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Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg Faces Mounting Pressure From 737 MAX Crashes

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Dennis Muilenburg has earned a reputation as a high-energy CEO, bicycling 140 miles a week, sometimes taking groups of employees along for high-speed bonding sessions. The 55-year-old may need every ounce of energy he’s got as he faces one of the worst crises for Boeing in over 50 years: two crashes that killed 346 people, linked to the automated flight controls of the 737 MAX and leading to the grounding of the company’s bestselling plane.

The stakes for Boeing, and its CEO, are huge. The 737 accounts for 33% of Boeing’s revenue and almost 50% of its profit, according to Berenberg analyst Andrew Gollan. Deliveries have been halted since the plane was taken out of service worldwide after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane, airlines are demanding compensation, and the company faces scrutiny from Congress, a Department of Transportation inquiry and a federal criminal probe. The stock (BA) has fallen 10%. Lawsuits filed by relatives of the dead and shareholders could take years to conclude.

Over the past few weeks, the 34-year Boeing veteran has been traveling heavily to shore up support from airline customers and investors. An aerospace engineer by training, Muilenburg has kept a close eye on the Boeing team rewriting the faulty flight control program; last week he went up in a plane that tested out its effectiveness.

But many observers are giving Boeing and Muilenburg poor marks for their public handling of the crisis. Until late last week, Muilenburg was largely invisible and the company’s public statements, while expressing sympathy for family and friends of the deceased, were short on substance.

“I give them a B,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor of leadership at the Yale School of Management. Muilenburg needs to put a human face on Boeing, he says, and get out in public and engage with the media to try to correct misperceptions and address the many questions about what went wrong, even if he doesn’t have ready answers to offer.  

Muilenburg hasn’t shown the media sophistication of his predecessor, Jim McNerney, who’d previously helmed GE’s prized aircraft engine division and 3M. “He’s got a catastrophe as his training ground,” says Sonnenfeld.

Preliminary reports from the investigations into the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in October and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 last month suggest that the pilots of both planes struggled to counter a flight control program called MCAS that erroneously pushed the planes’ noses down due to malfunctioning angle-of-attack sensors. After Ethiopian investigators released their report last Thursday, Boeing put out a video statement by Muilenburg in which he said Boeing accepted responsibility for the role that MCAS played as one of the “chain links” in the two accidents.

Aviation regulators in other countries have questioned the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the MCAS system and its initial reluctance to pull the 737 MAX out of service; several have said they won’t just take the FAA’s word that it’s safe to fly again, making it uncertain when the plane will return to the skies worldwide.

With the prospects of a quick resolution fading, Boeing announced last Friday it would throttle back 737 production to 42 a month from 52—a sharp reversal from its plan to raise output to 57 by the summer.

Analyst Richard Epstein of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch downgraded the stock to neutral Monday, estimating that Boeing likely won’t be able to resume deliveries for six months and won’t get back on pace until 2021, reducing earnings through 2023 before interest and taxes by $13.7 billion.

Whether Muilenburg’s job is threatened or not may depend on the stock price, says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group.

The board is loyal to Muilenburg, observers say, and his record so far has given them little reason to doubt having signed off on then-CEO and chairman McNerney’s decision to promote him to the top job in 2015 at age 51.

Engineer With Focus On Financial Discipline
US-aviation-ACCIDENT-BOEING
Workers stand under the wing of a Boeing 737 MAX airplane at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on March 27, 2019. Boeing gathered hundreds of pilots and reporters at its factory to unveil a fix to the flight software of its grounded 737AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The hard-charging, detail-oriented engineer presented a strong contrast to McNerney, a liberal arts major at Yale and Harvard M.B.A. who rose up through the ranks at General Electric when it was a star factory under Jack Welch. Native to Iowa, Muilenburg grew up milking cows every morning on his family farm and graduated from Iowa State before going straight to work at Boeing. Health-conscious and rail thin, he drinks Diet Mountain Dew to get a calorie-free caffeine fix and has been known to order turkey sandwiches with no mayo.

Though he’s cut head count, Muilenburg has cultivated a more positive relationship with the workforce than McNerney, who clashed with the machinist’s union and infamously joked of workers “cowering” from him.

However, Muilenburg has followed in McNerney’s footsteps with a laser focus on financial discipline, including boosting profits by wringing discounts from suppliers. Muilenburg has even gone a step further, moving to make more components in house and aiming to more than triple sales from lucrative aftermarket maintenance and services to $50 billion a year.

Like his two predecessors, Muilenberg has continued to sweeten the pot for investors, devoting roughly 95% of operating cash flow to the company’s steadily rising dividend and share buybacks.

The stock has taken off, climbing fourfold from February 2016 to a peak of $446 at the beginning of March, compared with a 63% rise for the Dow industrials over the same period. The March selloff has only pushed the stock back to where it stood at the end of January.

But to Aboulafia, the flawed design of the MCAS flight control system, combined with the continuing problems with the KC-46 tanker and delays in the crewed space-launch program are further evidence for criticism he’s leveled at Boeing for almost two decades: that the company’s focus on shareholder rewards has come with a “deprioritization and perhaps under-resourcing of engineering.”

Boeing says it’s maintained R&D spending at a steady level and has a healthy corps of 56,000 engineers.

The question of how MCAS was certified has raised concerns over whether Boeing has gained too cozy a relationship with the FAA; a wildcard going forward is whether any evidence of wrongdoing will emerge.

If whistleblowers had any damaging information we likely would have heard it by now, says Mark Dombroff, an aviation attorney at LeClairRyan and former head of the Department of Justice’s aviation division. He expects that the DoJ will seek to determine within 90 to 120 days whether there’s a case to pursue.

Aviation experts are optimistic that Boeing’s software patch and training revisions will solve the 737 MAX’s safety problems. Boeing’s disclosure this week that it logged zero orders for the MAX in March generated negative headlines, but with a whopping 15,000 total narrow-body orders placed over the past seven years, there aren’t really any airlines left with sizable needs, says Aboulafia, with the notable exception of Chinese carriers. Any trade deal between the U.S. and China that would change the balance of trade will likely include Boeing sales.

Boeing’s last major crisis came in 2013, when the 787 was grounded for three months due to battery fires, two years after the plane entered service following years of production snafus and spiraling costs. While the financial stakes were large, no lives were lost. The last time Boeing faced a safety crisis of a comparable nature to the current one was the mid-1960s, when four new 727 jets crashed in a span of four months.

Like then, Boeing faces the task of convincing a fearful public that the MAX will be safe to step into again. Sonnenfeld says Muilenberg needs to take a page from James Burke, the late CEO of Johnson & Johnson, who pulled off the tall task of convincing Americans that Tylenol was still safe after seven people were killed by cyanide-laced capsules in 1982. “It’s going to take the CEO to be out there.”

-Jeremy Bogaisky; Forbes Staff

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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Facebook Joins Other Tech Giants In Employing Journalists To Curate News

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Facebook is hiring a small team of journalists to help curate breaking news and repair its strained relationship with news publishers, the social media giant announced Tuesday.

The company says it will employ journalists to select breaking news and top stories that will appear in its soon-to-be-launched feature called News Tab, rather than using algorithms to determine what is shared with its vast network of users.

With the move, Facebook is part of a growing trend in the tech industry. Apple, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and Snapchat have all employed journalists to help their companies sort through the news and cozy up to news organizations.

READ MORE | Facebook Recommits To A More Personalized Dating App, Your Privacy

Apple, for example, has used some form of human curation since its subscription Apple News app launched in 2015. In June 2017, the company hired former New York magazine executive editor Lauren Kern as the app’s editor-in-chief. Twitter has also employed some form of human news curation since 2015. 

Even with a team of in-house journalists, companies like Twitter continue to struggle in the fight against misinformation. On Monday, Twitter announcedit will no longer accept advertising from state-controlled media, in large part as a response to the discovery that China ran a misinformation campaign to combat Hong Kong protesters.

Facebook, facing similar scrutiny for the same Chinese misinformation campaign, said that employing journalists will help “surface more high quality news.”

“Our goal with the News tab is to provide a personalized, highly relevant experience for people,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships said in a statement sent to Forbes. “The majority of stories people will see will appear in the tab via algorithmic selection. To start, for the Top News section of the tab we’re pulling together a small team of journalists to ensure we’re highlighting the right stories.”

READ MORE | Google, Facebook, Twitter Fail To Live Up To Fake News Pledge

Facebook says the team will take into account user controls, pages and publisher as well as the news that users interact with or share, and other unnamed signals from its vast network to personalize content. 

The company has been under pressure to mitigate its misinformation problem since it was revealed in 2016 that Russian operatives carried out a misinformation campaign in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” on the network, as it was described by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The Mueller Report found that Russia spent $1.25 million per month on digital advertisements in an effort to sow discord in the U.S. and influence the presidential election. On Monday, Facebook came under fire for taking money from China to spread disinformation about Hong Kong protests.

The social media giant remains an important part of many Americans lives, much more than its rivals Twitter and Snapchat. According to Pew Research, about 69% of American adults use Facebook, and of those who use it, about 74% visit the site once a day. By comparison, only one in five U.S. adults (22%) use Twitter.

According to a survey conducted in 2018, about four in ten (43%) U.S. adults get at least some news from Facebook.

READ MORE | How To Use Twitter To  Boost Your Business

In January 2017, Facebook hired Campbell Brown, a former television news anchor, to lead its news partnerships team. She remains a key figure in easing the tension between large national news outlets—those who have historically provided an endless trove of free content for the social media giant—and the company.

Publishing executives have slammed Facebook for siphoning advertising revenue away from traditional news publishers while also demanding that those same companies provide content for free. Following years of backlash, the social media company is now trying to work with publishers to create a more even relationship.

Facebook’s news partnership program involves deals that are potentially worth millions of dollars. The Wall Street Journal reports that several news outlets including the Washington Post, Bloomberg, Dow Jones, and the New York Times have discussed receiving as much as $3 million per year to license news content.

The News Tab, which has not been publicly viewed, is being positioned in stark contrast to the company’s Trending Topics news section, which shut down in 2016 following increasing pressure from users.

In 2016, the tech website Gizmodo published an article alleging contractors hired to curate the now-defunct Trending Topics feed were actively suppressing conservative news stories. In a letter to Congress, Facebook said, “We could not reconstruct reliable data logs from before December 2014, so were unable to examine each of the reviewer decisions from that period,” thus suggesting that it may have very well suppressed conservative news when the tool first launched.

-Michael Nuñez; Forbes

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Walmart Sues Tesla Over Solar Panels That Allegedly Caught Fire

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Topline: Walmart is alleging in a lawsuit that Tesla solar panels caused fires on the roofs of seven Walmart stores, and is accusing Tesla of breach of contract, gross negligence and failure to comply with industry standards. 

  • Walmart claims that Tesla installed faulty solar panels that eventually spontaneously combusted and caught fire at seven Walmart stores around the country.
  • The lawsuit alleges that Tesla inspectors didn’t notice defects that were visible to the naked eye, used cable connectors that weren’t compatible with one another and failed to see that loose and hanging wires were present at multiple sites.

READ MORE | Jeff Bezos And Elon Musk Want To Get To The Moon—They Just Disagree On How To Get There

  • Walmart says in the lawsuit it believes the failures were the result of rushed installation because Tesla’s solar division “adopted an ill-considered business model that required it to install solar panel systems haphazardly and as quickly as possible in order to turn a profit, and the contractors and subcontractors who performed the original installation work had not been properly hired, trained, and supervised.”

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes.

Key Background: Tesla got into the solar business after it acquired SolarCity in 2016 for $2.6 billion. But production of its residential solar panels under Tesla has been mired with delays and plunging sales. 

Just this week, CEO Elon Musk announced a revamped pricing plan in an effort to boost the slowing business. The new pricing model allows residents in six states to rent solar power systems starting at $50 a month ($65 a month in California) instead of buying them up front.

Further Reading: Read the full lawsuit here.

-Rachel Sandler, Forbes


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