Brain Drain (Aviation Week’s magazine)
Sep 3, 2009
By Jerome Greer Chandler
You’re in the prime of your career, at the peak of your earning power and accustomed to traveling the world as a respected member of the elite aerospace profession. Then, the bottom drops out. No one’s immune to fiscal gravity these days, not in this economy. That gravity has been exerting an inexorable pull lately.
Layoffs can lacerate aerospace executives, and just as viciously as folks on the shop floor. But there is life after layoffs–not mere survival, but bonafide success. Common attitudes, common traits can pull people through and even propel them to places they only dreamed of before. Here are the stories of three MRO execs who have weathered the storm:
Green, Green: The Bamboo Gambit
Aviation is hard to get out of your system, even if you pack your passion and head for Nicaragua.
That’s what former AAR executive Ben Sandzer-Bell and his wife just did, leaving behind his successful 25-year career in aerospace and setting out to plant bamboo in Central America.
After a long career with Thales, Sandzer-Bell joined AAR in 2004 as VP of strategy. In December 2008, the MRO downsized, and he was out. The move didn’t take him by surprise.
“As a strategy guy, you’re supposed to look a few years out,” says 49-year-old Sandzer-Bell. What he saw was “trouble down the pipeline&By the time oil hit $147 per barrel, it was pretty obvious to me that there would be large-scale changes in the industry.”
Armed with the kind of insight inherent in his job, Sandzer-Bell–with the blessings of AAR management–began to develop “a parallel track for myself.” That track led to a four-month sabbatical. That time out, in turn, led to the debut of CO2 Bambu (bambu is the Spanish spelling of bamboo), a company designed to capitalize on cap and trade, the selling of carbon credits to offset the production of greenhouse gasses.
In his capacity as AAR’s lookout guy, Sandzer-Bell saw the EU and U.S. moving toward regulations that could include cap and trade as a key element in combating global warming. After years of political dithering, “Climate change and carbon emissions are on the table,” he says. While he felt AAR was doing a good job reducing its own carbon footprint, “I wanted&green issues to be central to my job.”
The aerospace nexus: aviation firms and MROs “would eventually be required to reduce their own emissions,” says Sandzer-Bell. “But failing the ability to get [them] down to the right level, they would participate in cap and trade.” Bolstering his belief that this is a wave that can’t be stopped, Sandzer-Bell says that in 2008 cap and trade was a $117 billion industry.
CO2 Bambu is predicated on the fact that bamboo grows like crazy, consuming carbon as if it were mother’s milk. If you’re serious about cutting carbon, Sandzer-Bell says bamboo is the way to go. “It absorbs carbon faster than wood, because it grows so fast.” And unlike a tree, which vanishes when the ax falls, bamboo actually festers. “Because it’s a grass, it grows exponentially,” he says. “The more you harvest it, then more it grows–and the more biomass it absorbs.”
CO2 Bambu already has set up 13 bamboo nurseries in Nicaragua, growing 80,000 plants. They’ll be planted in the coming rainy season. Some 300 farmers are participating in the reforestation program.
Neat enough. But to grow bamboo commercially, it helps if there’s a consumer market of sorts, not merely a market for the carbon credits its growth and cultivation produces.
Bamboo flooring is one commercial conduit. Sandzer-Bell says just 5% of the flooring market is comprised of bamboo now, but it’s predicted to grow to 20% within 10 years. Besides that, he says it’s a superbly suited material for low-cost housing–something much in demand in Central America.
Sandzer-Bell believes the venture is a prime example of the new “3-BL,” or Triple Bottom Line,
business model that delivers attractive returns to investors and begets a positive environmental impact, all while offering social and economic benefits.
Lessons Learned and Talent Lost
Sandzer-Bell agrees with Cooper and Abelson on the applicability of aerospace know-how elsewhere, noting that there’s “an extraordinary base of talent in aerospace, which happens to coincide with a number of industries.” One that comes to mind is wind energy. “It’s a no-brainer,” he says.
Sandzer-Bell also believes in being prepared. “I would invite anyone who finds him or herself in my situation not to wait till the ax falls, but to try to anticipate a little bit.” Ostriches don’t fly. But they do imbed their heads in the sand quite effectively.
Just how effective the aerospace and MRO industry will be bereft of its top talent remains to be seen. But the economic exodus of some of its best and brightest can’t help. “I’ve seen a lot of really skilled people leave,” says Abelson. From a company’s perspective, institutional knowledge is among the first casualties, “how the company is operated and its relationship with customers,” he says. “The character and the personality change every time you have these sorts of losses.”
Among those who remain, “The [personnel] bandwidth is really, really thin right now,” says Cooper. “Everyone is shrinking their staff to the minimum just to get by. There’s a very short-term kind of perspective.” The importance of this for the future isn’t lost on the TeamSAI principal: “What we’re creating is an industry that isn’t drawing a lot of bright, young people.”
In these instances, three middle-aged survivors of the industry’s latest cost-cutting foray were bright enough not just to survive, but to prevail. Foresight, transferable talents and a consummate passion for what they do are common traits. That, and what Cooper calls “a positive attitude.” Thus equipped, “if you try hard enough, good things will happen.”
This article appeared in Overhaul & Maintenance’s September 2009 issue