Before turning around Ford, Mulally helped drive Boeing to North Charleston
Alan Mulally was still an airplane guy on his last public visit to Charleston.
The then-Boeing executive sat ramrod straight, taking questions and talking business from behind a small desk in his hotel suite. He was impeccably dressed in pressed trousers, crisp white shirt and gold power tie.
It was July 18, 2005, and Mulally, who would go on to make quite a name for himself in the car business, was on a mission. The engineering whiz turned executive was eager to talk about the significance of the factories that two suppliers were building at Charleston International Airport. The plants would make fuselage sections for Boeing's new 787, then known as the 7E7.
"Remember, we're going to be building airplanes forever. ... This paves the way for more opportunity," an upbeat Mulally said that day.
Did it ever.
Before Mulally was hired as CEO of Ford Motor Co. in 2006 - he announced Thursday he's retiring from the automaker July 1 - he had held the same title at Boeing Co.'s commercial aircraft division.
As big an impact as he's had on Detroit, the Kansas native also has left a pretty sizable mark on the South Carolina economy, both directly and indirectly.
The Palmetto State began flirting with the aerospace industry in a serious way in the thick of Mulally's eight-year run as CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
In mid-2003, South Carolina joined dozens of states and regions that were vying to win a 1,200-worker plant that Mulally needed to build for a new passenger jet made mostly from lightweight composite materials. The S.C. Commerce Department offered Boeing a prime site at Charleston International.
The jobs ended up in the Seattle area, but South Carolina's strong proposal put the state on the map. When a pair of 787 suppliers conducted a similar site search in 2004, the Lowcountry clinched the deal.
It was those investments that brought Mulally to Charleston in July 2005 for a "town-hall celebration" at the Riviera Theater. The takeaway from his presentation was that while South Carolina was new to this game, it could earn its keep and end up winning other tasks from the Boeing mother ship.
He turned out to be spot on.
Perhaps the biggest plum to date stemmed from what was arguably Mulally's biggest strategic misstep at Boeing - the decision to outsource 787 parts to suppliers around the world. Numerous quality problems, delays and other production gaffes followed.
The logistical turmoil ended up working in South Carolina's favor. Boeing buckled down in 2009 and bought the two troubled North Charleston suppliers to gain more control over the 787 supplier network. It also decided that year to build its second full-blown assembly line for the jet next door, its first outside its unionized Washington state operations.
By then, Mulally was three years into his new gig at Ford.
Mulally watcher and aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of The Teal Group said it would be a stretch to credit the former Boeing executive for the North Charleston assembly plant.
"It had more to do with the rise of right-to-work labor and state subsidies that brought the existing jetliner infrastructure to South Carolina," he said Thursday.
Bob Faith, who was S.C. commerce secretary when the state began courting Boeing more than a decade ago, disagreed. He said Mulally's "fingerprints" were on the 2009 factory deal even though he'd left Boeing in 2006.
"His biggest influence was when it came to staring down the union and telling them, 'We're serious and there is a possibility of us doing final assembly outside Puget Sound,'" Faith said Friday.
What isn't disputed is that the 787 program, which to date has created more than 6,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in investment in the Charleston region, was conceived and approved on Mulally's watch.
Boeing has since announced it will make engine inlet parts for the 737 MAX at a plant it's building in North Charleston, and it's moving some 777X engineering jobs to the region. Boeing also has secured hundreds of acres of undeveloped land for undisclosed future growth plans. Last year, it committed to investing another $1 billion and creating 2,000 more jobs by the end of the decade.
It appears Mulally's prediction has held up from nearly nine years ago, when he said "more opportunity" could follow for South Carolina.