“Throughout the last 27 years or so, I’ve pretty much lived in an airplane,” said Ray Conner, CWU alumnus, executive vice president of The Boeing Company, and president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Conner, who has steadily climbed the ranks of Boeing leadership in his 35-year career, tried out a few other career choices before settling in with the airplane manufacturer. Despite growing up in Burien, virtually Boeing’s backyard and coming from “a Boeing family,” Conner originally set out to be a high school teacher.
“I went to Whitworth and played football there,” he recounted. “Then I went to Central to complete my degree, based on the great reputation of the College of Education. From an academic standpoint, it was my best year of college.”
Conner fondly remembers his student teaching days at Ellensburg High School, where he also coached football. He even took a class from CWU’s legendary Dean Nicholson, whom he greatly admired. “He was a really neat guy, kind of a John Wooden,” said Conner. [Wooden won ten national championships in a 12-year period as head coach at University of California, Los Angeles, an unprecedented feat.]
However, there was a change in flight plans —a teaching career was not in the cards for Conner. “I think to a certain degree I was searching a bit—it’s hard to define what you want to do with the rest of your life when you’re 20, 21 years old,” he said. “So I made a critical call in my career, and decided not to go down the teaching path.”
After graduating in 1979, Conner spent a few summers as a fisherman on a commercial seiner in Alaska— he laughs, “not the Deadliest Catch by a long shot!”
But he couldn’t ignore the lure of the airplanes and, being the engineering type, he picked up a wrench and signed on at Boeing as a mechanic. “To be honest, at the time, the hourly guys were making more than the office guys.
“The reality of Boeing,” he continued, “is that it is like a city within a city. At a place like Boeing, you can create a career, you have far more opportunities. I got to figure out what I wanted to do.”
Conner recalls reading the Boeing internal newsletter and getting inspired to take advantage of some of those opportunities.
“[The newsletter] always had a lot of good stuff in it, always a lot of articles about sales,” he said. “Then I saw a photo of a group of guys handing over the keys to an airplane, and I said to myself, ‘I think I could sell airplanes.’”
Conner assessed his situation and determined he needed to pursue a master’s degree. With assistance from Boeing, and after going to school at night “for quite a few years,” he earned his MBA from the University of Puget Sound in 1984.
The effort paid off. Before long, Conner was one of those guys handing over the keys—as sales director for Thailand.
“My first big sale was to Thai Airways,” remembered Conner. “Eighteen airplanes—some 737s and some 777s. It was big money and gave me the opportunity to really go forward. For many years [sales] was all I focused on. There were a few years when I was on a plane 200 days of the year.
“All that operational background, running crews—it all helped,” he said. “It helped that I was a front line supervisor, that I worked with customers, that I worked with systems—and knew the people who were associated in the various departments. It allowed me to develop a foundation within the company.”
Conner built on that foundation to improve his understanding of all aspects of how Boeing operated. His hard work and ambition propelled him into management, where he gained business acumen and began to develop his leadership style. During this time he was also networking and developing relationships within the company that would help him for years to come.
As he moved up in the organization, he held a wide range of management positions,
including deputy director of Major Outside Production and Program Participants, and of International Business Operations, both in the Materiel Division. [Materiel, related to the word material, is used to refer to the equipment and supplies in commercial supply chain management.]
Conner then became director of Finance and Information Systems for the Materiel Division, where he was responsible for developing and implementing strategies to lower costs and achieve higher productivity in procuring contracts from suppliers around the world. Conner also oversaw information systems support for remote site networking, electronic commerce, and workstation upgrades.
As he continued his career trajectory at Boeing, Conner endeavored to become more broadly aware of every aspect of company operation, seizing on opportunities to develop his understanding of product and practices. Soon he was named vice president of the Propulsion Systems Division, where he led the development of propulsion systems and auxiliary power units for the entire Boeing family of commercial airplanes.
Conner next served as vice president and general manager of the 747 program, overseeing a team that managed the design, development certification, and production of the 747 airplane. Later, he would become vice president and general manager of another twin-aisle program—the 777.
But he was still drawn to selling airplanes, and he moved back to sales between some of his other assignments.
In 1999 he became vice president of Asia/Pacific Sales for Commercial Airplanes. In that role, Conner led the Asia/Pacific sales team and was responsible for maintaining Boeing's business relationships with Asia/Pacific airlines and Asian aerospace industries. He also was responsible for the operation of Boeing offices in China, Japan, and Korea.
His success in the Far East led to a new vice-presidency in 2003, this time for sales in the Americas. He left the 777 program, which he had led since 2001, to develop business relationships and manage sales for Boeing in North America and Latin America.
In 2007, Conner became vice president for Sales for Commercial Airplanes, a position in which he was responsible for the sale of airplanes and related services to customers around the world. He was later tapped for his organizational skills to become vice president and general manager of Supply Chain Management and Operations for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. He was responsible for overall leadership of Commercial Airplanes Supplier Management, Fabrication and Propulsion Systems, and the Manufacturing and Quality functional organization.
In 2011, Conner once again crossed over to the sales side of the business and was asked to lead Sales, Marketing and Commercial Aviation Services for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. From that position, in June 2012, he was promoted to executive vice president of The Boeing Company and president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, where he is responsible for all the company's Commercial Airplanes programs and services, is a member of the Boeing Executive Council, and serves as Boeing's senior executive in the Pacific Northwest.
“It means I spend a lot more time in planes,” he said with a laugh. “I spend a lot of time between our headquarters in Chicago and Seattle.”
But, as the Chinese proverb says, “to succeed, when you reach the top of the mountain, keep climbing.” Conner rests uneasily on his laurels, if at all. He is constantly evaluating what needs to be done to move his company forward, and defining paths to greater success.
“We have big challenges today,” he said. “We need to execute product rate increases. We’re working on the next version of the 787 [Dreamliner]. We need to develop a new wide-body strategy.
“Most importantly, we need to get the next generation ready to go.”
Conner said that for a company like Boeing to continue, it needs to groom successors to leadership throughout the organization—“we need to have the next generation of leaders ready to take over the company.”
“I first look for someone who has had to overcome something. I’m not that focused on the GPA as much as character,” he related. “Kids that have had to work and go to school, or raise a family, who’ve done more than just academics—something that has taught them how to work with people.
“At the end of the day, it’s how you work with people,” he said. “I encourage kids to get experience functioning within a group of people. It’s not all about you—it’s about ‘we’ not ‘me’—that will make the difference.”
In October 2012, Conner wrote a message in the Boeing magazine, Frontiers. In it, he encourages the people he leads and reminds them that they are the most important ingredients to the company’s success—“Just as we evolve the way we design and build airplanes, we have to continue to evolve ourselves.”
And if Conner has his way, a Boeing mechanic or designer or office assistant will read those words and start thinking about someday handing over the keys to an airplane.
Recently, Conner came back to Central’s Ellensburg campus to see a Wildcat football game.
“I was so impressed with what’s happened [on campus],” he enthused. “I really love it here.” He was also impressed with President James Gaudino—“a really dynamic leader.”
But the one thing he felt hadn’t changed was the quality of education.
“I got a well-rounded education,” he said. “The staff and teachers were excellent, and there was a great environment built around the school. This is a neat institution for a young person to complete their education, and develop their foundation for the future.”