How Boeing eases return to office for its top brass

(File photo:) Boeing chief executive officer David Calhoun. A former General Electric executive and longtime Boeing director, he became Boeing’s CEO in early 2020.
(File photo:) Boeing chief executive officer David Calhoun. A former General Electric executive and longtime Boeing director, he became Boeing’s CEO in early 2020.


CEO David Calhoun, who took over the company just before the pandemic, started working from home and then never made the move to Arlington, the company’s new headquarters.


For Boeing’s senior executives, returning to the office has been a smooth flight.

Chief Executive David Calhoun, who took over the company just before the pandemic, started working from home and then never made the move when Boeing shifted its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Va., last year.

Instead, Calhoun travels via private jet from two homes, one a sprawling waterfront house at New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee, the other in a gated South Carolina resort community. Boeing’s fleet of private jets have made more than 400 trips to or from airports near Calhoun’s homes in the past three years, according to flight records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Chief Financial Officer Brian West, who joined Boeing in August 2021, hasn’t relocated from his home in New Canaan, Conn. The company recently opened a small office about five minutes from his house.

When a reporter entered the New Canaan office through a propped-open door for an unannounced visit on a midsummer Monday morning, Boeing’s second-highest-ranking executive was wearing a polo shirt, shorts and slip-on shoes. West showed a spartan office that he uses, but otherwise declined to comment.

Boeing, like companies all over the U.S., is trying to navigate a complicated postpandemic workplace environment. Although some positions require full-time attendance, the company is allowing hybrid work for many jobs. About 30% of recent Boeing job postings were for hybrid or remote positions.

Managers eager to get employees back to the Arlington office over the past two years have turned to happy hours, guest speakers and even visiting alpacas, say people who have worked there. Calhoun and West are seldom spotted in the building, they say.

“What’s he doing? Is he like at Lake Sunapee or something in New Hampshire?" CNBC host Jim Cramer said on TV about Calhoun in 2021, as the company dealt with mounting factory problems with its 787 Dreamliner, a wide-body jet. “I mean, what is he doing?"

After the Cramer episode, some Boeing employees in Arlington made light of the CEO’s absence, with about a half dozen of them displaying wooden “Lake Sunapee" signs in their offices, according to people familiar with the matter. There were also Lake Sunapee souvenir mugs, including one that read: “Love Lake Life."

A Boeing spokesman said Calhoun visited the Dreamliner factory during its problems. He said top executives, while they enjoy more perquisites than lower-ranking personnel, are using the same flexibility afforded to many other white-collar employees. Relocating C-suite executives and their families to Arlington would be costly, he said, and their jobs require them to travel frequently anyway.

“Rather than this ivory tower corporate headquarters approach, there’s another approach, which is: Encourage leaders to travel, get out there and engage the best they can and not worry about sitting tied to a desk at a traditional corporate HQ," the Boeing spokesman said.

Calhoun is required by Boeing’s board to fly on company-supplied private jets for all business and personal trips for security reasons.

Boeing said its New Canaan office, which opened this spring, was necessary to recruit the company’s new treasurer, David Whitehouse. (Property records show Whitehouse lives about 30 minutes away.) The New Canaan space saved relocation expenses for moving Whitehouse, who oversees treasury staff mostly based in Chicago, the company said. Boeing also said the office would afford easy access to investment bankers and ratings firms in New York City.

Boeing’s space leased for more than $100,000 a year, according to CoStar, an outside real-estate data firm.

It’s unusual but not unheard of for a CEO to live and work remotely far from the home office. Still, Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of a recent book about remote work, “The Future of the Office," said it’s out of step with the general messaging from corporate America that encourages employees to return to the office.

“If you want people to come back and you’re not doing it, that really undermines the message," Cappelli said.

Boeing appears to be an outlier among its peers. At rival Airbus, CEO Guillaume Faury regularly works from the European plane maker’s headquarters in Toulouse, France, when he isn’t traveling for work, a spokesman said.

Small-plane and helicopter maker Textron requires all its white-collar employees to be at the office full-time, and CEO Scott Donnelly works from the company’s Providence, R.I., headquarters, a spokesman said.

Lockheed Martin said CEO Jim Taiclet spends about half his time working from the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md., and has a nearby residence but uses company aircraft to travel to another home.

Calhoun, a former General Electric executive and longtime Boeing director, became Boeing’s CEO in early 2020. The board appointed him to succeed Dennis Muilenburg and help the company navigate the fallout from two crashes of its 737 MAX in 2018 and 2019, which took 346 lives. Shortly after he became CEO, Calhoun bought a condo in Chicago near the company’s then-headquarters.

Calhoun and West have focused on improving Boeing’s operations and returning the company to financial strength. They have moved to cut costs, including by trimmingpayrolls and office space. Boeing’s stock has lost about 35% of its value since Calhoun took over as CEO, but the company last year generated free cash flow, a closely watched earnings metric, for the first time since 2018. It has resumed delivering its MAX and Dreamliner jets and increased production after working through engineering and regulatory snags.

“There has been undeniable progress over the last three years," the Boeing spokesman said. The company’s second-quarter earnings, a $149 million loss due largely to defense-unit charges, beat analyst expectations and the stock jumped 9%.

Calhoun began running the company from home when the Covid-19 pandemic forced much of the country to avoid the workplace. Even after the pandemic, Calhoun has said he wouldn’t be traveling much to visit his staff. “Video meetings are amazingly effective for the personal efficiency of a CEO," he told the writers of the 2021 book “Leading at a Distance."

Speaking after a June 2022 press event in Arlington at which Boeing formally introduced its new global head office, Calhoun described remote work as part of his job. “Remember now what headquarters is—it’s me, CFO," he said, referring to himself and West.

“Seventy percent of my day, no matter where I am, is virtual anyway, because I run a large distributed company," he said.

The morning of that event, one of Boeing’s corporate jets took off from a small airport near Calhoun’s New Hampshire home, landing 68 minutes later at Dulles International Airport near the company’s headquarters. After the announcement, the jet flew from Dulles to Seattle—Boeing’s commercial hub—then back to New Hampshire the following day, flight records show.

Without access to passenger manifests, the Journal couldn’t determine who was on board any particular Boeing private-jet flight.

The flight patterns suggest Calhoun travels directly from his New Hampshire or South Carolina homes to the Arlington headquarters an average of once or twice a month. He doesn’t have a residence in the Washington, D.C., area, the Boeing spokesman said.

Some flight records coincide with Calhoun’s known whereabouts. One of the company’s Bombardier Challenger 650s flew from the Hilton Head, S.C., airport to Dulles on Jan. 31, 2022 before setting off for a Monterey, Calif. airfield close to an AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf event. Calhoun was scheduled to play alongside former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and two professional golfers. A tournament spokesman confirmed that Calhoun did play.

The Canadian-made jet stayed near Pebble Beach for a week before flying to Seattle, Nashville and then to Lebanon, N.H., near Calhoun’s lake home.

Calhoun was at the Arlington headquarters on Tuesday, May 9, this year to announce a major deal with European discount airline Ryanair to buy up to 300 of its 737 MAX jets. Flight records show a Boeing-owned Challenger flying the prior day to Dulles from the Savannah/Hilton Head airport, then taking off for Lebanon, N.H., shortly after the Ryanair announcement.

Calhoun’s hands-off approach to management has at times made him seem less visible than some prior Boeing leaders, who spent more time at headquarters and held more frequent meetings, current and former executives say.

The Boeing spokesman said Calhoun holds meetings for all employees, all vice presidents and his senior executive council each quarter. The senior-executive meetings are held at various locations, where the leaders spend time with employees at their worksites. “Dave Calhoun is very engaged with our global workforce and outside stakeholders," the spokesman said.

One of the largest groups at Boeing’s Arlington site is its government-relations staff, many of whom are back at the office most of the time when not meeting officials, people familiar with the matter said.

Boeing defense executives based in Arlington primarily work from the office when they’re not traveling, the company spokesman said.

In the Seattle area, unionized Boeing technicians who work with factory machinists are generally required to show up to work full-time, while engineers tend to have more flexibility with office attendance, union officials said.

Although the union applauds Boeing’s flexible approach overall, some employees occasionally bristle at being required to do certain tasks in person when the work could be done remotely, said Rich Plunkett, a union official for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

“People are pissed they’re being told to get their butts to the office," he said.

The company plans to shrink its presence at the former Chicago headquarters, where it occupies 11 floors in the 36-story skyscraper, but hasn’t completed plans, the Boeing spokesman said.

Two senior Boeing executives live in the Orlando area. One, communications chief Brian Besanceney, hired in 2022, has his official office in Arlington and has worked from home when he’s not traveling, the spokesman said. The other, human-resources chief Michael D’Ambrose, joined Boeing in mid-2020 and hasn’t relocated to Arlington.

Boeing said D’Ambrose’s primary worksite is at a company facility near Orlando, which it recently outfitted for him at minimal cost—around $1,300 for new keys, webcams and a printer.

Having a primary work location at a satellite office close to home could save executives money on their personal taxes, according to tax specialists. That’s because private jet flights taken for commuting purposes—for example, from an executive’s home to headquarters—generally are a taxable perquisite, while flights between two company offices may not be.

Boeing’s unit that manages executive flight operations closely tracks whether flights on company aircraft are for personal or business trips, say people familiar with Boeing’s internal practices. The company, including its board of directors, monitors personal aircraft usage, which is a perk disclosed to investors.

The Boeing spokesman declined to address executives’ personal taxes but said office locations weren’t chosen for tax reasons. He said the company has a rigorous process to ensure personal aircraft use complies with laws and regulations.

Calhoun’s reported $22.5 million in compensation in 2022 included $238,782 for personal use of company aircraft, according to company filings. The prior year his disclosed personal aircraft usage totaled $83,563, plus $50,026 in relocation costs that included aircraft expenses. The Boeing spokesman said Calhoun’s travel increased as the pandemic faded.

The Boeing spokesman said Calhoun has sought to reduce executives’ use of company aircraft.

West, the chief financial officer, joined the company in August 2021. He was paid $8.6 million in 2022. Last year, securities filings show, Boeing provided $81,313 worth of personal flights on company aircraft for West, up from $27,482 in 2021. The Boeing spokesman said West, D’Ambrose and Besanceney also take commercial flights.

In addition to being close to West’s home, the New Canaan office is diagonally across the street from the former office of LiveGirl, a charity run by West’s wife Sheri. West sits on the board of the nonprofit, which focuses on advancing diverse women in leadership and has supplied Boeing with interns.

The Boeing spokesman said the company selected its New Canaan office through a standard search via a real-estate consultant.

Inside, a model jetliner sat on a coffee table in a reception area. A close-up photo of the company logo on an airplane hung on a wall. Outside there was no Boeing sign advertising the tenant, which shares the building with the local school district’s new offices.

A mailbox label inside a vestibule read “TBC," internal code for The Boeing Company.

©2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc

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