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5 questions with Bill James

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, May 2, 2013, at 7:07 a.m.

With the bankruptcy now behind the company, Bill James, vice president of engineering at Beechcraft Corp., is focusing on people and the future.

“We’ve gone through the bankruptcy phase, the downturn of the market and losing our jet line,” James said. “We lost a lot of people both locally and nationally. My focus is on the people who remain and on filling the talent gap on new hires.”

Another focus is on the company’s culture and being part of a “fantastic product line … and the opportunity to advance it into the future and really make it a market leader,” he said.

Beechcraft employs 520 engineers and is currently seeking to add 40 more, primarily structures engineers and avionics and electrical designers.

James’ interest in aviation blossomed as a child living in a subdivision under the flight pattern of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

He watched pilots training in Cessna 172s and gliders every day.

“It was a lot of fun to watch as a kid,” James said.

He learned to fly at age 14 and earned his private pilot’s license at 16.

“I’ve been flying most my life,” he said.

He wanted to attend the academy and become a military pilot, but his eyesight kept him from it.

After high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. He later earned a master’s in business administration from Wichita State University.

After college, James joined Sikorsky Helicopters in Bradford, Conn.

He came to Wichita in 1993 to work at the former Raytheon Aircraft Co. running its CAM engineering group.

He later moved into project engineering on the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) program, where his job was designing the T-6 turboprop trainer for international sales.

“I successfully completed the Canadian T-6 program and the Greek T-6 program,” James said. That was in the late 1990s.

In 2001, he joined the Airbus Americas Engineering center in Old Town, where he spent seven years as director of engineering before returning to what is now Beechcraft as chief engineer of the AT-6 program, an attack version of the T-6.

In September, James, 47, assumed the role of vice president of engineering.

James and his wife, Jolanda, have three children.

The couple bought Il Primo Cafe at Central and Woodlawn in 2010.

When not working, James can be found at the cafe helping his wife, who runs the business.

Q. You are looking for engineers, including a robust plan to hire recent college graduates along with more experienced engineers.

A. It’s a combination of both. We lost some very talented people over the last two to three years. It’s about filling the gaps that were left, but it’s also looking into the future and the things we want to do with our product lines. Growth is also a requirement.

Q. How’s the engineering pool out there?

A. There’s a significant shortage of engineering talent. Everybody is fighting for the same talent. We have to make sure we are creating real discriminators for why it makes sense to come to work for Beechcraft. … My focus is on culture. We spend a lot of time talking about our value system and that everybody has the opportunity to create. … We are very much right now all about the people.

Q. You mentioned that it’s exciting to work with the new Beechcraft. And that you get to rethink what the company is doing. How so?

A. We have the opportunity to ask the employees what do you want in a new Beechcraft and how do you want to participate in creating or re-creating this iconic brand. That’s very exciting for everyone, because they feel like they’re a part of something very special. It’s an opportunity that comes along maybe once or never in a business person’s lifetime. … We’ve got a great story to tell at Beechcraft these days.

Q. What’s your biggest challenge?

A. Coming out of bankruptcy, we now have this new focus — the opportunity for growth. It’s really maintaining a focus on what matters most. That’s making sure our technical capabilities are where they need to be to keep up. … It’s easy in this industry to get complacent. It takes energy every day to make sure you’re focused on the right things.

Q. The company decided during the bankruptcy to exit the jet manufacturing business. How difficult was it to make that decision?

A. That was probably one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make. Everybody wants to work on jets. There’s a lot of appeal to that. And so what it comes down to is each individual has a passion for the product lines that we have. And believe me, the passion here is palpable. People who work here today are here because they love the products that they get to work on. … We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what do you do to take these products forward, and I think the next few years are going to be very exciting.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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