VIP Profile: Tom Gentile

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KACY MEINECKE

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KACY MEINECKE

By 5:30 a.m., Spirit AeroSystems new CEO is usually in the company’s South Oliver office in Wichita.
    “It’s a plant,” said Tom Gentile. “Everyone is here at 5:30 a.m.” 
    Getting in that early means he can make a visit to the plant floor and employees, which he tries to do once a week, and participate in real-time meetings with managers in Spirit’s international locations. 
    Gentile (pronounced gen-tee-lee) became Spirit’s CEO in August, just four months after he joined the company as its chief operating officer. The aerospace supplier employs 15,000 workers, with more than two-thirds being in Wichita.
    Almost every week, he spends a few days traveling. Recent trips, for example, included New York City for an investor conference, Washington, D.C., for defense meetings, Israel for board meetings of a health care company and Prestwick, Scotland, to talk to locals about Spirit’s new operations there.
    On this particular morning, he showed a visitor one of the latest products the company is helping make possible: four commemorative photos related to Doc, the World War II-era B-29 bomber undergoing renovations in Wichita, that are printed on window cutouts from the Boeing 737 fuselage Spirit builds. Sales of the $150 cutouts – marketed as being made in the same hangar that produced Doc – are helping raise money for Doc’s permanent display hangar (go to b-29doc.com). He likes sharing that piece of history.
    Roots seem important to Gentile. A native of Detroit whose career has taken him to England, Australia, France and the East Coast, he is still a fan of any professional sports team from the Motor City. He knows Wichita State is the hometown college favorite, but when it comes to university teams, he cheers for the Michigan Wolverines, even though his alma mater is Harvard. Well, Harvard isn’t exactly known for its athletic teams.
    What it is known for is attracting people who often become leaders, like Gentile. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1986 and later earned an MBA from Harvard. He’s also studied international relations at the London School of Economics – another school not known for its athletics, but Gentile did play on the school’s basketball team while he was there. His teammate was New York Times bestselling author Michael Lewis. (He wrote the 2006 book “The Blind Side.”) Gentile recently finished reading Lewis’ book “The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds.” 
    Every summer, his family goes back to Northern Michigan for extended family gatherings. “It’s the cherry capital of the world,” he boasted. He points out the area is becoming a great wine region and that Traverse, Michigan, sits on very same 45th parallel as Bordeaux, France. Even the dogs come along. The preferred breed among Gentile’s extended family seems to be black Labrador retrievers. It was the breed he grew up with, he said.
    “Labs are friendly, good with kids, love to fetch,” he said. “Great dogs.” He and his family own two: 4-year-old Gus and 4-month-old Gino who still has play dates with his litter mate in Westport, Connecticut. Gino will have to give those up when he, Gus, Gentile’s wife, Julie, and the couple’s two children – Stephanie, 14, and Charlie, 9, who are finishing up the school year there – move in the next few months to the Gentiles’ newly built Wichita home. Oldest daughter Caroline is in her senior year at Harvard, with plans to go to its medical school. 
    It’s the 10th move in 25 years for the family, Gentile said. For the 18 years before he joined Spirit, Gentile held executive positions with GE’s aviation, healthcare and finance divisions. 
    As the former CEO of GE Aviation Systems, he’d gotten to know the aviation supply chain industry and Boeing management. GE supplies the engines for all Boeing aircraft. 
    As he was in his last position with GE, downsizing its Capital Services division in the less-profitable aftermath of the U.S. financial crisis, Gentile started wondering about his next career move.
    At about the same time, the aviation industry was picking up. 
    “The whole industry went through an unprecedented ordering of these new generation aircraft (that are lighter and more fuel efficient),” he recounted. “The backlog today stands at 12,600 aircraft between Boeing and Airbus and that’s worth $1.8 trillion. It represents about eight years of production. I started thinking that the best place to be in any industry in the world would be in aviation to deliver on those orders.” Spirit is a supplier to both plane manufacturers.
    He talked with Paul Fulchino, a Boeing executive he knew who was on Spirit’s board. Introductions were made, and in April, Gentile joined the company after retiring early from GE and started learning more about Spirit from its then-CEO Larry Lawson.
    He discovered the company has always been good at customer focus, delivery, quality and safety.
    “Those are part of the Spirit DNA. But for us to get to the next level, we started talking about what other values do we need to build and strengthen.” It’s come down to collaboration, including networking within and helping people understand direction the company is headed; transparency in sharing information and raising challenges in respectful, constructive ways; and being inspirational by being inclusive, diverse and innovative.
    Since identifying those concepts, he’s now trying to change behavior, he said. For example, Gentile has set up quarterly senior leadership council meetings with the company’s 40 vice presidents globally. The company had what will become an annual kickoff event in January with 150 of its executives in Wichita. To do better with communications, the company uses virtual reality technology, called telepresence, for meetings among its locations, and Gentile writes a weekly blog for employees.
    And then there are those 5:30 a.m. plant floor visits.

                                                          About Spirit AeroSystems
Spirit AeroSystems considers itself a young company with a long history. 
    It traces its aviation lineage back to 1927, when Lloyd Stearman relocated his aircraft company from California to Wichita. Two years later, it was purchased by the company that would become Boeing. Spirit was created in 2006, when Boeing sold off its Wichita and Oklahoma plants. 
    It is a supplier for building both Boeing and Airbus aircraft. About 70 percent of Boeing’s 737 airplane is built in Wichita. At any one time, about 72 of the eventual 737s are under assembly in the Wichita plant. About 42 737 fuselages are delivered a month currently. By summer 2017, that number will increase to 47 and eventually it will increase to 57.
    Beside Wichita, Spirit operates sites in Tulsa and McAlester, Oklahoma; Kinston, North Carolina; Subang, Malaysia; Prestwick, Scotland; and Saint-Nazaire, France.