Travis Sullivan brings public sector, commercial business, academic and government contracting experience to his role as vice president of strategy and business capture for Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
Sullivan spent six years in Boeing’s commercial operations when he joined the company and is a former Commerce Department policy and strategic planning director who has also advised Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and worked in the White House and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
He recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz about how his professional trajectory informs his approach to his current position, his priorities in a tough budget environment, and Boeing’s emphasis on tapping international markets and investing in research and development.
Travis Sullivan: I would say they fall into three buckets. The first and perhaps most obvious is the market environment. Here in the defense industry, so much of our focus is on our customers, their planning and their resourcing to support their planning going forward.
Given the budget environment and the challenges that our customers are facing in planning within that budget environment, a lot of our time has been spent trying to anticipate what our future defense environment is going to look like.
Getting our hands around that and understanding what we can anticipate for our future investments and our future strategic decisions has been a big piece of what we’ve been focusing on over the last year.
The second piece is understanding the industry environment associated with that. We’re clearly in the midst of an industry downturn and if you look historically, the industry has reacted in many different ways.
In some cases, that has led to consolidation. In other cases, it has completely changed the composition of key players – with established players exiting and new players emerging.
So, a lot of our time has been spent focusing on anticipating what the implications of this market environment shift will mean for the industry and creating strategies and plans that position Boeing for success.
The third piece of it is really looking internationally. A big differentiator for Boeing is our enterprise global presence. When you put the defense sector and the commercial sector together, Boeing really is one of the world leaders, in terms of its international focus, from a standpoint of aerospace and defense.
A lot of our focus has been how to translate that differentiator into sustained advantage over the long term.
Every market is unique. It is a mistake to adhere to a strict dichotomy between domestic and international. In fact, the breakdown is U.S. defense market, on the one hand, and then several unique and distinct international markets that exist outside the United States.
Every market has its own character, and specific needs. We seek to provide solutions for those needs in tailored ways.
That requires understanding where that customer is, the resources they have to procure, the solutions that they need, and monitoring how those needs change and the expectations associated with the resources they’ll have to procure those solutions.
To be sure, it is complex – but it is the market reality and I believe Boeing is well positioned to continue its success as a leader both domestically and across the world.
ExecutiveBiz: Tell us about your background and how you draw upon it for your current role.
Travis Sullivan: Prior to joining Boeing first in the commercial business and now in the defense role, I spent time in academia and also time in government — beginning as an unpaid intern here in Washington D.C. working for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
I transitioned from there up to Capitol Hill and spent four years working for a Senator from Washington State, Maria Cantwell, serving as her trade and foreign policy advisor.
Altogether, I spent about seven years in the government – and then returned later to join the Obama Administration for two years working as the head of policy and strategic planning at the U.S. Commerce Department for Secretary Gary Locke.
That’s given me a really interesting perspective of the U.S. Government, how it works, and how it engages with the rest of the world, from the standpoint of the politics, the policies, and the process. All of those are very important elements in driving government decision making.
This government background has been particularly here in the defense part of the business, where we look to understand the challenges our customers are facing, the priorities our customers want to pursue, and work to have a balanced understanding of how policy, politics and process affect our customers’ choices and decisions.
I would add that spending my first six years at Boeing in the commercial division gave me a particularly valuable perspective on how to leverage the breadth of this company in support of our defense customers in the US and around the world.
So, ultimately, I think this combination of commercial and government experience that has been a helpful background in this current job.
ExecutiveBiz: How do you work to further build up collaboration between Boeing and your customers?
Travis Sullivan: Part of that comes down to just driving a real understanding of the challenges and priorities of our customers. At Boeing, our customers are our priority and building our understanding of what those customers’ needs are and how we can best deliver them is a key piece of my job.
Some of that requires stepping back and understanding the environment they face from a perspective of the national security risks that they’re trying to address and the resources that they have at their disposal to address those risks.
A big part of my job is working with the Boeing Defense team to get a better understanding of where that customer is, what it needs, and how we’re positioned to best serve those needs.
It’s also about understanding where this environment is going and what the customers’ needs are going so we can invest in and develop the solutions that best serve their needs. From an organic standpoint, those include investments guided through our strategic planning process to drive purposeful R&D spend across our portfolio.
Our published R&D numbers are over a billion dollars a year and our CEO has been very clear that, even in a downturn, we’re looking to hold and even grow that R&D investment.
A big piece of my job is help ensure that we’re making those organic investments in ways that are best positioned to serve our customers’ needs.
The other part of the job is to look at investments from an inorganic standpoint. Those are areas where we decide the best way to achieve capability and meet capability gaps is through merger, acquisition and partnership activity.
We help the organization understand what’s out there in the industry environment, which companies might be best targets for acquisition or merger opportunities, and bring those two pieces of our investment tool kit together to drive the right investments to serve our customers’ needs in the long term.
ExecutiveBiz: What differences have you found between your time incommercial airplane operations and your time now in Defense?
Travis Sullivan: One of the first clear differences is the marketplace. When you look at commercial airplanes, a lot of our market is driven by economics and GDP.
We do a current market outlook every year that anticipates the next 20 years of air travel demand and a lot of that is driven by looking at GDP trends, international trade flows, and other structural economic considerations that go into driving what that market is going to be doing.
There’s been a fairly consistent correlation between economic growth and international trade flows and what you see in terms of air travel demand. So, it’s been a pretty straightforward process of understanding the future market environment.
Defense is quite a bit different. As we look over the last year, there was clearly a lot more volatility, in terms of your marketplace, given things like budgets, politics, fiscal constraints, and other challenges that we’ve seen.
They’ve really lead to some ups and downs in the market environment that are a bit different from commercial and less tied to some of those long‑term structural economic effects. Bottom line, you get a little more market uncertainty, and I think we’re in the midst of it going forward on the year‑to‑year basis.
Another piece of it is product portfolio. On the commercial side, we’re driven by large commercial aircraft. You have big planes and about five versions of them. We spend a lot of time on that and then the services that go along with them.
When you come over to the defense side, you get tremendously more diversity in our product portfolio. You look at what Boeing defense does, and it’s everything from satellites and cybersecurity to helicopters and large transport aircraft.
Figuring out how you serve the customer, govern that breadth of product diversity, and how you target your investments is a bit more of a diverse challenge then you’ll face on the commercial side of our business.
The last piece is really the competitive environment. On the commercial side, the major source of competition in the airplane product segment is Airbus. So, you have one major competitor with some minor competitors emerging into the future. It’s a very different environment when we’re playing against one major competitor.
When you’re on the defense side, it’s clearly a more complex competitive environment in every single segment that we face. You face not only a combination of some of the defense primes that you consistently see across our portfolio, but particularly when you get into some of the space network communications elements of our business, a lot of niche competitors come in and create a more dynamic and diverse competitive environment.