Senior Boeing executive Bob Watt, recruited six years ago at a time when relations between the company and the region were heavily strained...

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Senior Boeing executive Bob Watt, recruited six years ago at a time when relations between the company and the region were heavily strained, will retire at year-end.

Watt, a former deputy mayor of Seattle and chief executive of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, was hired as vice president of government and community relations at Boeing Commercial Airplanes shortly after the company uprooted its longtime Seattle headquarters and moved to Chicago.

He’s been the chief dispenser of Boeing’s philantropic largesse to many local non-profits and community organizations. He has also frequently conveyed unpopular corporate messages.

Watt consistently lobbied for measures to make the state more business-friendly, from reducing workers compensation costs to providing massive corporate tax breaks. And he portrayed Boeing’s unrelenting outsourcing as essential in a world of globalized trade.

Balancing the cold steel necessary to deliver such messages, Watt is also a liberal, urbane Seattleite, who seemed an unlikely corporate executive.

“I plead guilty to being somebody with a really big heart,” Watt said in a telephone interview. “It takes somebody with a big heart to stare people in the eyeball and say, ‘Come on, we can do better, and we have to. Let’s do it together.'”

Watt was hired in fall 2001, right after the psychological blow of Boeing’s headquarters move. That was followed by a flood of local Boeing lay-offs that began in 1998 and was accelerated by the aviation downturn following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Boeing continued to lay off workers through the middle of 2004, by which time the company had lost almost half its 1998 workforce — shedding more than 51,000 jobs in Washington state.

In spring 2003, Boeing emptied its store of local goodwill when it announced a competition among U.S. states to decide where to build its next jet, the 787 Dreamliner — with the clear message that Washington risked losing its historic role in airplane building.

It was Watt who first delivered that unpleasant news.

With Boeing beset by boardroom scandals and surpassed by Airbus as the world’s number 1 commercial jetmaker, in the first couple of years of Watt’s tenure the company appeared unwilling to invest in the commercial airplane business.

Throughout those gloomy times, he was a smooth, fluent and calm presence. He offered assurance that Boeing was still committed to the Pacific Northwest and that if the state improve its competitiveness, the company and the region could turn around.

“No question, the first couple of years were very hard — to watch the people of Boeing go through that pain,” Watt said.

At the end of 2003, Watt’s job got a lot easier when Boeing chose to keep assembly of the Dreamliner in Washington. Since then, as 787 sales soared, the company’s fortunes have reversed and it’s been hiring furiously again.

Watt cited Boeing polls showing the change in Boeing’s image:

“After the departure of corporate to Chicago, we fell from a company held in very high esteem to — not so good,” he said, “In the most recent poll (this year), we’re right there again where we’d like to be.”

Watt’s six years at Boeing followed six heading the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and five years as deputy mayor of Seattle under Norm Rice.

Watt also spent five years as president of Family Services of Seattle/King County and 12 years at Youth Eastside Services in Bellevue, where he became executive director.

Though Boeing has not yet named Watt’s replacement, it has already moved to cover one important part of his responsibilities.

Last month, Boeing hired Fred Kiga to lead state and local government relations in the Pacific Northwest, reporting to Watt.

Kiga was chief of staff to then-Governor Gary Locke during the state’s successful 2003 campaign to win assembly of the Dreamliner.

In that role, Kiga was the key behind-the-scenes mover who got the state’s politicians and labor groups lined up to meet Boeing’s outsized expectations.

Watt plans to spend time with his four young grandchildren, work on a book about change within organizations, and to continue his non-profit work on child advocacy.

“I’ve had a great, great six years here,” Watt said. “I’m happily leaving to do some neat things for me and my family.”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com