Alumnus Bud Mitchell offers insights on the past, present, and future
Q: How did you become interested in aeronautical engineering and what inspired you to pursue a career in the field?
A: I was fortunate to have a father who recognized the importance of education and his dream was to have me go to Purdue and become a chemical engineer. I knew this from five years of age. I almost got the dream right, but I had a psyche that was driven by the aviation of WWII. My little boy collection of models that I either bought or made reflected everything that flew: hellcat, mustang, and of course the Mitchell bomber. While in school, Sputnik flew and changed the vision of our country and added stimulus for me. I changed my major at Purdue to aeronautical engineering and never regretted the move.
Q: How has the industry changed since you first entered the field? Do you see these as positives or negatives?
A: Change came to every corner of the business from the computational capability, computer aided design, new materials, new electronics, etc., to management concepts and organizational attributes. I remember when the Monroe salesman in the early ’60s loaned me a four-function calculator. I had a good friend come over and we both marveled at what it could do. Can you imagine designing heat shields or doing re-entry trajectories for Mercury and Gemini with that primitive capability? It was done. The entire new tech had positive dramatic influence on the business and industry. The people in the ranks still have the same drive for the best solution that they have always had. Having lived abroad and viewed the work force from a distance constantly assured me that we are the best in the whole world.
When I started my career, I was inspired almost daily by the founder and visionary of the McDonnell Aircraft Company, J. S. McDonnell. People like this are not very abundant and the focus on the bottom line has been a breeding ground for compromise of loyalty, integrity, ethics, and the best solutions. J.S. McDonnell boasted that his salary was the average of 10 floor sweepers. That is probably a good benchmark for today as well but the boards have allowed executive salaries to go out of control. The seeds of this became rooted in the early ’90s and accelerated with pay for performance being very shortsighted.
Q: As a veteran of nearly a half century in the industry, what is your assessment of the current economic climate?
A: It’s very unhealthy for all industries because of the wide swath misfortune has encompassed. When poor judgment is used in a vital economic business like housing, the ripple effect we have witnessed is a sure thing. My end of the business, military, will not be impacted to a great degree. The military buys based upon requirement, and as long as our government recognizes its primary role, to defend the people, the necessary purchases will be made. When times are tough however, weak programs with overruns and immature technology are likely to get the axe. This is probably just. What worries me is that tough times also focus on the procurement mechanisms and with severe criticism of cost plus contracts. Let me be very clear on this. Cost plus has a place when the requirement exists for a capability, but the technology is risk laden. The media usually gets the story wrong and the industry for many good reasons elects not to fight the battles. Who can forget the $20,000 toilet seat?
For any company, to bet the store with shareholders’ money would be inexcusable. The general public does not appreciate how dedicated and hard our engineers and scientists work at pay rates that are dwarfed by Wall Streeters. My view is that if you need it, then you should be prepared to get it. The commercial side of the story is quite different. They are directly affected by the general health of the airline business and the impact the economy has on their purchases. They are also need driven, but theirs can often tolerate a slip in time, and we witness the delays and/or cancellations of orders. These, of course, are painful because production delays usually drive layoffs, and layoffs drive learning curves that hurt production costs. The same effects impact recovery and parts availability that since day one have been a problem for the aircraft industry.
Q: What types of innovations do you predict will help keep the aeronautical engineering industry afloat during such economic downturns?
A: I don’t think it’s a case of innovation, but more a case of application of sound business principles and best practices. Number one, stay close to your customers, understand their difficulties, know how you can be of the most help, and recognize margins may have to slip for a better tomorrow. Anyone can lay off people to live to budget. The exceptional manager will exhaust all avenues before letting go of the most valuable assets, people. The companies that emerge from a downturn with little damage are those that anticipated the economic turn and put the appropriate measures in place. Too many companies go through the motions of planning looking at economic forecasts in executive filled rooms where probing questions are scant and the group leaves without making any changes to their activity.
I’m a strong advocate for the Malcolm Baldridge concept of data gathering on the basis that if a data set doesn’t promote an action than it is probably information and not data. Often the time slot is filled with information where eyes glaze over and meaningful actionable data is absent. The executives are not excused, but rather at fault because they should provide the challenging demands on seeing data that drives action even if the action is to decide based upon data to hold the course. We have all sat through briefings that were once called “death by view graph,” but when we ask leaving the meeting, “what did we learn?,” it’s too late. That question should be aired during the meeting. It’s not the first economic downturn and it won’t be the last. Robust companies will seek opportunity in both swings.
Q: What have been the key motivating factors for you as a leader in the industry, in other words, what kept you going to work every day?
A: Apart from the luxury of working with very talented people my entire career, and having wide diverse exposure to the international scene, I was blessed to work for a great, small company that was growing fast. The leadership associated with the dynamics of that growth was always very inspiring. Leadership has a way of roping you in and keeping you going. It is responsible for the positive general attitude of the work groups and the harmony of relationships. Certain things about leadership can be taught, but I am convinced that it is a gift that is nurtured from early childhood. The tyrants can get a job done in the short haul, but you will usually find that they fall by the wayside as the leaders pass them by.
My entire career was a constant exposure to talent with a passion and a leadership that recognized they could not get there alone. Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen egos and greed become a trait of some of our leaders; integrity has suffered. I’m not sure why, but I know it must be addressed in very visible ways. I look to Purdue to clearly see this need and take the subject from the depths of a strategic plan to a visible worldwide leadership role, a center of excellence where the subject is studied and taught. What better place to take worldwide leadership than with the foundation of values from the Midwest. Finally and foremost, I have a wife and two children who have, in many different and individual ways, been a constant inspiration each day of my life.