The Elusive McNerney:some historical perspective

The Wall Street Journal has a long profile on the elusive Jim McNerney, CEO of The Boeing Co., and his role in the 787 crisis. (Subscription required.) The story is detailed. For those of us who follow Boeing like the US follows the Kremlin, McNerney’s elusiveness is nothing new. When McNerney was named CEO, we researched him and found that (according to reports at the time) one reason he got passed over by Jack Welch as CEO of GE was that McNerney didn’t like to do press interviews and he didn’t like to schmooze investors. According to profiles when he was CEO of 3M, he didn’t like to do earnings calls, either. This is pretty clear as we listen to Boeing earnings calls, on which he is scripted, halting, clearly uncomfortable and gives the impress he can’t wait to get off. Reports and our own impressions suggest that if he had his druthers, he’d just stick around the office and let others do the public stuff.

So it doesn’t surprise us that McNerney has been ghostly throughout the 787 crisis. Boeing said it’s restricted as to what it can say during the investigation, but we checked with others and are told Boeing can talk about whatever was said about the airplane prior to the investigation and that restrictions come into play about what happened after the investigation started.

We know from our own conversations that Boeing is worried about the brand of the company and the airplane. The launch of the 787 information update site and the long WSJ article make it clear that Boeing is now trying to protect the brand.

As for McNerney’s ghostly presence to investors and media, aside from his natural tendency to avoid them, we believe Boeing’s legal team is taking a conservative approach to what it can and can’t say. We conclude this not based on anything we know in connection to the 787 crisis, but based on what we know Legal’s approach is to pretty much any public statement on sensitive issues. Media often complains about the timeliness and brevity of responses from Corporate Communications (and general uselessness in many cases). We know that in some of these instances, Legal had to vet the responses and they’ve been watered down into meaningless pap. Based on this long history, we think Legal has a lot to say about what the company can and can’t say–or will or won’t say. We know Corp Com would like to do more.