By Nina Trentmann and Andrew Tangel 

Boeing Co.'s finance chief Greg Smith served as a steady hand during the aircraft manufacturer's recent years of tumult from the grounding of the 737 MAX to the coronavirus pandemic. Finding a successor after his unexpected departure might be tough, people close to the company and analysts said.

Chicago-based Boeing Tuesday said that Mr. Smith, a 30-year company veteran, plans to retire July 9. The company also said it raised the retirement age for Chief Executive David Calhoun to 70 and extended his potential tenure for up to five years. "With the company well positioned going forward, the timing is right for me personally to begin a new chapter outside of Boeing," Mr. Smith said in a statement.

Mr. Smith, 54 years old, was crucial in steering Boeing through its 737 MAX-crisis, which began in October 2018 with the first of two fatal crashes that led to a nearly two-year long grounding that cost the company billions. He temporarily took over as interim chief executive following the ouster of then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg in late 2019.

In many ways, Mr. Smith was seen by investors as effectively running the company given his broad operational duties, and was known an advocate with credibility on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C.

He is credited with securing billions in financing Boeing needed to weather fallout from the MAX crisis and the plunge in demand for new airplanes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The company last May raised $25 billion in bonds, the largest bond deal outside of an acquisition and a record for the aviation industry. "This was probably one of the most important capital raises during the company's history," said Burkett Huey, an equity analyst at Morningstar Research Services LLC, a research provider. "Today, Boeing has the cash to survive the pandemic."

Mr. Smith was appointed chief financial officer in 2011 and over time saw his role broadened to cover various operational roles, including responsibilities for enterprise performance, strategy and sustainability. He also briefly oversaw corporate communications last year.

Before he was named CFO, Mr. Smith served as Boeing's corporate controller and vice president of finance and held roles in supply chain, factory operations and program management. He left Boeing in 2004 for a four-year stint at Raytheon Co., the predecessor of today's Raytheon Technologies Corp., for a position as vice president of global investor relations. He returned to Boeing in 2008.

J. Michael Luttig, a former Boeing former general counsel, said Mr. Smith's contributions to the company are "inestimable and unrivaled, and unlikely to be matched anytime soon in the future." Mr. Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge who spent more than a decade as general counsel before retiring about a year ago, worked closely with Mr. Smith during the MAX crisis. The Federal Aviation Administration cleared the plane to fly in November.

Boeing under Mr. Smith and current CEO Mr. Calhoun cut costs and slashed thousands of jobs as the pandemic worsened. Mr. Calhoun lauded Mr. Smith for his leadership and his efforts to strengthen the company's finances. "His stewardship of the company's financial position for nearly a decade, and his leadership during the severe challenge our industry has faced as a result of the global pandemic, have been essential to positioning Boeing for a bright future," Mr. Calhoun said in a statement.

Mr. Smith has a good reputation among investors, said Hunter Keay, a managing director Wolfe Research, a research provider. "Greg had a solid connection with the investment community," he said. "A lot of investors really believed that Greg had their back," he said.

Mr. Smith will become eligible for early retirement at age 55 in June, which is available to executives after 10 years of service, according to the company's most recent proxy filing.

There could be several reasons for Mr. Smith's departure, said Ken Herbert, a managing director at Canaccord Genuity Group Inc., the financial services firm. "Greg was associated with both the positives and the negatives of the past 10 years," Mr. Herbert said. Mr. Calhoun might want a fresh face in the finance seat now that his own tenure has been extended, he added.

Mr. Smith will advise Mr. Calhoun and the board while they are searching for a successor, a spokesman for Boeing said.

Boeing declined to make Mr. Smith available for an interview. The company's share closed at $234.06, down 4.1%., according to FactSet.

--Kristin Broughton and Doug Cameron contributed to this article.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 20, 2021 18:50 ET (22:50 GMT)

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