A conversation with Allan McArtor, new CEO of Airbus Group

Allan McArtor will assume a new role March 2 when he replaces Sean O’Keefe as chairman and CEO of Airbus Group, the company’s North American business unit.
Allan McArtor will assume a new role March 2 when he replaces Sean O’Keefe as chairman and CEO of Airbus Group, the company’s North American business unit. Courtesy photo

As a child, Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus Americas, built model airplanes in his father’s workshop.

“I can assure you that a P-38 made out of 2-by-4’s will not glide very far from the top of the stepladder, although I tried,” McArtor said.

The former jet pilot and Thunderbirds demonstration team pilot joined Airbus in 2001 after holding leadership positions in industry and government.

McArtor, 71, assumes a new role March 2 when he replaces Sean O’Keefe as chairman and CEO of Airbus Group, the company’s North American business unit.

O’Keefe is stepping down because of ongoing medical issues from a 2010 airplane accident in Alaska.

In his new position, McArtor will continue to oversee the Airbus Americas operations as well as provide oversight to its helicopter and defense and space units.

Airbus is merging its Cassidian defense arm with its Astrium satellite operation into a single unit and rebranding it with the Airbus name.

That will lead to some consolidation. The plans are being worked out.

McArtor grew up in Webster Groves, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, and became interested in aviation as a child by reading Popular Mechanics. The magazine had great photographs and articles on airplanes, he said.

“I used to study them religiously. I read every article and absorbed every picture,” McArtor said.

McArtor graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

His most difficult challenge was when his daughter developed brain cancer.

“That’s the reason I left the Air Force,” he said.

She underwent treatment St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis and died at the age of 8.

“That was a difficult time,” McArtor said.

During that time, however, he got to know Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express, playing volleyball on weekends.

“He was a Marine, and I was an Air Force guy,” McArtor said. “We had a healthy amount of teasing each other.”

In 1979, Smith offered McArtor a position with Federal Express, where he became a senior member of the executive team.

He remained with the company until 1994, except for a two-year hiatus when he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

McArtor went on to become the founder, chairman and CEO of Legend Airlines, a regional airline based at Dallas Love Field, Texas, before joining Airbus.

He was named one of the “Living Legends of Aviation” at an awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Friday.

He and his wife, Grace, have two sons and five grandchildren. They will have been married 50 years this summer.

When not working, McArtor likes to ski, golf, hike, bike and do anything athletic. He loves to fly.

How do you view the Airbus Engineering Center’s operations in Wichita?

We could not be more pleased with our Wichita Airbus engineering center. It is one of the great success stories that we have in the U.S. They have gained the confidence of the entire company and now have meaningful and critical contributions to virtually every airplane platform and every airplane program we have. It’s going to continue to grow. Success is a wonderful thing in which to build.

Will there be additional hiring this year in Wichita?

I think so.

The Wichita site is engaged in the development of Sharklets, or wingtip devices, for the A320 family of planes. You’re also exploring Sharklet options for other models. What is the status?

They’re doing loads analysis for that (the A320) and what-if analysis on the other types of airplanes so we can make a decision on whether we want to proceed on Sharklet development on, for example, the 330 (and) 380. We’re exploring Sharklets on everything. Whether we make decisions to do it will be made by the analysis done in Wichita.

How do you view your new role?

It’s another challenge. It’s a chance to build another team and motivate another group. It’s what I enjoy. I’m grateful as I can be to have the opportunity.

One of your challenges is to rebrand the helicopter, defense and space unit with the Airbus name. How so?

We need to tell that story. We need to develop the brand and instill the confidence within our customers, both government and commercial, in the group and its effectiveness on a global basis to compete. Everybody knows we build great airplanes. We want to transfer that (reputation) to the rest of our products. We have dozens of small companies across the U.S. that have been part of the Cassidian, Astrium or U.S. military operations. We have to bring that now under one umbrella called Airbus Defense and Space.

You were a pilot with the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. What did you learn from your time there?

Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. You get seven very highly skilled fighter pilots together. They’re only as good and only safe as a team. You really learn to rely on your teammates and have confidence in them. You know that you’ve got to do your job, and they’re going to do their job. The same lesson goes into corporate life or combat, for that matter.

How would others describe your style of leadership?

I hope they would describe me as a good team leader and a facilitator of communication. I insist on that among teams. I abhor silo-type operations. I try to empower people to make their own decisions and do it quickly. I emphasize consequential management, meaning if you’re not playing up to varsity standards, you can’t stay on the varsity any longer. I think people consider me to be a fair manager.

At 71, you’re not slowing down in your career. What’s your philosophy?

I’ve always had a motto: Never come out of afterburner. Enjoy life.

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