Boeing’s new chief: From summer intern to corner office

Dennis Muilenburg — it’s pronounced Mull-in-burg — is a Boeing lifer. The 51-year-old Iowa native started with the company 30 years ago this summer as a college engineering intern.

Maybe a few ambitious interns took notice and saw what’s possible when Dennis Muilenburg stepped into his new job at Boeing Co. this month.

After all, Muilenburg, the newly anointed CEO of the global aerospace giant, was standing in their shoes exactly 30 years ago. As a Boeing intern, he probably was wondering back in the summer of ’85 where his career track would take him after college.

The Iowa State University aerospace engineering major knew this much: He was driven to be “the world’s best airplane designer,” according to an interview Muilenburg gave to an Iowa newspaper last month.

“I’ve always thought of Boeing as the premier aerospace company in the world, so as I was coming up through school, it was the company I aspired to work for,” he told the Ames Tribune.

And so it went. And he rode that aspiration all the way to the corner office.

“Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, and having the privilege to do an internship at Boeing, and then to have that evolve into the position I am in today, I think that students today should aspire to great things,” he said during the Tribune interview. “They should challenge themselves and always stretch to grow.”

Growth was a theme Muilenburg hit on as he took the helm of the Fortune 50 business on July 1. He succeeds Jim McNerney as just the 10th chief executive officer in Boeing’s 99-year history. McNerney remains chairman.

The move didn’t stun the legions of financial analysts who keep up with the closely followed company. In late 2013, Boeing made Muilenburg one of two front-runners for the top job by naming him president and vice chairman and to the new position of chief operating officer. His latest promotion was announced June 23, two days after the Paris Air Show wrapped up.

“As CEO, Dennis will bring a rich combination of management skills, customer focus, business and engineering acumen, a can-do spirit and the will to win,” McNerney said in a written statement last month. “With a deep appreciation of our past accomplishments, and the energy and skill to drive those to come, he is well-suited to lead our very talented Boeing team into its second century.”

Muilenburg said in the same statement that the “company is financially strong and well-positioned in our markets. As we continue to drive the benefits of integrating our enterprise skills, capabilities and experience – what we call operating as ‘One Boeing’ – we will find new and better ways to engage and inspire employees, deliver innovation that drives customer success, and produce results to fuel future growth and prosperity for all our stakeholders.”

Muilenburg wasn’t available for media interviews last week. But the new leader, who has worked closely with his predecessor, isn’t expected to make any sudden or turbulent changes at the Chicago-based company, which builds the 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston and employs more than 7,000 workers in the area.

That’s not to say he won’t bring a different leadership style to the job.

McNerney , who held the top post for exactly a decade and who steered the 787 plant to South Carolina, is the urbane Ivy League-schooled management executive who seemingly climbed with ease to the top of the corporate food chain, with stops at Procter & Gamble, McKinsey & Co. and General Electric. The Rhode Island native and Harvard MBA was CEO of 3M Co. when he left that high-powered gig to run Boeing in 2005.

Muilenburg, by contrast, is a one-company man, an engineer from the Heartland. The Iowa native was raised near tiny Sioux Central in the northwest part of the state — on the same farm where his dad grew up, worked and raised his family. He told the Ames Tribune that his fascination with flying machines kicked in as a youngster. His father was a big influence, telling his son to place a high value on work ethic, integrity and reputation, according to the article.

After graduating from Iowa State, he joined the company full-time and later picked up a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the University of Washington. Muilenburg then worked his way up through the ranks.

Earlier in his career, he was tasked with running Boeing’s Combat Systems and Global Services & Support divisions. He was viewed as an early candidate for the top CEO post in 2009, when he was named president and chief executive of St. Louis-based Boeing Defense Space & Security, a $31 billion subsidiary with 53,000 employees.

Muilenburg already has paid his first post-promotion announcement visit to Boeing South Carolina, spokesman John Dern said Friday.

Before then, the new CEO likely had a passing familiarity with the region. The defense division he oversaw made the C-17 Globemaster cargo planes that are stationed at Joint Base Charleston, not far from the local 787 final assembly plant.

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Also, Muilenburg is on the board of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, which is separate from but helps support the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s head office in Mount Pleasant.

A recent profile of the newly promoted Muilenburg in the Wall Street Journal described him as a talented problem solver with a knack for containing and cutting expenses. It also noted he’s a hard-core cyclist who prefers Diet Mountain Dew to coffee.

His main challenges as CEO include growing the defense unit in a difficult federal budget climate and profitably filling the thousands of commercial aircraft orders on Boeing’s books, including about 800 for the Dreamliner. One of his short-term tasks will be to roll out the extended Dash 10 version of the 787, which will be made only in North Charleston.

“We have high confidence in Dennis, who has distinguished his career by taking on tough challenges and delivering results,” Boeing lead independent director Kenneth Duberstein said in a June statement.

On a lighter note, Muilenburg is in line to be at the controls when Boeing marks its 100 anniversary next July.

The investment world will be hearing more about him and from him Wednesday morning, when this ambitious one-time engineering intern will lead his first quarterly earnings call as the CEO of Boeing Co.

Industry analysts and the media will be all ears.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572