Fast Five: John Calcagno, Piper Aircraft Interim President, CEO

John Calagno, Piper Aircraft interim president, CEO.
Credit: Piper Aircraft

John Calcagno was born in Flint, Michigan, and began his career at PricewaterhouseCoopers. From there, he served with Coca-Cola, Alltel Communications Products (now Verizon), The Acerra Consortium and C.R. Bard. He joined Piper Aircraft, based in Vero Beach, Florida, in 2010 and served as chief financial officer (CFO) before being named interim president and CEO following the retirement of Simon Caldecott this April.

Q. As interim president and CEO, what is your focus?

A. I’ve been really focused on quality, quality, quality—and did I mention quality. In pretty much every decision that we make, I ask myself: What would the customer ask us to do and what are their expectations? If they’re spending $3 million on an M600, what would their expectation be? I am cascading that [message] out throughout the organization. That has been a huge focus.

We have a significant spend on engineering, research and development. We have a separate building, and when you walk in there, it looks like you’re in a Yahoo or Google kind of atmosphere. That’s the brains of the company, there. They are working on several things. You have to keep your products refreshed; you have to come out with new things. Some of that will be new products. 

Q. What was your biggest challenge through the pandemic?

A. Managing through that crisis from a financial standpoint was very difficult back then. That was a challenge as we kept building [aircraft]. We developed a financial plan and we drew money down appropriately from our lines of credit at that time, which we’ve paid back 100% since. We had no layoffs and we managed through that. That was the biggest challenge. Then, obviously, you had to ramp down production because there just weren’t orders in the future. We managed through that from a leveling off of the production schedule. 

Now things have changed a little bit, right? We’ve ramped down and now there’s demand that’s coming back up. We have a huge challenge where we cannot hire people. There’s nobody available. That’s a huge problem.

Q. Are you sold out for aircraft deliveries for this year? 

A. We are pretty close. We’re working on backlogs. Certain models you can’t get. Certain models, you can’t even get in Q1 next year. Other models, we do have a few available. We’re in a really good place. [Production levels for 2021 will be down slightly from 2020, but M-Class deliveries will be up.] We are taking orders for next year. 

You’ve been working on the financial side of companies for many years. What is your management style?

I can give you a couple of examples. The new interim CFO came and was asking me questions related to some financial stuff. And I said to him: ‘Look, that accounting stuff?  I don’t understand that stuff. You’re the CFO now.’ I think you hire good quality people and you put good quality people you can trust in leadership roles that are respected and that carries through to a successful company. Let people run the show without me micromanaging them. Does that mean I won’t slide up underneath an aircraft and look in the engine and ruin a shirt like I did recently? I will do that. I will crawl up there and do that if they want to explain something to me. I’m out in the shop walking around and talking to employees. I make it a point to do that two, three times a week—just randomly walk around and talk to various areas. I’m very visible. I need to be involved and let [employees] know that I am very concerned with the success of Piper going forward. 

At one time, Piper looked at building a small jet. Is that project dead or do you have any plans to resurrect it? 

It was suspended, it wasn’t shut down. That’s the key thing. It was suspended and the design was complete. We’ve kept all of the intellectual property that we’ve spent money on to develop and we’ve used some of it on other projects, and we will continue to use pieces of it—maybe bigger pieces than in the past. 

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.