Ground Clutter

I feel so important (but first, a little background music). Airbus gets a lot of media play these days with the A380, the aircraft that makes the 747 look like an ultralight. I particularly enjoy the television coverage just because it strongly features John Leahy, Airbus chief commercial officer. That gives me the chance to mention - casually - to everyone in the room, "I know John. Known him for years."

It's true. Leahy taught classes for us Piper sales types in the 1970s and early 1980s, and even engaged me as a speaker once. It is not exactly true that John calls me for advice these days, although I imply that he does.

Leahy was a good teacher. He bobbed and weaved like a prizefighter as he explained the intricacies of aircraft finance, seven-year cash flow projections, spread sheets, and net present value cost - right sophisticated stuff. In college he had toiled as a flight instructor and flown night freight in Aztecs, so he also knew the gritty side of the business. We learned a lot from Leahy.

When Leahy left Piper, times were tough in aviation, and I called to ask about his plans. I remember his answer well. He said that a lot was happening in aviation in Europe and he was going to check it out. I remember thinking the boy was going to do well, but I never dreamed he would one day be a major player for an international company. Shows what I knew. (I made the same mistake about Pete Correll, one of my high school classmates. I figured Pete would do pretty well; he ended up chairman and CEO of Georgia-Pacific. Makes more money in a year than I will make in my lifetime.)

I wanted to write about the A380, and I got to wondering if I could get Leahy on the phone now that he is - in all honesty and with no tongue in cheek - an international business big shot. I decided to try.

That week I was speaking at Aviation Industry Week in Vegas and to Women in Aviation in Dallas. Leahy was jet-setting back and forth between California and France. He was on the ground when I was in the air, and vice versa; the split in time zones didn't help. After four days of international telephone tag, Mary Anne Greczyn of Airbus's PR department actually got us together on the phone.

I asked John if the things he taught us in the 1970s were useful for selling jumbo jets internationally. "Ralph," he said, "you'll be proud to know that we use every bit of that. The big difference is that airliners are income producers and must make a profit." He still sells features and benefits, but the bottom line provides the biggest benefit. (I remembered that from selling crop dusters in Mississippi, but that doesn't sound half as sophisticated.)

Interesting. What John taught us more than two decades ago he uses today to sell the ultimate big-ticket item. Tell the truth, that class also helped me with everything I've sold since.

Lesson learned.