What’s the secret of Jeff Turner’s success – and, more importantly, how can you get some of it, too?
That’s what brought about 200 people, mostly entrepreneurs, out on a chilly Thursday night to the Lux apartments downtown. They were anxious to hear the former CEO’s wisdom – and got his wit as well.
Turner, once CEO of Boeing Wichita and Spirit AeroSystems and now a venture capitalist, kicked off Wichita’s first Startup Grind, the latest step in an effort to create a welcoming community for entrepreneurs. Startup Grind, started by e2e Accelerator, is an event created by Google for Entrepreneurs and held in 200 cities around the world.
The idea is to bring an experienced entrepreneur or business leader to talk about their fears and give lessons to local entrepreneurs.
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So how did Jeff Turner become JEFF TURNER?
A lot of it was luck, Turner said.
He graduated from Wichita State University as an engineer in the early ’70s, a terrible time in the aircraft industry, and was dead set against going into an up-and-down business like aircraft construction. Boeing Wichita had just gone from tens of thousands of employees down to 4,004. But he got only one job offer, and that was part time.
“How did I get to Boeing? That was easy. They offered me a job and I took it,” he said.
He got in on the start of a 10- or 15-year hiring binge, when plant was on its way to having more than 20,000 workers.
“If you could find your way to the bathroom, they would put you in charge of something,” Turner said. “They just kept putting me in charge of things. That’s the secret.”
But, of course, that’s not the secret. Turner said his strong faith gives him a humility that underlies his business values and practices: listening to and caring about what the customer wants, and valuing colleagues and subordinates.
“You know I’m a man of faith and deeply steeped in the Judeo-Christian work tradition, and the idea and ideals are really strong in my life,” he said. “We are taught to be servants and not masters. I think – shazam – that has paid off.”
But it was more of a strategic sense that led him to think that Boeing Wichita might have a different future. It was a wonderful facility, critical to Boeing operations, but it wasn’t a core company function. And he thought the facility could unlock its potential better independent of Boeing.
The creation of Spirit was an entrepreneurial move – which means risky, which means scary. He felt the weight of his own and all those employees’ and subcontractors’ futures on his shoulders, he said.
“I’m standing in front of the mirror one morning and I’m looking in the mirror: ‘What are you doing? Are you out of your mind?’ ” he recalled. “I had planned to retire at 55, and I’m 54 years old when we pulled off Spirit. You don’t know if it’s going to work. You put your pension into it. I’m thinking: ‘All you had to do is not do it and, in a year, you can retire.’ ”
The first day of business for Spirit AeroSystems, it had 400 percent more in a customer base than it did when it was the Boeing Wichita plant.
“It turned out wonderful,” he said. “But I got to admit there were a lot of days that I looked a lot more confident than I was.”