A conversation with David Walker

04/08/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:09 AM

Until about a year ago, David Walker used to travel 200,000 miles a year marketing the newly formed Spirit AeroSystems to potential customers around the globe.

Today, with a variety of new programs in various stages of development, Walker, now Spirit senior vice president and chief technology officer, is staying home more.

“We’ve really transitioned,” Walker said. “Six years ago, we were trying to make Spirit a viable stand-alone company, trying to win some new programs and developing some new customers. Now we’ve got to go deliver all that new hardware.”

In his role, Walker is responsible for the company’s engineering and 2,000 engineers around the world who are working on the programs’ design and delivery.

“It’s an exciting time,” Walker said. “There are just so many neat things going on.”

Boeing and Airbus are increasing 737 and A320 production rates, Boeing’s 787 is ramping up, work is under way on the Airbus A350, and Spirit is helping Boeing with the 737 Max, a 737 with new engines, among other programs.

Walker, a native of Nashville, Tenn., joined Spirit in 2005 from Vought Aircraft Industries, where he was corporate vice president and head of Vought’s international programs. He spent 18 years with the Aerostructures Corp., which Vought acquired in 2003.

There he held executive manufacturing, engineering, program management and marketing positions, including vice president and general manager.

Walker holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering from Vanderbilt University. He also attended an executive development program at Harvard Business School.

Walker and his wife, Anne, have two grown children.

When not working he enjoys playing golf, scuba diving, snow skiing and woodworking.

Spirit has a lot of new work. Existing programs are increasing rates. What’s the challenge?

“Someone from the outside world would say, ‘Isn’t that cool. You guys are so lucky,’ and we are lucky. But there’s a lot of hard work, and we have to deliver financial quality and (deliver on) schedule.”

Do you have a favorite program, or is that like choosing between your children?

“I don’t think I can say that (which is a favorite.) The Boeing folks are as professional and as skilled as everybody. Airbus is more flexible and agile. The Sikorsky guys know helicopters as well as anybody in the world. Your children are different.”

Boeing’s 737 Max, a 737 with new engines, is Boeing’s answer to Airbus’s A320 neo. What’s the biggest challenge there?

“A Boeing guy told me the biggest phrase on the program is ‘while we’re at it.’ So many people say ‘while we’re at it, we ought to do X.’ Everybody’s got many good ideas, and they’re right. But if you stop and do all of them, there gets to be so many changes. It gets so expensive. … You fail to do the airplane in a reasonable amount of time. Suddenly it becomes a new airplane. They just need to put a new engine on it and get it out to compete with the (A320) neo.”

You said that Spirit isn’t as focused now on winning a lot of new work as when the company was new. But are you still looking for new programs to take on?

“We’ve got a lot more selective about what we’re looking for in new business. There are a couple of things — programs or customers — we think are very strategic, and we would like to start developing a relationship. We’re talking to a couple folks about doing maybe not such huge packages, so when they do a new program, they think about us.”

Did the downturn make it easier to find and recruit engineers?

“The market is still very competitive trying to find enough engineers. We’ve got several new programs running. The folks at Bombardier are still hiring. The Airbus folks are hiring; Cessna’s beginning to pick back up. ... It’s always a struggle. On top of that we’ve got a couple of new programs, so the needs go up.”

What’s the best advice you ever received about being a good leader?

“I had a guy one time talk to me about being a servant leader. A servant leader is somebody where you’re ultimate goal is making the people who report to you successful. You’re a facilitator trying to get them ... what they need to do a good job.”

What makes David Walker tick?

“It feels like I’ve got one of the neatest jobs around. I actually feel adrenaline when I go to work. Of all the places I’ve ever worked, the sense of team is better than anyplace I’ve ever been. It’s the family-hood that we’re going to take care of each other.”

So with all the miles you’ve put under you, do you have any good flying advice?

“Never check a bag. And always have a snack with you because you never know when you’re going to get your next meal.”

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