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Boeing defense CEO retires after six turbulent years

A new Boeing 787 Dreamliner emerges from the 787 final assembly factory in Everett, Washington, on July 24, 2020. (Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS)

The head of Boeing’s $26 billion defense and space business is retiring after nearly 35 years with the company, the firm announced Monday.

Ted Colbert will replace Leanne Caret as the head of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, the third-largest U.S. defense firm, on Friday. Caret will remain an advisor to CEO Dave Calhoun until an unspecified retirement date later this year.

Colbert is the head of Boeing Global Services, a division that handles maintenance and repairs of airliners and military systems. Unlike his predecessor who spent her entire career at Boeing, Colbert has spent time at Citigroup and more than a decade at Ford Motor Company, before joining Boeing in 2009. He would become the lone Black chief executive among the U.S. defense industry’s top 50 companies.

Caret became CEO of Boeing Defense Space and Security in 2016 amid a shakup of the business. The February appointment came one week after the company lost an $80 billion Air Force bomber contract to rival Northrop Grumman.

Her upbeat personality and at times giddiness about the company’s work made her stand out among her industry peers. Having worked her way up the ladder at Boeing, she was able to connect with workers.

Less than a year into her tenure as CEO, Caret moved the company’s defense headquarters from St. Louis to Arlington, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the Pentagon to be more available to meet with defense officials on a moment’s notice.

Boeing defense won several new military contracts under Caret’s watch. In 2018, the company captured three major deals, an Air Force contract for 351 T-7 pilot training jets, another Air Force deal for 84 MH-139 security helicopters, and Navy contract for MQ-25 refueling drones.

Boeing, under Caret’s watch, also convinced the Air Force to buy new F-15EX fighters after nearly two decades of not buying the jet. The Air Force this week said it wants to buy even more of them. The Air Force is also likely to buy E-7 AWACS radar planes from Boeing in the coming years.

But there also were problems within the defense business that garnered headlines. Caret inherited a troubled KC-46 tanker program that was a thorn in her side for much of her tenure. Technical and quality control problems have plagued the project. The company’s Starliner space capsule for NASA failed a 2019 test with no astronauts on board. The capsule finally is expected to launch in the coming weeks.

Boeing lost a second high-profile contest to Northrop, an $85 billion contest to replace the Boeing-made Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Boeing blamed Northrop’s acquisition of Orbital ATK, one of its suppliers, for its decision not to bid on the project.

Caret has kept an unusually low profile the past two and a half years. Boeing’s commercial business has been in crisis mode following two crashes of 737 Max airliners that killed 436 people. The company’s board in December 2019 sacked CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who appointed Caret CEO of the defense business in 2016.

Since then, the company has kept a tight leash on executives amid Boeing’s 737 Max investigations and subsequent fallout, which was unrelated to Caret’s business. High-profile departures, including the company’s top lobbyist and head of the defense business’ head of sales.

She also oversaw the replacement of Air Force One, in which former President Donald Trump negotiated directly with Muilenburg.

Reporters’ interview requests to interview Caret were routinely denied, a shift for the once approachable executive who regularly participated in public events. Last month, Caret participated in a conference call with defense journalists, her first public statements since before the pandemic. A company spokeswoman declined another interview request on Monday shortly after the announcement.


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