Editor’s note: For 35 years, Al Higdon was an observer of and a participant in many of business aviation’s biggest moments as a communications executive at Beech and Learjet and cofounder of Sullivan Higdon & Sink ad agency. In an occasional series of columns that begins today, he will recount some of his experiences. This column originally appeared in Professional Pilot magazine and is reprinted with permission.
Walter Beech, founder of Beech Aircraft, died in 1950, a decade before my arrival there in January 1961. I joined the company fresh with a business degree from the University of Kansas and a journalism degree from Wichita State, as well as a year with a St. Louis public relations firm. I was 24 years old and had no aviation experience.
Olive Ann Beech, who 29 years earlier cofounded Beech Aircraft with Walter, had been solely and firmly in command for 10 years. She was the boss. She could be gracious, but I also watched grown men quake in her presence. No doubt what was her favorite color, from her many blue suits to the blue wallpaper in her office, to the custom blue seats in her personal Super 18.
When the miniature "Oh Happy Day" flag was in place above her office doorway, signifying something good had happened, you knew things might be a bit more relaxed. Absent this sighting, you entered her office with caution.
Beechcraft in those days under Mrs. Beech (I never heard anyone at the company call her Olive Ann) was run in truly a family atmosphere, albeit not without guidelines of those times. Women could not wear pants, nor smoke at their desks, as most men did.
When I joined the firm’s public relations department as a member of its press relations section, headed by James R. “Jim” Greenwood, Beech was a seven-model company. It produced the single-engine Debonair, the highly-successful Bonanza, the Travel Air, the popular Baron, Twin Bonanza and Queen Air, and the venerable tricycle gear Super 18, which had recently superseded the tailwheel Model 18. Those products were preferred by a majority of NBAA member company aviation departments.
Curiously, only one of the firm’s senior management officials was a pilot, Wyman Henry, who joined Beech from the White Motor Company as vice president of marketing shortly before I arrived. Henry had learned to fly in his 50s.
Most of the other top managers had been with Beech since before World War II: Frank Hedrick was executive vice president and No. 2 to Mrs. Beech, who was his aunt; Leddy Greever was vice president for domestic sales; Michael Neuberger served as vice president for export sales; James Lew was vice president of engineering; and John Elliott was treasurer.
Unlike today, where airframe manufacturers all do a good job of soliciting customer input in their new product design processes, Beech allowed the engineering department to come up with new models that were then presented to the sales department to sell to customers.
I believe most of our competitors worked similarly. Obviously that was not the optimum procedure, and the practice was rectified in the industry over the next two decades, with Cessna leading the way.
My heroes, as a neophyte in the public relations group, were guys 10 to 15 years my senior. All were veterans of World War II and/or the Korean War, and middle managers in sales functions.
Men like Tom Gillespie, a former Marine aviator, who had played football at West Virginia, and Marvin Small, a World War II U.S. Army airman, who had played on the Kansas Orange Bowl team of 1948.
By the early 1960s, a conservative cultural trend at Beech had already settled in: Maintain a comfort level with small bites in product development, such as building from the basic Bonanza wing to the Baron and Queen Air.
With the notable exception of the King Air, which was to become an industry dynamo, this relatively tiny step mentality – rather than embracing the sweeping movement to jets, early on – clearly put Beech in an untenable competitive position later on.
Al Higdon spent 12 years as a public relations executive with Beech and Learjet before cofounding an advertising/public relations firm that represented more than a dozen clients in aviation, including Learjet and Cessna, over a 25-year period before his retirement at 60 in 1996.