Bell CEO wants company to become gold standard again


May 24--In a decade, Bell Helicopter has shifted, even lurched, at times from one priority to another, one crisis to another.

John Garrison, the fifth chief executive in nine years, says he wants to change that by setting a clear, focused and balanced long-term direction.

That direction and his mission, Garrison says, are to return Bell to a place of technological and business leadership in an industry where it was once viewed as the gold standard of excellence.

In his first interview since taking over as CEO in August, Garrison said he's "thrilled, honored and humbled" to be running Bell because of the company's "incredible legacy" of building civil and military aircraft that perform "amazing feats."

Garrison is a veteran of seven years leading the industrial businesses of Bell's parent company, Textron Inc. Last week was the first time had been in his office at the company's headquarters for three consecutive days since being sent to Fort Worth.

"It's been a fast and furious seven or eight months," he said. "I've been out talking to our military and commercial customers, really listening to what they need."

Garrison is low-key and earnest, not boiling over with energetic enthusiasm. He is a youthful-looking 50, with sandy hair and just a touch of gray at the temples.

His overarching vision for Bell is simple and direct, he says: one company focused on taking care of its customers. All its customers -- military and commercial.

"The vision starts with the mission, and the mission is one Bell, one team, and the mission is to help our customers be successful," Garrison said. "Getting everybody focused on that mission, one single direction, is what I've been spending a lot of time doing."

Garrison is a rarity in the aerospace industry in that he has no experience with any aviation company.

A 1982 graduate of West Point, Garrison served 10 years of active duty in the Army as an Airborne Ranger and taught in the social sciences department at West Point, where the Army assigns promising officers to broaden their education and intellectual horizons.

After getting a master's degree in business administration from Harvard, Garrison worked in upper management with affiliates of Enron and agricultural equipment manufacturer Case before joining Textron in 2002.

Garrison comes to Bell at what appears to be an opportune moment. For the first time in years its business seems stable and possibly on the verge of sustained growth. Long overshadowed by its high-profit sibling Cessna Aircraft Co., Bell was the star performer last year for Textron, with $304 million in operating profits.

The company's military business, in particular, should be poised to generate profits and cash flow. After three decades, development of the often controversial and problem-plagued V-22 Osprey is largely complete. The challenge now is meeting promised production goals, from 20 planes in 2009 to 28 this year to about 35 a year.

Deliveries of Marine H-1 helicopters, another long-troubled and delayed program, are slated to double. Wear and tear on military helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to generate high demand for profitable spare parts.

The military "side of the business is in good shape," Garrison said. "There's been a lot of hard work done over the years to get to where we are today. And there's more to do."

The commercial side of the business, which two years ago couldn't meet demand for new aircraft, has been hit hard by the economic downturn. But the first essentially all-new Bell helicopter in 30 years, the model 429, was certified last year by U.S. and foreign aviation regulatory bodies, and deliveries to customers have begun.

After decades of minimal reinvestment in the company, Textron and Bell spent considerable sums in recent years upgrading tooling and manufacturing.

Garrison said he has a four-pronged strategy for Bell:

Retain and enhance the balance among the military, commercial and service-parts sides. "We're going to make investments in all three elements of those businesses."

Make Bell's products and services more attractive by offering different capabilities from competitors'. "We're not a me-too company."

Continue to be more responsive to its customers and become more cost-competitive. "Our ability to be globally cost-competitive will ultimately determine our success, and I'm confident we can be successful."

Drive "an execution culture" at Bell. "That's a culture where you meet your commitments to your customer. You do what you say you're going to do."

What Garrison doesn't do is provide details. One issue that Bell customers, the aviation industry as a whole and even Wall Street would like to hear more about is plans for more new commercial helicopters to address the company's aging product line and continuing loss of market share to Eurocopter.

Bell will remain competitive and will invest in new products, Garrison said, but will talk about them when it's ready. "Rest assured, we're listening to the customers as we develop those products going forward."

Garrison said Bell is investing more in new technology development at its Arlington Xworkx facility and upgrading its engineering and design systems to give its engineers modern design, analysis and testing tools.

"We'll be looking over the horizon for kind of what's next in vertical lift, tilt-rotor and rotary wing" aircraft technology, he said.

Asked about plans for the once highly touted but long-postponed BA609 civil tilt-rotor aircraft, more than a decade in development, Garrison offered no endorsement and said Bell is "continuing to work with our Italian partner," AgustaWestland, on a plan for further development.

AgustaWestland officials have indicated that they are negotiating how to take over the program and what role Bell would have, given its and the U.S. government's investment in tilt-rotor technology.

Garrison said he understands that "Bell is a big part" of the Fort Worth and Tarrant County community and that the company and its employees will continue to play a major role in community activities and charitable institutions.

BOB COX, 817-390-7723