‘We need someone to fix Boeing.’ Here’s who could replace Calhoun as the troubled plane maker’s CEO

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An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 Max airplanes parked on the tarmac at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Washington, on March 21, 2019.
Lindsey Wasson | Reuters

Help wanted at Boeing.

CEO Dave Calhoun on Monday announced he is stepping down from the aerospace giant’s top post at year’s end as the company struggles with a safety and production quality crisis tied to its bestselling airplane, the 737 Max. Boeing said it will begin a search for Calhoun’s replacement.

Boeing also announced Monday it’s replacing board Chair Larry Kellner and the chief executive of its all-important commercial airplanes unit, Stan Deal.

Calhoun told CNBC on Monday that the decision to retire was “100%” his own and that he would be involved in finding his successor. Four-year Boeing board member Steve Mollenkopf, ex-Qualcomm CEO who will take over as independent chairman of the board, will lead the search.

Calhoun’s departure isn’t much of a surprise given the struggles of the last few months.

Boeing’s customers had grown frustrated under Calhoun’s watch as they faced the fallout from recurring quality issues. He was appointed as CEO a little more than four years ago to get the manufacturing giant in order after two fatal Max crashes in 2018 and 2019.

One quality problem after another has surfaced spanning other programs like the 787 Dreamliner and the two 747s that will serve as Air Force One aircraft. With supply chain issues, quality lapses and more regulator scrutiny in the wake of a panel blowout from an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 in January, airplane deliveries are arriving late, and airline executives say the problems have forced them to change their growth and fleet plans.

Boeing’s stock is down more than 26% this year, and its CFO last week warned it’s burning more cash than it expected.

“We need someone to fix Boeing,” one major airline executive told CNBC after Boeing announced the management shake-up on Monday. “They unequivocally needed a change.”

Executives at Boeing’s customers told CNBC they want Boeing’s new leader to have manufacturing acumen, expertise in the highly regulated and technical world of aviation, and, perhaps most difficult of all, the ability to rally Boeing’s employees and ensure a culture of safety, consistency and innovation.

“This is going to be a challenging role to fill. You’re going to need someone with a huge amount of energy and commitment,” said John Plueger, CEO of Air Lease, a major buyer of Boeing planes that leases them to airlines. “You don’t want somebody for two years. You want someone at the head of the ship for as long as possible.”

The next boss at Boeing will have to contend not just with the company’s internal struggles but lost market share to rival Airbus. Meanwhile, China has been pushing ahead with building its own commercial aircraft.

“I want somebody who knows how to handle a big, long-cycled business like ours,” Calhoun told CNBC in an interview on Monday while announcing his departure. “It’s not just the production of the airplane. It’s the development of the next airplane. Our next lead is going to develop … the next airplane for the Boeing company.”

Financial analysts applauded the amount of time Boeing is giving itself to find Calhoun’s replacement.

“It provides leadership continuity, which a knee-jerk change would not, and CEO Dave Calhoun clearly is on board with the need to bolster safety,” said TD Cowen analyst Cai von Rumohr, in a note on Monday. Analysts said other board changes are possible, too, and Von Rumohr said the board could consider bringing Boeing’s headquarters back to Seattle, where most of its commercial aircraft production is.

While Boeing didn’t comment on its top candidates, here’s who some aviation experts say could potentially lead Boeing:

Larry Culp

Larry Culp, chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric Co., speaks during the Semafor World Economy Summit in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

General Electric CEO Larry Culp is “probably at the top of the list for a Boeing CEO,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director at Aerodynamic Advisory, an aviation consulting firm.

Culp is set to head the aviation unit of GE that is about to spin off, a company that makes and overhauls engines that power both Boeing and rival Airbus planes. Culp has lead a turnaround for the conglomerate and oversaw the split of the company.

“The relationship with Boeing has never been stronger,” Culp told reporters earlier this month at an investor event. “Clearly, 2024 hasn’t played out the way they would have liked let alone the way we would have liked. We’re trying to support them in every possible way.”

But Culp is focusing on GE’s aerospace unit as a standalone company, a GE spokesperson said in response to questions about a potential future for him at Boeing.

Pat Shanahan

Pat Shanahan, then-senior vice president of Airplane Programs for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, speaks during the grand opening of the new Boeing 737 Delivery Center on October 19, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.
Stephen Brashear | Getty Images

Pat Shanahan, the interim CEO of Spirit AeroSystems, is another possibility, Aboulafia said.

A three-decade Boeing veteran, Shanahan was appointed last October to head the Boeing supplier, which makes fuselages for the company’s 737 Max and other parts, as Spirit dealt with its own quality problems that have spilled over to Boeing.

Boeing is in talks to buy Spirit, bringing the fuselage manufacturer back in house after spinning it off almost two decades ago. A reunion could naturally slot Shanahan in as chief executive of the merged company.

“Mr. Shanahan remains solely focused on driving a zero-defects culture across all aspects of Spirit AeroSystems,” Spirit spokesman Joe Buccino told CNBC Monday.

David Gitlin

David Gitlin, chief executive officer of Carrier Global Corp., during a Bloomberg Television interview on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. 
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Aboulafia also mentioned Carrier CEO and chairman David Gitlin, who serves on Boeing’s board.

Gitlin has experience in aviation, previously working as president and chief operating officer at Collins Aerospace. Aviation experts have said said someone with a strong background in manufacturing and operations would be needed.

Stephanie Pope

Boeing’s Stephanie Pope gives a press conference at the Paris Le Bourget Airport, on June 20, 2023.
Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt | AFP | Getty Images

Stephanie Pope, who was recently promoted to chief operating officer after serving as head of Boeing’s Global Services unit, is the most obvious internal option to succeed Calhoun. (Former Boeing CFO Greg Smith retired from the company in 2021. He was also seen as a possible successor.)

But Pope will take over from Stan Deal, who is retiring from his post as head of Boeing’s commercial airplane division, the company said Monday. And one aviation executive questioned why Boeing wouldn’t have announced her appointment on Monday if she were the choice.

The “management changes are geared to institutionalize a priority on safety throughout the company by bringing in new blood,” TD Cowen’s von Rumohr wrote.

CNBC’s Phil LeBeau contributed to this report.

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