Executive Spotlight: Boeing’s Gail Dobberthien on Customer Interaction, Employee Relations

Gail Dobberthien

(Editor’s note: this interview was conducted prior to Dobberthien’s appointment to head finance in Boeing’s commercial aviation services business.)

As vice president and chief financial officer for Boeing’s network and space systems business, Gail Dobberthien was responsible for all finance-related activities for the business’ seven divisions.

She was previously part of the company’s 787 Dreamliner leadership team and held fiduciary responsibility including finance, estimating and cost management.

The nearly three-decade company veteran caught up with ExecutiveBiz and discussed how she applied her 787 experience in the defense sector, offerings of the company’s network and space systems portfolio and where she is going next.

ExecutiveBiz: What skills and experiences from working in the commercial sector do you apply most often to your work in the defense sector?

Dobberthien: I came off of working eight years on the 787 as the CFO, so truly, my experience on the commercial side in dealing with the commercial transaction to airlines, has been key as I bring that back into the defense environment as we’re starting to go into more commercial business. With federal customers, the common way you contract or propose with them is they’ll give you a request for proposal, you’ll respond to each one of the elements, and you’ll develop a cost basis for them to analyze.

On the commercial side, it’s market-based affordability. Customers are interested in seeing the product, your terms and conditions and the final price. As we’re starting to go into the commercial environment, we have to streamline our processes to be affordable in that marketplace.

We need to be able to provide a standard product, standard terms and conditions and have consistency in that product; we need to understand the market price and develop a product that fits within that market price so in turn, we provide the customer what they need and bring a return to our investors. This concept is changing our contracting, our pricing and our whole business approach.

(Grant Thornton‘s Lou Crenshaw discussed his experiences in both the commercial and public sector businesses at the firm, click here to read his full comments in his executive spotlight).

ExecutiveBiz: How do Boeing’s recent acquisitions of Potomac region-based companies factor into the company’s growth strategy?

Dobberthien: They have factored into our growth strategy and helped us provide greater depth of content to our customers. So, for example, in our Information Solutions business, we acquired Reston, Va.-based SMSi last year. It’s an information service provider for the U.S. government in the intelligence community. Argon ST, based in Fairfax, Va., joined us two years ago and has provided greater depth in C4ISR content as well as key insights into their legacy customers, like the U.S. Navy.

(Click here for more on SMSi joining Boeing)

ExecutiveBiz: Describe the variety of the company’s network and space systems portfolio and how you stay ahead of the technologies?

Dobberthien: It’s interesting because coming off the 787 program, which was the game changer for industry, and you listen to our investor’s calls, it’s all about the 787 and a very challenging job. Here, instead of one program to focus on, N&SS has multiple priorities — we’re headquartered here in the Potomac region, but N&SS is a team of 17,000 people in 40 states and nine countries and we have a variety of customers.

Our customers and programs all have different needs, different challenges. We deal with anything that ranges from the missile defense business, which is primarily located down in Huntsville, to space exploration work in Houston and Florida, our satellite business out in California and tactical aircraft in Aberdeen. We also work with information systems, intelligence and security solutions, homeland security, electronics and mission systems, and the acquisitions I spoke of earlier.

I do not stay in my office. I go out to the sites, and it’s just incredible.  As a finance person, you can either stay put and look at your numbers, or you can actually go out into our employee groups and sites to see where the work is getting done. I’ve visited our satellite team and said “Show me the satellites you’re building in our factory.” They beam and they are so proud of what they do. I can go visit Argon, and say “Show me your products.  Show me what you do,” and they’ll take you out and show you with such pride. That’s how I stay connected with the business.

I go meet the people and meet the products. So, when I’m looking at a number, and we have some increased cash, for example, I know it’s coming from where because we just had a sale and I know what that product is because I’ve seen and worked with that team. Or, if we have an issue, I can better understand technically the issue and how we’re working through it and how finance can help. You have to get to know the products and the people and relate it back into the financials.

ExecutiveBiz: Talk a little about how you work with your team.

Dobberthien: Not only are we looking at being able to engage and disseminate information, we’re looking at our employee engagement. Employee engagement to us means that employees are involved in our solutions. They’re involved in creating great products and we’re listening to our employees. When we have issues that we need to solve, or we come up with a solution our customer needs, our employees are a key part of those actions, and I think that’s how we attract talent.

Here in the Potomac region, there are many interesting aspects of our business and we know that it’s difficult to get talent because there are so many different industry and government options. We want to be the place that talented potential employees say, “I want to go there.” Our focus on employee engagement – providing growth opportunities, challenging projects, the chance to innovate and putting the solution in their hands – is what we feel makes our business appealing and keeps talented employees with us.

ExecutiveBiz: Tell us a little about your new job.

Dobberthien: Thanks to all the great experience I have received with N&SS, I have been asked to accept another challenging assignment. I am joining Boeing’s commercial airplane team as VP and CFO for commercial aviation services. For my first week on the job, we have scheduled a working together session between N&SS and CAS to explore synergy opportunities.

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