The corridors of power…

One of the more interesting parts of the tour was a visit to a factory owned by aircraft maker Boeing in Wichita. They used to build B52 bombers there, and the place seemed to stretch for miles.

The city of Wichita, as it turns out, is something of a plane-spotters’ Utopia, boasting factories for Boeing, Cessna, Raytheon and Learjet.

I thought of that Boeing assembly plant recently, when Harry Stonecipher, Boeing’s chief executive, announced that he would retire – for the second time – in 2006, on reaching 70.

He came back out of retirement last December to fill the gap left by Phil Condit, who quit after months of controversy. Boeing had faced questions about its procurement policies, and Condit said that leaving was the only way to draw a line under events. Maybe he was right. But Stonecipher’s return simply postponed the question of who will lead the aerospace giant into the next phase.

The favoured external candidate is James McNerney, a Boeing non-exec who is chief executive of 3M. Other contenders include Alan Mulally, head of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division.

Boeing should take a leaf from Jack Welch’s book. As CEO of General Electric, Welch spent several years sifting through potential successors. It was a brutal process, and Jeff Immelt emerged as the pick of the top three. The others left the firm.

Condit’s exit from Boeing threw the company’s succession planning into disarray, but it has a couple of years to get its act together.

Stonecipher won’t be coming back for a third time.

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