May 3, 2011

Cessna's Jack Pelton retires

Jack Pelton, who took over as CEO of Cessna Aircraft Co. on the heels of a recession and steered it to periods of record-breaking growth, retired from the business-jet manufacturer Monday after nearly 11 years there.

Jack Pelton, who took over as CEO of Cessna Aircraft Co. on the heels of a recession and steered it to periods of record-breaking growth, retired from the business-jet manufacturer Monday after nearly 11 years there.

Textron announced in a news release the retirement of Pelton, 52, who joined Cessna in 2000 as a senior vice president for product engineering.

"Under Jack's leadership, Cessna achieved many significant program and product milestones and strengthened its position as a thought leader in the aviation industry," Textron chairman and CEO Scott Donnelly said in the release. "We appreciate Jack's efforts and wish him the best in his future endeavors."

Donnelly will run Cessna until Pelton's successor is selected.

Cessna spokesman Doug Oliver referred questions to Textron.

A message left for Pelton at his home on Monday was not returned.

Pelton's departure from Cessna followed a tough quarter — and a tough couple years — for the city's largest business jet maker.

Cessna began to see late last year signs of an upturn in demand for new business jets, including fewer forfeited deposits. It spent more money in anticipation of the upturn, which led to rising costs and deepening losses for Cessna in the first quarter of 2011.

Textron reported last month that Cessna lost $38 million in the first quarter, compared with a $24 million in the same quarter of 2010, even though sales were up nearly 30 percent.

"While there are a number of items in the quarter that contributed to the magnitude of the loss, I would say the underlying operational performance at Cessna was disappointing," Donnelly said then.

But that disappointing performance was not the cause for Pelton's hasty retirement, a Textron official said Monday.

"This is a straightforward retirement," said Dave Sylvestre, Textron spokesman. "What I can say is the recent global recession had an exceptionally harsh impact on the business jet industry, especially Cessna.

"Prior to the recession Cessna had steady growth and some record-breaking years in terms of financial performance under Jack's leadership."

Sylvestre said though Pelton was no longer managing the day-to-day operations of the company, his official retirement date is June 1.

Sylvestre said the company is conducting internal and external searches for Pelton's replacement.

Pelton was familiar with managing the company in tough economic times.

When he was named president and CEO seven years ago, Cessna had seen two leaders step down in 18 months — Gary Hay and Charlie Johnson — and the company was working its way out of an economic downturn in which it had cut its workforce by a third.

After a rebound and several years of growth, Cessna — and its business jet peers — faced another economic downturn, beginning in 2008.

This one cut much deeper.

Cessna sales plunged by more than half in the past three years, from $5.7 billion in 2008 to $3.3 billion in 2009 to $2.6 billion in 2010.

The company cut its way to profitability in 2009, chopping about half of its workforce — nearly 6,000 workers — and ending development of a major new aircraft, the Columbus.

Sales continued to fall in 2010 and the company saw its first loss, $29 million, in years.

But in an e-mail to employees Monday, Pelton was optimistic about the prospects for a rebound in business at Cessna.

"We've been through the best and the worst of times together, from unprecedented growth and record-breaking financial performance to one of the most difficult cycles our industry has ever seen," Pelton said in the e-mail. "However, there are now encouraging signs that our business is recovering and appears to be heading for the next phase of growth. And grow it will."

Lynn Nichols, president and CEO of Yingling Aviation, said in an e-mail that he was surprised by Pelton's departure.

"But (I) know the pressures on all CEOs in today's world are immense," said Nichols, whose company is a Cessna dealer, parts distributor and reassembles Cessna's Skycatcher. "Cessna, like many aircraft companies have been trying to adjust to the downturn in the economy as fast as they can, and it is a very painful, yet deliberate process. Time is not necessarily your friend. Corporate boards, stockholders, and Wall Street as a whole are not a patient group of people."

Nichols said Pelton is young, and has a lot of energy, desire and knowledge still left to use in the aviation industry.

"I don't see him in retirement very long," Nichols said.

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