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Boeing promotes services chief to COO in prelude to top job

SEATTLE (BLOOMBERG) – Boeing Co named Stephanie Pope as chief operating officer, vaulting the company veteran into the No 2 role at the US aircraft manufacturer and turning her into the top contender to succeed Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun.

Pope, who has worked at Boeing for almost three decades, previously oversaw the company’s Global Services division, a post she assumed early last year. Prior to that, she was chief financial officer for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

As head of operations, a new position that Boeing is reviving, Pope will oversee the performance of the three business units with responsibility for driving supply chain, quality, manufacturing and engineering excellence, the company said Monday in a statement. Boeing hasn’t had a formal COO since former leader Dennis Muilenburg was being groomed to take over as CEO last decade.

Management movements are closely watched at the biggest US exporter as Boeing’s 67-year-old CEO approaches his retirement. Calhoun, who was named to replace Muilenburg in late 2019, has led Boeing through the tumultuous grounding of its mainstay 737 Max model and the global pandemic that followed, disabling air traffic and disrupting supply lines.

Pope would be the first woman to run Boeing, which also has a major defence subsidiary. The business she oversees, which ranges from airline analytical tools to passenger-to-cargo jet conversions, was the only one of Boeing’s three main subsidiaries to report a profit in the third quarter, while Defence & Space and Commercial Airplanes had losses.

“Next year will be a significant transitional year in our performance as we continue to restore our operational and financial strength,” Calhoun said in the release.

Boeing shares advanced 0.9 per cent as of 12.34pm in New York. They have returned about 30 per cent this year, putting the stock on track for its best annual performance since 2017. European rival Airbus SE has risen by a similar amount in 2023.

Pope’s surprise ascension to the number two role at Boeing squelches speculation that the aerospace manufacturer might turn to another outsider as an eventual successor to Calhoun, like Carrier Global Corp CEO David Gitlin or Pat Shanahan, the new chief at Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc.

Brian West, Boeing’s chief financial officer; Stan Deal, who oversees the commercial aircraft business, and defence chief Ted Colbert had also been viewed as possible contenders for the CEO role.

Pope has held senior finance positions at all three of Boeing’s main businesses. Before taking the top job at Global Services, she was a lieutenant to Deal there and at the commercial unit. She also headed investor relations a decade ago, giving her insight into Wall Street’s dealings.

Like Calhoun, Pope holds a degree in accounting along with an MBA. Rooted in analytics, she got her start as a financial analyst with Boeing’s defence division. Should she eventually takes over the CEO role, Pope would break with Boeing’s tradition of finding internal candidates from the ranks of engineering leaders who have led large programs.

Boeing still faces complex financial problems stemming from its halting recovery from the 737 Max grounding and the coronavirus pandemic. The company hasn’t generated an annual profit since 2019, and faces a staggering USD52 billion debt load. Once the planemaker is on firmer footing, its leaders will face one of the most consequential decisions in decades: how to transition to a new generation of narrowbody airplanes to replace the cash-cow 737 family.

“This is a company that badly needs a knowledge of engineering and program management that they haven’t had in many years,” said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia, a managing director with AeroDynamics Advisory.

Other priorities include restoring Boeing’s business in China, where deliveries of the 737 MAX are still halted; ramping up production after several years of slow output; and beefing up Boeing’s sustainability credentials as the aviation industry tries to lower its carbon emissions output and introduce cleaner aircraft toward the middle of the next decade.

Pope will start in her new job at the beginning of 2024, reporting to Calhoun. Her successor at the services unit will be named later, Boeing said.