With little attention and few accolades, Patrick Shanahan has quietly turned around some of Boeing Co.'s most-troubled and complex programs.
His last rescue was a multibillion-dollar missile defense system that couldn’t shoot straight.
Known inside Boeing as “Mr. Fix-It,” Shanahan is now facing his most daunting challenge -- under glaring public spotlight no less -- as he attempts to get the development of the highly touted 787 Dreamliner passenger jet back on track.
The stakes are huge, not only for Chicago-based Boeing, which has already taken orders for nearly 860 Dreamliners valued at more than $110 billion, but also for Shanahan. If successful, he could become a front-runner for the top spot at the world’s largest aerospace company.
“He’s got quite a mess to clean up,” said Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant in Issaquah, Wash. “He has an enormous task ahead of him, but if he can do it, he’ll certainly earn more than brownie points.”
Shanahan, 45, is not a high-profile or celebrated newsmaker in Seattle or in the aerospace community. A career engineer at Boeing (except for two years at MIT), he is said to be just as comfortable donning work overalls as he is wearing pinstriped suits, seamlessly moving between the factory floor and the company’s mahogany-paneled boardroom.
Since taking the helm of the 787 program, Shanahan has declined media interviews so that he can focus instead on solving the problem at hand, Boeing executives said.
“Pat is working with the team to get our first Dreamliner in the air and the 787 production system up and running,” Yvonne Leach, spokeswoman for the 787 program, said in response to a Times interview request.
The plane, designed to be highly fuel-efficient, is nine months behind schedule because of problems coordinating work done by major parts suppliers all over the world. This work used to be done by Boeing in the Washington area.
One of Shanahan’s few public comments came last month in a teleconference call with industry analysts.
“If there is anything we’ve learned over this past three months, it’s that we underestimated how long it would take to complete someone else’s work,” he said.
It was a frank and simple characterization of a complex problem, something that Shanahan has had a knack for doing throughout his 22-year career at Boeing.
“He reads things very quickly and can make decisions just as quickly,” said longtime acquaintance Ricki Ellison, a former USC and NFL football player who now heads the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance lobby group in Washington. “He’s also straight to the point. There is no BS.”
Last fall, production snags led Boeing to oust Mike Blair, who had spearheaded the Dreamliner program from its conception to development.
With Shanahan, Boeing said it was putting in place an executive with experience in running “technically demanding and complex programs.”
Indeed. His resume could easily be mistaken for Boeing’s clean-up list.
Before the 787 program, Shanahan ran Boeing’s missile defense systems business, where he helped fix technical glitches that had led to failures of two high-profile missile defense tests.
His job involved managing and overseeing myriad defense contractors, where software and technical glitches can easily be overlooked, much the way the 787 program has been mired in problems with components supplied from subcontractors.
“Clearly, they really have to execute and get the supply chain under control,” said Cai von Rumohr, managing director for SG Cowen & Co. and a longtime aerospace analyst.
In addition to missile defense, Shanahan led the restructuring of Boeing’s military helicopter business, including getting V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft flying again after numerous setbacks.
With his experience managing highly sophisticated programs, analysts welcomed Shanahan’s appointment last fall, saying that the 787 program needed a person with “devil in the detail strengths.”
But the honeymoon was short. Last month, just 90 days into his new job, Shanahan and his boss, Scott Carson, head of the commercial aircraft business, held a somber teleconference with analysts to disclose yet another delay -- this time pushing back delivery of the first planes three months to early 2009.
“I know our credibility is also being tested on this program, and it is up to us to deliver on what we say we will do,” Carson said, adding, “I have great confidence in Pat and his team.”
Shanahan began his career at Boeing in 1986 as an engineer shortly after graduating from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
He quickly rose through the ranks and held diverse management jobs, including heading the automation of the factory floor for commercial aircraft manufacturing, before becoming the general manager for aircraft tooling.
In the late 1980s, he took a break from Boeing to earn two master’s degrees simultaneously, one in mechanical engineering and another in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Shanahan returned to Boeing and became director of final assembly for the 767 passenger jet before switching to the defense side of the business to work on military programs.
In a Seattle Times article last fall, a machinist described how Shanahan helped him solve a problem at an aircraft fabrication plant in Auburn, Wash., by walking him around the floor, introducing him to others who could help him.
“He tried to make everybody a partner,” the machinist told the newspaper. “He was a heck of a leader.”
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Who: Patrick Shanahan
Job: General manager,
787 Dreamliner program
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington; master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Residence: McLean, Va.; commutes to Seattle
Family: Married, with three children
Bedside reading: Digital photography magazines
Childhood idol: NFL quarterback Ken “The Snake” Stabler
Diet: Ample caffeine, vending machine food and Gummi Bears