Chairman and CEO Clay Jones’s first Paris air show was in 1985. This week marks his last, at least as CEO of Rockwell Collins. Jones is retiring at the end of July, handing over leadership of the U.S.-based avionics supplier to Kelly Ortberg.
Jones, a veteran U.S. fighter pilot, is widely considered to be one of the aerospace and defense industry’s most talented and capable CEOs, as evidenced by operating margins of 19% last year. He has led Rockwell Collins since it was spun off as an independent, publicly traded company in 2001. In an interview with Aviation Week at Le Bourget, he recounted his sometimes bumpy ride at the helm.
One of Jones’s proudest memories is when Rockwell Collins went public in July 2001. He rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and stayed at a Marriott hotel that overlooked the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Ten weeks later, the 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed those towers would push the commercial aircraft and business jet industries into a painful downturn.
Jones says that early period was his biggest challenge as CEO. “We were a brand new management team, very untested, and nobody knew us,” he recalls. “The company was a big unknown, and here we were having to deal with 9/11. Sixty percent of our business was commercial, and we lost 25% of revenue in two years. That was a [challenging] time.”
Ortberg, his successor, is well aware, having worked at Rockwell Collins and its predecessors for 26 years. An engineer, he has run both the company’s commercial and government businesses. His plan for leading the company boils down to business as usual. “This is a full-steam ahead transition, not a course correction,” he said in an interview.
The commercial share of Rockwell Collins’s sales sunk to as low as 42% after the business jet market crash in 2008-09. That balance will return to 50-50 this year, and Ortberg predicts commercial sales will be back to 60% of revenues within five years as aircraft programs such as the, and 737 MAX and ramp up.
Jones will remain as non-executive chairman of the company’s board.