Chinese ‘stalking horse’ at Beech?

Pundits are checking in on the news that Hawker Beechcraft has arrangements to be acquired by a Chinese firm. Some believe the offer is just a “stalking horse” to flesh out the real value of the company, especially without its defense business. The Chinese have been stalking before, or at least, doing their research.

It happened on my watch in the late 1980s after the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) asked me to arrange Beech’s portion of a Chinese visit to the U.S. general aviation industry. The Chinese had started with GAMA’s longtime technical/legal maven Stan Green in Washington. Stan asked me personally to smooth their welcome at Beech.

Boy, did I get push-back! As usual, the big noise came from the marketing department, which was campaigning to take over PR, but I first passed it off as Kansas conservatism. After all, the Cold War was still on. And I was looking at this from my more liberal, Washington-esque stance. Aside from locally bred conservative politics, however, others were thinking as businessmen. Why should they welcome (and moreover, devote time and costs to) a future competitor just snooping? After all, a smaller delegation had already visited Beech some years earlier.

In any case, they came. We shepherded them through the usual plant tours, meetings and customary lunch flight to Hutchinson, Kansas. They said little, to me at least. Some of the Beech VPs said a lot more after they left. They were being practical (and much more experienced) business people. I was a young ex-GAMA staffer from Washington still learning that where the REAL work was done, the world is less theoretical. No time or inclination here for the “nice to do” versus the struggle to survive and win.

And the struggle was on for Beech, even back then. The 1980 sale to Raytheon and transition from legacy family-run company was still highly unsettled. Internal power struggles bubbled while Raytheon-imposed managers were universally loathed. Starship was a disaster in the making, the product line was aging, and acquisition of a jet model was of questionable market potential. Only some good Air Force contract wins boosted optimism.

I took the Beech PR job for a number of reasons, but mostly out of respect for those stout airplanes. The T-34 Mentor inspired me into flying at age 13 through an Air Force relative. My later 1,000 hours in the A36 Bonanza were golden. It was my favorite “work airplane” for 20+ years. While the Beech 99 airliner left something to be desired, King Airs were mostly rock solid. Beechcraft was, and is, an American institution – enough that Brian Williams devoted a minute of NBC news time earlier this year to first news of a pending bankruptcy.

Yes, of course the company had its quirks. Its “flight school” airplanes of the 1970 go-go years came in third behind the high-volume offerings of Brand C and P, led by the Skipper which looked so much like a Tomahawk. PR staffer Mike Potts would always quip that the Sundowner got its name because you landed back home so late that the sun was going down. Yes, OK. Heavy and a little slow. Perhaps over-built. But stout.

You could say the same about the Beech organization. But stout best described “the Beechcrafter” — the people who built those airplanes. I was never a “Beechcrafter.” It takes at least five years there to be accepted as one. I might never have been. But of my many impressions of the place (not all positive, I must say and so would they), I was taken with the pride of Beech people in their product and their company. These folks were the sons and daughters of the heartland. You could see it in their attitudes (and often, in their way of life.) They were tempered by a heritage of the pioneer experience, the rough-and-tumble of harsh prairie weather and economics, and the competitive business of building airplanes.

More than the Beech product (which yielded a landmark flaw or weakness once in a while), it was ultimately the Beechcrafter who made the company. Someone will get these airplanes and their product support. It is now the people, the Beechcrafters, we must worry about. Top execs have struggled through years of decline, efforts to relight product offerings, economic storms and global competition. You can argue about their skill and success, but I don’t worry about them. It’s the Beechcrafters (and people like them) who just want and need their jobs in Wichita (or Duluth or Vero Beach) and the continuing opportunity to build airplanes here in America.

I don’t know how all this will turn out. I can’t say I didn’t see this coming in the 1980s, however. Back then, of course, I didn’t connect our Chinese visitors with this latest outcome. And I’m not denigrating the Chinese, who have also stepped in with Cirrus and provided valuable financing elsewhere in GA and the U.S. economy. We’ll just have to see how it all works out for us, and for America.

What I can say is what I’ve been saying: The 20th Century is over. Get used to it. I, for one, didn’t celebrate the turn of the century. This new one won’t look like the last. And it’s our loss.

 

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

 

© 2012 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

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Comments

  1. Kent Misegades says

    Indeed, the 80s was a long, long time ago, both in business and politically.  The Chinese are flush in our cash, and they must spend it in the U.S.  That’s why buying foreign-made products always results in the dollars coming back home in time.    No American objects when a U.S. company invests in China, something we’ve been doing since George Bush Sr. was our first Cold War ambassador in China. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and I personally prefer trade over war.  The Capitalism Genie is out of the bottle in China, the best means to help the old Communists into retirement.

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