“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]. ”
BJT Management Series: Embraer's Ernie Edwards
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.”