BJT Management Series: Embraer's Ernie Edwards

BJT Waypoints
Ernie Edwards, President of Embraer Executive Jets
Ernie Edwards, President of Embraer Executive Jets
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 12:00pm

Ernie Edwards was born in Amman, Jordan, to a Welsh father and Russian mother.  He had already lived in the UK and Ghana by the time he was 11, when the family moved back to Wales. After an aircraft apprenticeship at Hawker Siddeley, he joined Saudi Arabian Airlines and then held a series of high-level positions at various manufacturers before becoming president of Embraer Executive Jets in 2011.  Edwards is widely known for his graceful, calm, powerful leadership. Here, he discusses his career and management style.

My background is mechanical. I know how to rivet, drill, make engineering drawings, read drawings, bend metal, paint airplanes.

In 1976 I read an advert for Saudi Arabian Airlines. TWA had the contract to run the airline for the Saudis, and they were recruiting people to train their engineers and mechanics, so I applied for a job and went out to Saudi Arabia to seek my fortune.

After being there a year I met a Saudi prince, a gentleman who to this day I call my second father. I told him about my background and somehow I managed to talk myself into a job with him, selling [Cessna] Citations. That became my first selling job and my first foray into being in contact with America.

Over the years, when I have made career moves, I have always written to [the Saudi prince] to tell him what I am doing and how my family is doing. I have stayed in contact with him because I owe him the big break. From him I learned the necessity to give people a break, to give people a chance. I have tried to do that throughout my career. Everyone needs a big break.

You do not have to have degrees coming out of your ears or years and years of experience, but you have to have the hunger, the integrity and the desire to work hard and to succeed. There are people that I have hired over the years who may not have direct experience, but they have what I see as the will to succeed and the apparent integrity that I think we all look for in our employees. 

It is one thing to have a business face, but what is the person like in his personal life? How does he transact himself outside of the office environment? I find that this is important. 

We say: Our people are what make us fly. We have to listen to our people. 

I listen, because that is what I enjoy doing. I like to hear the complete story before I start asking questions. So I don’t interrupt in the middle of a presentation. 

You have got to have employees who are comfortable speaking up when they feel strongly about an issue, because that is the only way you are going to get the facts. It is the only way you are going to get the help that you need to run the business. 

Everybody runs their departments and their divisions—I won't say by committee,  but by consensus. Now and again you will get somebody who does not agree with the consensus, and that is OK. We need to hear from those people, because they may have a point of view or an issue that is absolutely relevant.

Obviously if you are in the sales business and you are in a recession, it can get you down. You need to make sure that the team understands that it is not them. It is the circumstances around them. It is not the product—it is the economy. Make sure that the employees know that they are highly valued. Support and understanding is a big motivator when there are circumstances [such as the economy] that we can't control.

Honest mistakes are exactly that. What we try to do when a mistake has been made is learn from it. Discuss openly what happened. What were the circumstances behind it? What drove the decision or the action that caused the mistake? What did we learn from this so we do not do it again? 

The goal from day one has always been to offer excellence in customer support. That is easy to say, but it can be a difficult business model to implement, because there are times when the decisions you make cost the company a lot of money. 

Of course, if there has been abuse or negligence of the product [by the buyer], you have to be able to stand by your guns and say, “Mr. Customer, I understand you are upset but do you realize that your flight attendant dropped a knife on the leather seat and tore the leather?”

Ignoring a customer is probably the worst thing you can do to somebody. He has got to have direct dialogue—it cannot be a monologue.

My first trip to China was in 1999. I would like to think I did not march in there like the crazy Welshman some people think I am and start shoving my customs and my way of doing business on the Chinese. I would like to think that I listened, watched and learned from them, from their way of doing business. 

The Middle East is the same thing. You cannot go in there with your Anglo-American attitudes and expect a Saudi or an Emirati to just roll over and say, “Yes we will do business your way.” India is another great example. You will do business the Indian way, or you will not do business. It is just as simple as that.

What I value most about our employees and my team is team spirit and the willingness to cooperate to get the job done. The hard work is just a given. I do not think anybody survives today without hard work no matter which company you work for. 

I hope that someone will carve on my tombstone: “He listened.”

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Bob Warnock
on February 19, 2013 - 5:02pm

Leaders like Ernie is what we need more of. I am glad to see that Ernie is doing well . I lost track of him over the last few years . It was always a pleasure to do business with him.

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A.C.SCHWERDT
on February 20, 2013 - 3:27am

WITHOUT TEAMWORK A COMPANY, WILL NEVER GROW TO ANYTHING SUBSTANTIAL.
I CONCUR WITH ERNIE'S PHILOSOPHY IN TOTAL.

I'M SURE SOMEONE WILL CARVE ON HIS TOMBSTONE " HE LISTENED " BUT NOT FOR SOMETIME YET!

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Luis Colarino
on February 20, 2013 - 7:47pm

Ernie really is that "someone" aside the average people in the aviation business, he's special and he has a great gift that is to activate and motivate the people around him to get things done with excellence, he's surely flying much higher above the crowd. He's got all of my admiration and respect.

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Anglo-American
on February 21, 2013 - 8:55am

Ernie Edwards quote:

The Middle East is the same thing. You cannot go in there with your ""Anglo-American attitudes"" and expect a Saudi or an Emirati to just roll over and say, “Yes we will do business your way.” India is another great example. You will do business the Indian way, or you will not do business. It is just as simple as that. hhhhmmmm?

Dear Ernie,

People who indulge in stereotyping tend to pursue situations and information that reinforce their beliefs. This has the effect of sealing the person off from experiences and interactions that might challenge his stereotypes, thus maintaining his narrow mindedness. Living for long periods of time in such a tightly self-controlled environment, a person's mind runs the risk of becoming ever more narrow, never opening up to the wide diversity of possibilities that are offered by other people.

Loss of Opportunities

A person who interacts with other people on an individual basis makes herself available to a wide range of opportunities. By accepting people on their own terms and recognizing that each person is different, she helps her own social, psychological and professional situation as well as those of others. People who stereotype groups of other people cut themselves off from these opportunities by making unfounded assumptions based on another person's race, color, gender or culture. Opportunities can appear in unexpected times and places, offered by unexpected people, and those who are open to them will benefit far more than those who move through life with a rigid and often badly flawed view of reality.

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Jim Hausch-Rectrix Aviation
on February 21, 2013 - 10:44am

Great philosophy. Very true. He does listen and is very easy to work with.

No Avatar
Werner Aerne
on February 25, 2013 - 5:32am

Dear Ernie
I agree with the entire content of your interview and wish you lots of success in your present position. Maybe you remember our good times in Zurich?

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Steve Healy
on February 25, 2013 - 6:02am

I served my apprenticeship with Ernie. He was destined to go far...and he has!! Well done Ernst.

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Dan Bachmann
on March 2, 2013 - 11:56am

Embraer owes its prestigious position in business aviation today to Ernie and his customers, who believed in the Legacy jet over a decade ago.

His calm, yet sharp wisdom is enlightening and grounding, inspiring team members to focus on reality with confidence, patience and optimism.

Ernie is a true gentleman; a rarity among today's leaders.

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Quote/Unquote

“"I've got a list of corporations that have gotten out of their airplanes [because of criticism from politicians]. It is the stupidest thing I've ever seen. When you look at the time and cost savings; it does not make sense not to fly [privately]. You can't let public perception interfere with your business decision to fly. It either is a good business decision or it isn't."”

-business aviation entrepreneur Nick Popovich