Jeff Turner reflects on 40-year career at Boeing, Spirit AeroSystems

06/13/2013 7:26 AM

08/08/2014 10:17 AM

When Jeff Turner first joined Boeing Wichita as a part-time computer programmer in college in 1973, “I didn’t know Jack” about business, he said.

Turner, 62, grew up in North Riverside, went to Joyland on 50-cent days, the zoo on free days and had a carefree childhood, he said.

After high school, he hadn’t enrolled in college and wasn’t sure he was going.

But when August rolled around, he accepted a track scholarship from Wichita State University.

“I was scared to death I was going to flunk,” Turner said.

At WSU, he spent his days running, going to class and studying.

He took a lot of math.

“And you know what, I got good grades,” he said.

He began dating the love of his life, Rhonda, at age 17. The two were married 40 years ago this month.

Over time, Turner held key management and director positions with Boeing and rose to vice president and general manager of the facility in 1995.

In 2005, he led the sale of Boeing’s Wichita commercial aviation division to Onex Corp., which became Spirit AeroSystems.

Spirit employs 16,000 worldwide and about 10,500 in Wichita. It’s the state’s largest private employer.

Turner retired as president and CEO of Spirit in April. This week, he attended retirement parties in his honor and reflected on his 40-year career.

Larry Lawson, an executive vice president from Lockheed Martin, succeeds Turner.

Until his retirement, Turner had been the only Wichita native at the top of one of Wichita’s major aviation employers.

Wichita has been good to him, Turner said.

“I don’t believe what I’ve done I could have done anywhere else,” Turner said.

To what does he attribute his rise at Boeing and then Spirit?

“You’ve got to want to succeed,” he said. You also have to be willing to lead, to make the tough decisions and to make mistakes.

He got help along the way.

“I think a lot of people wanted to help me succeed because I wanted to help them succeed,” Turner said. “It’s not that I’m smarter or better or any of those things. … I know I didn’t deserve the level of success that I got, but I’m thankful for it.”

‘Each team member is important’

Eight years after the sale of the Boeing facility to Onex, Turner still believes it was the right thing to do.

Boeing hadn’t been investing in the site, Turner said, and he worried about its future.

“I didn’t know what to do about it,” Turner said.

Another Spirit leader suggested that they take the company private.

“And I said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ” Turner said.

Turner hopes the people he worked with realize how much he appreciates their contributions.

“I believe each team member is important to the team’s success,” Turner said. “You’ve got to perform to be on the team, but everybody plays an important role. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be here.”

He wants Spirit employees to feel valued, he said. They’re the ones who protect and keep the company healthy.

His proudest month came after the site took a direct hit from an EF-3 tornado in April 2012.

“I think when we watched the team recover from the tornado, and the way they pulled together and accomplished what none of us thought was possible but we knew needed to be done,” Turner said.

It was satisfying to see the recovery take shape and deliveries resume quickly.

“Once we got over the shock, it was pure adrenalin rush for a week,” Turner said of those first days following the tornado.

“It was a blast,” Turner said. “Especially since it worked.”

He also is proud of the relationship the company built with the Machinists union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“Those have been gratifying,” Turner said. “I regret we haven’t gotten as far with SPEEA (Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) in terms of the relationship,” he said.

But “I’m grateful with the attitudinal changes and that we’re generally pulling in the same direction,” Turner said. “It’s huge.”

His biggest regret is with the performance of the new programs Spirit has taken on since it became a company.

“I’ve made that perfectly clear, much of which I blame myself for,” Turner said.

For one, Spirit took on too many new programs at the same time, he said.

“We were too confident we could swallow that many,” Turner said. As a new company, “part of it was you don’t know what you don’t know.”

No one expected the timing on the Boeing 787 program and every other new development program Spirit took on to slide out.

“When that happened, it stacked up the requirements,” Turner said.

A ‘fresh set of eyes’

Turner has confidence in Lawson, his replacement as CEO and president.

“I think Larry’s the right guy,” Turner said. He’s a “big airplane program manager.”

Lawson currently is overseeing reviews of all programs.

“It’s appropriate to review all of them and get a set of fresh eyes,” Turner said. “I sat in that same office for 17 years. I saw everything through the same set of eyes. Hopefully, I learned a little bit in that period of time.”

Retiring was Turner’s idea and the timing was his, he said.

“I made it really clear (to the board of directors) that (the company) needed a fresh set of eyes,” Turner said.

He had to convince the board of that.

Turner initially wanted to retire two years ago, but he stayed to help with growing the company and the tough issues on the development programs.

Lawson is a man with a deep understanding of the business and a deep caring for employees and customers, Turner said.

“I think he’ll be great,” Turner said. “He’ll be different.”

Spirit employees have not been used to that kind of change. After all, they had the same leader for 17 years.

Turner plans to continue to be active in the community.

He was key in starting the National Center for Aviation Training, and serves on the board for the Wichita Area Technical College.

He had the courage to help start NCAT during the downturn, said NCAT president Tony Kinkel.

He calls and asks questions such as “Tony, are you getting what you need from me to move this college forward?” Kinkel said. “I don’t think you could ask for a better board member.”

Turner has helped build Wichita’s aviation cluster, Gov. Sam Brownback said at a retirement party for Turner.

“You’ve been blessed, and you’ve been a blessing,” Brownback said.

Turner continues to serve on Spirit’s board of directors.

He also serves on the boards of Rockwell Collins, Intrust Bank, World Impact, the Kansas Technical Training Institute, the Sedgwick County Technical Training Authority and the Aerospace Industries Association.

He also is still involved at WSU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science and a master’s of science in engineering management science. (In 1984, he was selected as a Boeing Sloan Fellow to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, where he earned a master’s degree in management.)

“I want to help in the community,” Turner said.

Already, he’s been asked twice to run for mayor.

“I had never thought about it,” Turner said. “I made no decision. All my options are open. I didn’t say no. But I certainly didn’t say yes. I don’t know that I’m political material. My skin is relatively thin. I didn’t retire to have another full-time job.”

He wants to take six months to just relax.

“I really need some downtime,” Turner said.

He wants to spend time with his wife, two children and grandchildren.

For now, he’s turning down new commitments.

“I don’t want to default into busyness,” Turner said. “I’m looking forward to the day where there’s absolutely nothing on the schedule. I’m looking forward to being bored.”

That day has not yet arrived yet.

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