Ray Conner, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, speaking to an audience of mostly Japanese Americans in Seattle on Friday, delivered a heartfelt account of the deep relationship the company has with Japan and his personal attachment to Japan’s people and culture.
In his first major public speech in Seattle since he took over leadership of the commercial-airplane unit in June, Conner also took a moment to reassure his local audience of Boeing’s commitment to the Puget Sound region.
However, his prepared remarks focused on Japan.
Japanese industrial partners supply parts for every Boeing airplane, including the composite plastic wings of the 787 Dreamliner.
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Conner pointed out, not coincidentally, that in the past decade 80 percent of all commercial jets ordered by Japanese airlines have been Boeing airplanes.
“There is not a relationship in the world like the one we have with Japan,” Conner told the audience of about 350 people attending the third annual conference of the U.S.-Japan Council.
He said that a visit to Japan 25 years ago for Boeing was his first foreign trip, one that at the time he had found daunting. But in the course of hundreds of visits since then, he said, he “fell in love with the Japanese people and Japanese culture.”
“It’s still my favorite place to go in the world,” Conner added.
He said he was touched particularly by an illustration of Japanese honor and integrity following the earthquake and tsunami in Sendai province in March 2011.
The factory of a Boeing supplier there — a unit of Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI) that makes crucial parts for GE engines that power Boeing 777 and 787 jets — was severely damaged in the disaster.
More than 200 IHI employees lost their homes and about 40 lost family members. The shuttering of that plant immediately threatened Boeing’s final assembly lines here.
“They could have shut down our production,” Conner said.
But that didn’t happen. Boeing didn’t miss a single delivery, he said, because the IHI management team gathered resources to support the workforce that allowed the employees to go back in and make repairs.
They had the plant running within a month and up to full production within two months.
“People ask me, Why do you so much work in Japan? That’s why,” Conner said. “The values and principles held by the people of Japan have truly touched my life.”
At the beginning of his speech, Conner made some short remarks clearly aimed at balancing some of the rhetoric around the ongoing contract dispute with Boeing’s engineering union.
During negotiations with the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), Boeing executives have spoken publicly about the possibility that a contract that proves too expensive could in the long term drive engineering work out of this region.
Yet as he opened his speech Conner offered this observation:
“I don’t know if people in Seattle recognize this, but we have grown our employment here over the last year about 10,000 people. We are going to continue to grow and will be shipping a lot of airplanes out of Renton and Everett for a long time.”
Asked afterward to comment on the confrontational labor dispute with SPEEA, Conner would say only that he has “a whole bunch of people working on that.”
“Hopefully, we’ll get through this,” he added, then was shepherded away for a photo with Japanese-American dignitaries.
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org