Lunch With Louis?

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The sudden departure this week of United Technologies Corp. (UTC) Chairman and CEO Louis Chenevert surprised a lot of people, including me. I suspect it may have surprised him, too. Just two weeks ago, a UTC official contacted me to say that Chenevert wanted to have an off-the-record catch-up lunch with me. We agreed to meet on Dec. 12, in New York.

The idea of a Chenevert retirement was the furthest thing from my mind when the news hit Monday morning. After all, he is just 57 years old and had not even been in the top job five years. His predecessor, George David, was CEO for more than 15 years.  Chenevert got off to such a strong start as CEO that he was named Aviation Week’s Person of the Year for 2011.

While UTC had its share of challenges, a group of outside advisers to Aviation Week’s annual Top-Performing Companies study singled it out as a well-run company. They noted that UTC has invested nearly $2 billion annually on disruptive, potentially game-changing technologies. The advisors also applauded the company’s $18.4 billion acquisition of Goodrich – a titanic deal negotiated in secret for a year between Chenevert and Goodrich CEO Marshall Larsen.

When Chenevert became CEO in January 2010 UTC had not made an aerospace acquisition since 1999. That changed quickly. “The importance of aerospace is back at UTC,” board member Edward Kangas told me when I interviewed him for our Person of the Year profile of Chenevert. He was also enthusiastic about the Geared Turbofan engine, a Chenevert-driven development that made Pratt a force again in the commercial narrowbody airliner market for the first time since the 1980s. “The GTF was a big bet by Louis and the board, and that has breathed a whole lot of life back in,” Kangas said.

Kangas has succeeded Chenevert as chairman of UTC’s board. Someday we will find out why that happened.

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