the Board of Directors of my intention to retire in early 2013 to ensure adequate time to find a suitable replacement, and allow for an effective handover of duties,” Turner said in a statement. “I am proud of the great Company we have formed, the growth we have achieved since 2005 and the solid opportunities for the future. I am now looking forward to the next phase in my life, and handing over the reins to a new CEO to take Spirit forward.”
Turner led Boeing Wichita’s commercial business through a sale to Onex Corp. in 2005, and the subsequent transition to the new stand-alone company, Spirit AeroSystems. It became a publicly traded stock when it completed an initial public offering in 2006 and is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
“He’s an absolute legacy leader in this community,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita.
Spirit has been “well nurtured” under Turner’s leadership, Pompeo said. “He and his team made sure that the company would thrive and continue to serve their customers well,” he said.
Turner also received high marks from the Machinists, Spirit’s largest union.
“I’m going to miss him,” said Machinists international president Tom Buffenbarger. “From my perspective in labor-management relations, he’s been a breath of fresh air and a man of his word.”
When a Boeing union went on strike in 2008, idling Boeing plants and making it difficult for Spirit to deliver fuselages, Turner could have furloughed Spirit workers.
Instead, Turner implemented a three-day work week that preserved workers’ health care coverage.
Employees earned more money under the shortened work weeks than they would have made collecting unemployment on furlough, Buffenbarger said.
“I would like to see more executives take that kind of personal concern for the wellbeing of their employees as Jeff did,” he said.
In the sale to Onex, Turner could have remained with Boeing and done well, Buffenbarger said.
“But he stayed in Wichita and stayed in his community and acted upon his belief in the workers that they could make this (Spirit) a very successful venture,” he said.
And while there have been good times and bad, Turner worked hard, Buffenbarger said. “He just didn’t say it; he worked it.”
This year, Turner was hailed by Boeing and others for his efforts in leading the company’s quick recovery from an F-5 tornado that ripped through the site April 14 causing major damage.
Spirit never missed a shipment.
The company also has grown substantially under Turner.
In 2006, Spirit reported annual revenue of $3.2 billion. In 2011, revenue totaled $4.86 billion.
Spirit faced enormous challenges when it was formed in 2005, analysts said.
The business had been part of Boeing’s cost structure for decades and was good at what it did.
As a new company, it suddenly had to be responsive to the challenge of bringing in new business and executing new programs profitably, analysts said.
It also had to compete – building structures more efficiently than its customers or other suppliers can.
Turner and Spirit were recently criticized by some investors after the company reported a net loss in the third quarter, even though revenue grew significantly. Turner said issues with suppliers and building new-product capacity were largely responsible for the loss.
The amount of the write-off, $590 million, took analysts by surprise.
Given the development, a change in management of some kind wasn’t a big surprise, said Cai von Rumohr, an aerospace analyst with Cowen and Co.
“I would have been surprised if you would have gone another year without some sort of change in management,” he said.
Turner has a good relationship with Boeing.
“To that extent, I was surprised he wasn’t retained as a vice chairman or something,” von Rumohr said. “He has a lot of knowledge and institutional memory and relationships that would be of value.”
As Spirit grew quickly from the start, it won work on a number of new programs. And it continues to make parts for all Boeing commercial airliners.
The strategy of expanding the base of work beyond Boeing made sense, von Rumohr said.
“It made less sense to go out on as many new programs as they did,” he said.
It’s unclear whether that was Turner’s or Onex’s push to take on as many programs as they could win.
“Once you kind of get on the track, it’s hard for anybody when you have too many new programs, when they’re kind of happening all at once,” von Rumohr said. “Could they have been managed better? Possibly. It’s hard to be too judgmental on that.”
But the size of the write-off made it appear management didn’t have as good of an understanding of the situation as they could have.
Turner’s successor will have a big job.
Whoever succeeds him must have the management skills needed to take programs from development into production, von Rumohr said.
The new leader also must have the ability to work with Boeing, manage costs and deliver good products, cash flow and earnings, von Rumohr said.
Turner began working for Boeing in 1973 as a part-time computer programmer while earning his degree at Wichita State University.
He worked for a short time at Burroughs Corp., before joining Boeing Computer Services as a systems analyst in 1975.
At Boeing, he rose through the ranks, holding many director positions. And in 1995, he became vice president and general manager of Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Wichita.
Turner has an undergraduate degree in mathematics and computer science and a master’s in engineering management science from WSU.
He also holds a master’s degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Turner has been active in the community.
He currently serves on the boards of Rockwell Collins, Intrust Bank, World Impact, Kansas Technical Training Institute, and Sedgwick County Technical Education Training Authority.
He and his wife, Rhonda, have two children and two grandchildren.