Brian E. Barents

Business Jet Traveler » October 2007
Monday, October 1, 2007 - 5:00am

Though he is no longer under the employ of a corporation, you can't really call Brian Barents retired. Being on the boards of five aviation companies-including serving as vice chairman of Aerion Corp., which is planning to develop the first supersonic business jet-keeps him almost as busy as when he was running other companies and was active in the Michigan and Kansas National Guards. He does, however, find a bit more time now for golf, which he said is his biggest hobby.

"I don't have much free time, but I'm used to it," said Barents during our interview in the Paris Air Show chalet of Aerion Corp. "During most of my 40-year career, I had two jobs-my civilian job during the week and my National Guard job in the evenings and on weekends. Though my family suffered some, they were very supportive."

When I first talked with Barents more than a decade ago, he was president and CEO of Learjet, in Wichita, Kan. As he explained in this interview, he considers his stint at that company-whose name became (and still is for many) synonymous with "business jet"-the most difficult and rewarding time of his career. Always a gentleman, he was unusually open in his responses during our earlier talk, in spite of the problems Learjet was experiencing. He hasn't changed. Here are some of the lessons he's learned over the years.

What differences have you found in leading military and civilian organizations?

Quite frankly, very little. Human behavior is essentially the same whether it is in a structured military environment or a maybe not-so-structured business environment. People's basic needs and motivations are the same, even though the missions may be different. What motivates people, the security needs they have and the reward mechanisms they respond to are all the same. In the military, aside from the pats on the back, you get a medal. People recognize that this person has done well. In business, recognition is not as obvious, but people enjoy being set apart and having recognition among their peers.

Isn't there a danger in alienating some people when you praise the high achievers in front of their peers?

The people who aren't doing well have to be counseled on how they are doing. If they don't react, it can mean a number of things. One is that the person isn't qualified for the task that is expected. Or that person may not understand what is expected. Either way, the manager must remedy the situation. You can train the person or reassign him, or if the person happens to be not motivated to do the job, you have to remove the person from the assignment.

We can't reward mediocrity. We see in industry today the protectionism that has built up over time. For years, the big three U.S. auto manufacturers felt that if they competed with each other, that was satisfactory. What they failed to realize was that outside the U.S. there was an emerging environment that created companies that were highly motivated and much more efficient than the big three. Eventually,
the big three were no longer competitive in the world marketplace. I think there was a failure of leadership to face the very difficult challenges that they had. It's a dilemma that they still face.

How would you describe your management style?

I have found the common denominator is that you need to engage your associates at all levels of the organization so that they understand the strategic direction of the organization, share in its objectives and participate in the achievement of those objectives.

It's important that employees are measured on their performance to do what is best for the organization, which is also what is best for them and their colleagues. Rewards should be commensurate with performance. I've always felt that no one comes to work to do a bad job. If people are properly motivated, respected and rewarded, then everything else seems to take care of itself.

How do you make sure that individuals understand the strategic direction and objectives of the organization?

These must be communicated from the top down throughout every level of the organization. It's important for the leadership to give a "report card," if you will, about how we are doing against those objectives and to give timely feedback to individuals so that they can relate to their performance and make any corrective measures they need to make.

What advice would you give to a middle manager with his or her sights set on the head office?

The most important thing for anyone is to do the job at hand. Think outside the box. Be creative. Work hard. And to the degree that you can, set yourself apart by your performance. Do your job to the best of your ability and the rest will fall into place.

What are the most egregious mistakes that a CEO can make?

The first word that comes to mind is "arrogance."

Ethics are very important, as are compassion and basic leadership skills. So the mistake is lacking these things.

What do you consider basic leadership skills?

Leadership encompasses a lot of things. It is creating and identifying organization requirements, articulating the objectives of the organization and its strategic direction, measuring those results for the good of the mission and establishing an environment of continuous improvement.

There is a common denominator of attributes that are found in a successful leader. I mentioned some of these before, and of course intelligence, honesty and integrity are important, too. As a result of the dishonesty of some leaders of public corporations over the last few years, we've seen legislation that is perhaps overkill, but is probably necessary.

I assume you are referring to Sarbanes-Oxley. What effects have you seen from this?

One consequence of Sarbanes-Oxley is that it is very expensive for a public company to comply with the reporting requirements. The pendulum has probably swung too far in this direction. What I see in the next several years is perhaps a relaxation of that reaction to a more realistic expectation for financial reporting.

What do you consider the role of the board of directors?

In most cases, when board members are selected for a governing body, they're chosen for the skill sets they bring to that body. As a board member, I try to provide guidance to the CEO and to the rest of the board without necessarily imposing my views on that body. It's an advisory capacity. You are representing the interests of the shareholders of a public corporation and its overall governance. It's a balance of providing insights as a result of your experience as an executive, but without crossing the line and trying to be too active with regard to day-to-day management.

What was the most difficult situation you dealt with during your career?

Both the most rewarding and most difficult was taking Learjet out of bankruptcy. Learjet had been an icon and industry leader, but had fallen on hard times. In 1989, it went into bankruptcy under the ownership of Integrated Resources, which had bought it in 1987. I was asked to come in after my stint with Toyota to take it out of bankruptcy and reposition it for the ultimate sale.

I walked into an organization that was befallen, that was downtrodden, that was demotivated. It was a company that had built more than 100 airplanes a year and was then building less than half a dozen.

The company had certified the Lear 31 two years before but had sold and delivered only two airplanes. Employment was down to less than 400 employees from a peak of almost 3,000. Its primary product was stamping deep-dish pizza pans for Pizza Hut, just to keep the workforce intact. Learjet's only other contract was making the center fuselage tank for the Space Shuttle.

We went in and recognized the loyalty and dedication of the employees who had stayed. Very quickly I set some interim objectives, despite the fact that we had very little working capital. There were no secrets. I tried to express the sense of urgency to achieve the objectives.

In the first year, we made sales and delivered about 12 airplanes. It was a major step. You could see the pride of achievement in everyone's eyes. Though we were a shadow of our former selves, we were an airplane company again. One success led to another and each time everybody's motivation went up.

When we put the company back on the market, we had a lot of suitors. There were reasons for companies to be interested in acquiring us and the owners sold it to Bombardier in 1990. Bombardier's ownership allowed us to make the necessary investment in research and in development of product enhancements that had been avoided over the previous almost 10 years. With the financial and organizational support, we were able to grow the organization to over 3,000 employees.

Providing employment for so many people and their families was the most rewarding part for me. To see their pride and identification with the company was heartwarming, and an experience I will never forget.

Why did this mean so much to you?

I grew up in Detroit in a working-class household and worked from the time I was nine years old. My mother raised my brother and me by herself. She worked five days a week in a factory and two days in a restaurant. I give my mother all the credit for the strong values and work ethic she taught me early in my life.

Those are the values I brought to my various leadership positions. It was more than just financial performance. It was providing for the security and the welfare of the people who work so hard to bring it all to bear.

CEO Files Résumé: Brian E. Barents

Position: Serves on the board of directors of Aerion Corp., CAE Inc., Hawker Beechcraft Corp., Kaman Corporation and The Nordam Group. Past board member of Eclipse Aviation Co.

Previous positions:
President, CEO and managing partner for Galaxy Aerospace from 1997 until negotiating its sale to General Dynamics in 2001. From 1989 to 1996, served as president and CEO of Learjet, taking it from bankruptcy to profitability. Was a senior executive at Toyota from 1986 to 1989. At Cessna Aircraft from 1975 to 1986 was senior vice president of sales and marketing. From 1970 to 1975 was a sales representative with Honeywell Inc. First job out of college in 1966 was with General Motors, then on active duty with the USAF from 1968 to 1970.

Personal: Age 63. Graduated from Western Michigan University in 1966 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Retired in 2000 as commander of Kansas National Guard with rank of brigadier general after 34 years in the USAF and National Guard. Has about 6,000 hours of flight time in various military and civil airplanes. Is a past chairman of General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Married 35 years. Two daughters and three grandchildren. Homes in Wichita, Kan., and Palm Springs, Calif.

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“When you get into the larger aircraft it becomes like a hotel, with dozens of staff supporting the plane based in a galley area down below. You have very comprehensive cooking facilities, and on larger aircraft we have looked at theatres, with spiral staircases and a Steinway grand piano. The limitations for what you can put inside a plane are pretty much the limits of physics, and even money cannot always overcome that. Even so, people are still always trying to push [the limits]. ”

-Howard Guy of Design Q, a UK-based consultancy