Let the good times roll

“I joke that when I was growing up, my mother always wanted me to be a good corporate wife,” says Gretchen Jahn, “because at the time that was one of the career options available to young women.”

But, says Jahn, who is now CEO of Mooney Airplane Co., her parents let her know that was not the only option. They told her she could be whatever she wanted to be. The challenge was figuring out what that was.

But once she did, there was no stopping her. Since taking charge of Mooney the company has turned around, emerging from bankruptcy to rack up record sales and increase staff by 93% in the last year.

“We”re back,” Jahn said triumphantly at this year’s AirVenture. “We have sold out of 2005 delivery positions and are now taking orders for 2006.”

Last year, the company delivered 36 planes. In the first half of this year — the company’s 60th — Mooney delivered 43 planes.

Running Mooney is Jahn’s first job in aviation. After graduating from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and earning a master’s degree from the University of Colorado, she and a partner started a software company in the 1980s. That in turn led to working in the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, honing her skills in management.

Jahn found her link to aviation through her husband, Karl Sutterfield, who learned to fly in the early 1980s. She accompanied him on flights, learning navigation and how to work the radios. “In 1984 he was out of the country for three weeks. By the time he got back I had lined up an instructor and lessons,” she said. “I got my license in a Cessna 152, the same way everybody else learns.”

Jahn joined Mooney in 2004. The folks who hired her point to her management savvy as the reason they chose her to lead the company’s rebirth.

“Running an aircraft manufacturing company is like running any other company,” she noted. “It is not like you get to spend lots of time on the ramp making a product to fill a customer’s order. The software company allowed me to do a wide variety of work in a wide variety of environments from metal fabrication to meat packing plants to new home construction to pharmaceuticals to foods to animal health care products. The fundamental underpinning of each business is knowing what makes the company unique and why people buy the product. And you have to get the right people and infrastructure and systems in place to succeed in the market and deliver to customer expectations and have to do so profitably to return value to shareholders.”

One of Jahn’s first goals when she came to Mooney was improving customer service. In recent years owners often complained that getting replacement parts or factory service was extremely difficult.

“This particular area was highly disorganized,” she said. “The problem was that there was stuff everywhere and nobody knew where everything was. To change this we implemented a Japanese philosophy known as “Five S.” The S translated into English stands for sort, sweep, store, set up and so forth. Basically you find what you need right then and put it where you can get it. The rest you store or throw it away,” she explained, adding that once they got the factory organized they discovered they had more space to work with because much of the clutter had been removed. This in turn improved efficiency on all levels.

Jahn is very much a people person. She was right at home at AirVenture, answering questions from the crowd and accepting a dinner invitation from the pilots who flew in the Mooney caravan.

Interacting with the aircraft owners, their customer base, is key, said Jahn. “These people are great fun and important to us,” she said. “I hate to say it, but in past years some of them say they felt neglected by the factory. We”re trying to change that because customers are the reason we”re in business.”

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