June 28, 2019 / 12:59 PM / 5 months ago

From wind tunnels to megadeals, the Boeing sales boss facing new MAX storm

PARIS (Reuters) - Days after stealing the Paris Airshow with a deal to sell 200 of the grounded 737 MAX, Boeing’s sales chief faces fallout from the discovery of a new flaw that will delay the jet’s return to service.

Boeing Commercial Sales and Marketing Vice President Ihssane Mounir attends a news conference at the 53rd International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Senior vice-president Ihssane Mounir has built a reputation for striking where least expected in the global jet industry, shunning the spotlight.

Last week, he and other Boeing executives scored a major coup in winning British Airways owner IAG - a big Airbus short-haul user - over to an initial $24 billion deal for the 737 MAX.

But the skills which took the 47-year-old from researching wind tunnels to the top of the $150-billion jet market face their toughest test as Boeing struggles to keep its recovery plans intact.

“We have been .. going round the clock to make sure we are working through whatever is needed for customers and the return to service,” Mounir said.

The surprise IAG order was the first since the MAX was grounded in March after two fatal crashes, and overshadowed the successful launch of a new Airbus model, the A321XLR.

Analysts say big discounts likely helped win the order from IAG, which on Friday declined comment on the new delay. Critics have accused Mounir of aggressive pricing to win important deals, a claim he denies, saying price is only one tool.

Stealth, teamwork and a long-standing rapport between Mounir and IAG boss Willie Walsh also played a role, sources said.

The two, who were seen chatting at an airline summit three weeks ago, negotiated with only a handful of people in the know.

Boeing Commercial CEO Kevin McAllister and Chairman Dennis Muilenburg would be closely involved in the deal to help Boeing’s cash cow.

“You have got to build trust first by demonstrating commitment. You have to be disciplined in planning. You can’t shoot from the hip and then pull a plan together – no way,” Mounir said recently when asked about selling jets.

“At the start (of my career) I talked a lot; I was selling too much. Later I learned to listen.”

Listening is what Mounir, who has struck a humble tone in recent meetings and public appearances, will need to do as Boeing faces a new delay in approval of MAX software until September.

Many airlines want compensation, while some will see a new chance to lower prices.

“A deal like IAG’s can even hurt your marketing because you have created the phrase ‘I want the same deal as BA’,” said an industry official with decades of experience in trading jets.

All this means Mounir is under the spotlight, though he’s not afraid of tackling intimidating odds to win deals.

Earlier this year, Mounir was in a battle with Airbus for sales of wide-body jets to IAG and Germany’s Lufthansa.

Outgoing Airbus CEO Tom Enders wanted to halt output of its loss-making A380 to hand a clean slate to successor Guillaume Faury and was reluctant to respond to BA’s interest in buying the world’s largest airliner at low prices, offering only A350s.

In Frankfurt, Lufthansa wanted to shed some A380s to focus on smaller airports. Mounir saw an opportunity to act creatively and build goodwill on both sides, industry sources say.

    Shuttling between Frankfurt and London, he explored the idea of buying six A380s from Lufthansa and arranging their transfer to BA in a spectacular trade-in, according to the sources.

Buying Airbus jets is part of Mounir’s playbook after he bought China Eastern A340s to make room for new Boeing 777s.

This time, the tactic was not needed as BA went with Boeing and Lufthansa split its order. But in a final twist, Airbus itself bought the A380s and may end up leasing them to BA, the sources said. None of the parties or Mounir agreed to comment.

INDUSTRY POKER

The previously unreported scramble over the soon-to-be-axed A380 illustrates the intensity of aircraft industry poker.

Industry insiders compare Mounir’s audacious style to former Airbus sales chief John Leahy, who retired last year after selling jets worth $1.7 trillion. Some even joke that Mounir is a new Leahy, but in the wrong company.

“Part of me sees that as flattering but there is a difference in that I am not a one-man show,” Mounir said.

“I have a great team, people who have grown in the business and are very cohesive. We are a pack at the leadership and we are a pack at the sales level.”

Experts say Leahy also relied on a team though it is being dispersed amid management changes, leaving uncertainty over the continuity of relationships like IAG. Even so, Airbus commercial head Christian Scherer beat order forecasts for the new A321XLR.

A battle now looms over Air France, which is expected to decide on a narrow-body order soon, although Mounir says the focus remains on getting the MAX flying safely.

Born in Rabat, Mounir was appointed sales chief in 2016 after cutting his teeth in markets from Latin America to China.

At 17, speaking no English, Mounir left Morocco for Wichita, Kansas, where he studied engineering and embraced the Midwest.

“His work ethic was exceptional; he is both analytical and extremely personable,” said Scott Miller, his professor at Wichita State University - a combination that drives business in the ruthlessly competitive but clubby world of plane deals.

The young aerodynamicist seemed headed for academia before research on topics like dynamic wind-tunnel testing caught the eye of Boeing in Seattle, where he joined the “aero team” in 1997 and began doing calculations on the 777 mini-jumbo.

Switching to marketing, his first jet sale was to Ethiopian Airlines: the same carrier that suffered the second of two recent crashes leading to the MAX grounding. He attended an Ethiopian vigil in Seattle in March.

While the MAX crisis is top priority, the battle between planemakers to secure relationships with airlines continues. Ex-General Electric engine sales head McAllister - working a double act with Mounir - has helped open new doors for Boeing.

“Genuinely happy for Boeing to get the big order for the MAX. Kevin and (Ihssane) are good guys,” AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes, one of Airbus’s largest customers, tweeted last week, before adding: “Aircraft manufacturers should value airlines.”

Reporting by Tim Hepher, Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson, David Shepardson; Editing by Mark Potter and Jane Merriman

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