In his second stint at Boeing, Harry Stonecipher vowed he would lead with a "soft touch. " The tough-talking executive, admired by Wall...

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In his second stint at Boeing, Harry Stonecipher vowed he would lead with a “soft touch.” The tough-talking executive, admired by Wall Street and loathed by workers, was supposed to clean up the ethics scandals, boost morale and decisively put the company back on track.

Many veteran Boeing workers were suspicious when the “bad cop” was lured away in December 2003 from a brief retirement of Florida golf to replace ousted Chief Executive Phil Condit.

To the workers, Stonecipher made his everlasting mark as the mastermind of a cultural transformation in 1997, when he arrived as the No. 2 executive through the merger with McDonnell Douglas.

He made a forceful, threatening first impression. In 1998, during anxiety over airplane-production snafus, he told The Seattle Times that Boeing needed to quit behaving like a “family” and become more like a “team.” It meant that under his watch, “you don’t stay on the team” if you don’t perform.

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Harry Stonecipher’s career arc

March 2005
— Ousted as CEO by Boeing board for an affair with a woman company executive.

Dec. 2003 —
Brought out of retirement to become Boeing CEO after Phil Condit was ousted during ethics scandal.

June 2002
— Retired from Boeing as vice chairman of the board.

May 2001
— Stepped down as Boeing president and chief operating officer, remained as vice chairman.

1997 —
Joined Boeing as No. 2 executive through the merger with McDonnell Douglas.

— Joined McDonnell Douglas as president and chief executive.

— Promoted to president and chief executive of Sundstrand.

1987 —
Joined Sundstrand, a Rockford, Ill.-based aerospace defense contractor.

— Promoted to head of GE aircraft engines.

— Promoted to vice president and GM of the division’s commercial- and military-transport operations.

— Joined General Electric as an engineer in aircraft-engine operations.

— Graduated with bachelor’s degree in physics from Tennessee Technological University.

1936 —
Born May 16, in Scott County, Tenn.

Sources: Boeing, SEC filings, The Associated Press

But in Stonecipher’s return as chief executive, the public comments were less confrontational, and he accomplished much of what was expected of him.

Ethics damage was controlled, a new jet program was launched, airplane production emerged from the post-Sept. 11 funk, hiring increased and profits flowed. The stock is near a 52-week high.

Stonecipher made some efforts to patch up relations with unions, weary from layoffs. When he took the top job, he said, “We don’t have anything in the company running better than Commercial Airplanes. The work that’s been done in this downturn is absolutely heartwarming and inspiring.”

Still, after 15 months, union leaders had few warm words for Stonecipher.

Machinists union spokeswoman Connie Kelliher said simply, “We’ll work with whoever is in there” on negotiating a labor contract that’s due to expire Sept. 1.

Jennifer MacKay, president of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), said in a statement, “It’s time for the right change. Employees have had enough turmoil from Boeing’s leadership.”

MacKay said she appreciated Stonecipher’s straightforward style during a face-to-face meeting at the Commercial Airplanes headquarters in Renton last March. The union won a promise from Stonecipher that he would support merit bonuses for union workers in Wichita, she said.

Within a year, the bonuses were etched into a contract, and SPEEA was grateful.

But at the same meeting, MacKay said, she told Stonecipher she considered him and his former McDonnell Douglas protégés responsible for most of Boeing’s ethical troubles, such as the theft of documents from Lockheed and the Air Force 767 tanker-purchasing scandal.

Stonecipher’s blunt response, MacKay said, was, “You need to better educate yourself.” His explanation at the time, which she didn’t accept, was that other Boeing executives had already set those plans in motion.

MacKay said she is hopeful Boeing can move past the scandals, to focus more on the future of building airplanes.

“We want to get back to work and quit being pulled into meetings about ethics,” MacKay said. “We get it. We don’t have the problem; it’s in senior management. We want to get back to making fantastic airplanes.”


A striking member of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace changes the sign on a portable toilet outside Boeing corporate headquarters during the union’s strike in 2000.

Charles Bofferding, SPEEA executive director, said some of Stonecipher’s ethics lessons were met with mixed reviews, like a much-publicized move to make all 158,000 employees sign a company code of conduct.

For instance, Bofferding said the company created new ID badges with the letter “N” to mark new employees of less than five years, and “G” to signify former government employees. The idea was to alert employees to their colleagues’ backgrounds so as to avoid potential ethical problems, but Bofferding said he was unsure how much difference it made.

Still, Bofferding said the company has positive momentum, and that he hopes an ethical CEO can be installed quickly to keep it going.

“Boeing employees are an ethical group of people. We want to look forward and go to work,” he said.

Stonecipher, the son of a Tennessee coal miner, spent 27 years working his way up at General Electric under Jack Welch. He developed an appreciation for competition and driving hard for profits. Later on, as chief executive of Sundstrand, a Rockford, Ill.-based defense contractor, he took credit for cleaning up the company’s reputation after it was accused of defrauding the government.

As chief of McDonnell Douglas, he primed it for acquisition by cutting jobs and slashing less-competitive lines of business. In more than three years at the helm, the company ultimately struggled to control costs of a stealth-bomber program and lost out on its bid for the Joint Strike Fighter contract. It merged with Boeing in 1997 in a $15 billion deal.

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or