Toby Bright, former sales chief at Boeing, describes what went wrong at the company between 2001 and 2004 and talks about his new life as marketing chief for a startup aircraft-leasing company.
Toby Bright’s jet-set career selling airplanes for Boeing ended abruptly in December 2004. Forced out as head of sales, he chose to walk away after 28 years at the company.
Now Bright is buying planes instead of selling them, dealing with Airbus as well as Boeing. And he couldn’t be happier.
Earlier this month, Bright stood in his $1.8 million high-rise condo on First Avenue. A breathtaking view of Puget Sound before him, his home office tucked into a corner of the luxurious, art-filled living room behind him, Bright pointed to a 787 Dreamliner on a flight test arcing across his picture window.
“Boeing gave me tremendous opportunities. I have great friends there,” he said. “But leaving Boeing was truly one of the best things that has happened in my life.”
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Bright, now chief marketing officer at the year-old aircraft- leasing company Jackson Square Aviation, recently led a small team of lawyers and executives to conclude a transaction at Boeing’s delivery center in Everett.
Boeing had formally delivered a big 777 passenger jet to Air France that morning. The plane, freshly painted in the airline’s red, white and blue livery, was parked just outside at Paine Field.
Now it was Bright’s turn. After almost an hour of final phone checks in a small conference room, four Air France representatives stood and shook hands with his team. They had just confirmed that Jackson Square, which was buying the plane and leasing it back to Air France in an eight-year deal, had transferred an undisclosed sum — based on market data, about $150 million — into the airline’s bank account.
Bright beamed as he took the ceremonial keys to the airplane.
“We own our first wide-body,” he said.
In love with flying
Bright, 58, who grew up in a coal-mining area of West Virginia in a family with no connection to aviation, fell in love with the idea of flying as a young boy.
He took a job mowing grass and fueling planes at the nearest airport to pay for flying lessons. He flew his first plane at 14.
In 1977, after he graduated in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech, he was recruited to Boeing by Alan Mulally, then a young engineering leader at the company.
Later, Bright moved into marketing, then sales. He did well and was promoted to handle Boeing’s biggest customer, United Airlines.
But in 1992, the shadow of Airbus supersalesman John Leahy first fell across Bright’s path.
Leahy, the archetypal aggressive salesman, revels in his reputation for talking trash and taking risks. Bright, who is gentle and soft-spoken in manner, couldn’t be more different.
In a bitterly fought sales battle, Airbus offered United bargain terms. Bright told his corporate bosses that to win, he needed a new, more efficient version of the 737. But Boeing didn’t have one.
In what might have been a career-ending shock for Bright, Leahy won. United, previously all-Boeing, defected to Airbus and ordered 100 A320 narrow-body jets.
Boeing responded the following year by launching its Next Generation 737.
Later, at a retirement party for Dean Thornton, then-president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Thornton acknowledged to him that the company leadership had miscalculated, Bright said.
“One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made was letting Airbus into United,” Bright recalls Thornton saying. “You were telling us all the right things and we weren’t listening to you.”
He attributes the flameout of his Boeing career a decade later to a similar corporate miscalculation.
In January 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks had staggered Boeing’s business, Mulally — by then chief executive of the commercial-jet division — appointed Bright head of sales.
To preserve profitability in the crisis, Boeing’s leadership slashed production and jobs to match the reduced demand for jets — but maintained its pricing.
Some on Boeing’s executive leadership team pushed to keep high margins rather than win deals, Bright said.
He maintains that Airbus, in contrast, lowered its prices to keep selling planes and keep the factories running.
“Leahy knew this was his chance to surpass Boeing and become the largest airplane manufacturer in the world,” said Bright.
“It was a tough, very stressful few years. It took a toll on my personal life.”
In 2004, he and his wife separated after 35 years of marriage.
Just three months later, Mulally, under pressure from Boeing Chief Executive Harry Stonecipher in Chicago to do something, called Bright and said he was putting Scott Carson in charge of sales.
By the Paris Air Show just six months later, sales were booming again. Air Canada, Air India, and Northwest Airlines had all ordered the 787 Dreamliner.
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said Boeing recovered because it sharpened its focus by settling on the 787, and its sales people finally “got aggressive on price.”
Sense of vindication
Looking back, Bright fixes on the pricing strategy with a sense of vindication. He believes the leadership’s policies handcuffed his sales efforts, but that the cuffs were taken off for his successor — with immediate results.
“When Carson came in, they clearly made some changes to their pricing,” said Bright. “The market recovered and sales took off all at the same time. And they were still able to make money.”
On leaving Boeing, Bright found partners eager to use his knowledge of the business.
He joined the management team of aircraft lessor Pegasus. When that was sold, for a handsome profit, the same team formed what became Jackson Square Aviation.
Their specialty is sale/lease-back contracts, like the 777 deal with Air France, which are common in the airplane-leasing business.
Sometimes an airline prefers not to have to come up with the cash for a plane it has ordered. So a leasing company can step in to finance — and own — the airplane.
The leasing company borrows most of the money, in this case provided by DVB Bank of Germany, and repays it through the monthly rental fee it gets from the airline. For Air France’s 777, that’ll be around about $1.3 million per month, according to Avitas market data.
Larger lessors often buy planes in bulk orders from Boeing and Airbus then try to rent them. But Jackson Square limits itself to deals where the airline is already lined up.
It’s the safest business model in the leasing world, one virtually certain to make money provided financing can be found and deals struck.
And while bigger aircraft lessors have struggled in the financial crisis, Jackson Square has been doing plenty of deals.
Started just over a year ago, with $10 million from its management team and $500 million from private equity firm Oaktree Capital, it has already committed to buy just shy of 70 airplanes valued at more than $3 billion.
So these days, Bright is away from Seattle about two weeks in every month, still flying around the globe looking for airplane deals.
But this post-Boeing life feels very different, he said.
Now he plans his own trips. No one hands him an agenda at the airport on his arrival and whisks him away to a whirlwind meeting.
He’ll fly to Japan, take a meeting, and afterward relax with old friends from years in the business.
At the small company, with just over two dozen full-time employees, the only meeting is a once-a-week conference call. And he can make decisions quickly, without anyone second-guessing him.
He likes that he’s still in aviation, spending time with airplane people.
“It’s been more real,” said Bright. “It feels more hands on.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org