Airframer takes the long view of the market for business jets

NBAA Convention News » 2009
October 13, 2009, 12:23 PM

Steve Ridolfi, president, Bombardier Business Aircraft

Steven Ridolfi joined de Havilland as a structural dynamics engineer in 1982, 10 years before Bombardier Aerospace bought the company from the Canadian government. Ridolfi’s career since then includes positions in airline analysis, marketing, research and development, product planning, aircraft programs, customer support and as president of commercial aircraft. Ridolfi holds a bachelor of science degree in engineering physics from Queen’s University and has completed the program for management development at Harvard University. He was promoted to president of Bombardier Business Aircraft in April 2008, just a few months before the financial meltdown put a serious hurt into business aviation.

Your background is regional airliners, then you moved to business aviation as the recession took hold. Bad timing?

I did jump in just before the beginning of this recession. We had a whole month of good times. It has been a challenging time, but I think it’s a testament to the experience level and the management team here that they’ve done a very good job managing the situation. It’s not pleasant, but it has dramatic rewards when you can accomplish good things in a difficult marketplace. This is my fifth down cycle, so you know what you have to do, you know what you have to react to. When you’re at the bottom, you know it’s going to get better, so you look at the long term. This is a fantastic business to be in; business aircraft has lots of blue sky in front of it. Bombardier is a strong company with a great product set and great capability. This business will rebound and it will be a very exciting future. I love it.

Do you look back fondly on your days as an engineer?

I get to play engineer every few days anyway. I get to challenge the engineers and put on my engineering hat when we have product development and strategy meetings. And I get to put on my marketing hat and challenge the sales and marketing team. And then I get to put on my support hat and we talk about how to improve the amazing customer experience. I’ve got a great job; I wouldn’t trade it.

How is Bombardier doing?

The recession has been deep and dramatic and changed our plans. A year and a half ago we thought that we’d see a dip at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, but it’s been more severe than we had anticipated. Clearly it has caused us to readjust our plans, to bring down capacity by 25 percent or so. We feel we’ve executed pretty well in that time period, a difficult market situation. It’s a tough market situation and it continues to be that.

Have the layoffs ended?

Earlier this year we announced layoffs in two different tranches, about 25 percent in total. We’re sticking to that plan; we haven’t made any additional changes. And we’re feeling okay for the time being. Obviously we’re keeping a close look at the backlog and the order intake and our rate of cancellations. And we’re being aggressive in the marketplace. Yes, it resulted in a bunch of layoffs–I think about 4,000 for aerospace in total.

Has the recession affected the service network?

One thing we’re proud of is our customer support and services. We haven’t slowed down investment there; we’ve continued to improve in every metric. With respect to customer satisfaction and support metrics, how customers perceive us, investment in services, delivery performance, delivery quality, we see strong progress in all these areas. That’s paying off because we saw our market share up. Based on the GAMA [delivery] numbers, we’re up six and ten percent. Right now were commanding about 37 to 38 percent of the business aircraft marketplace.

And research and development?

Our product development continues unabated. On the large side, we have our Global Vision program; we had first flight [on August 3]. The airplane is in our flight-test program, and that’s a significant improvement to the Global family. On the Learjet 85, the team has done a marvelous job recovering from the Grob bankruptcy and getting that program back on track and schedule. We’ve now built a couple of composite fuselage demonstrators, and we [have broken] ground on our Mexico facility where much of the composite parts will be manufactured. We’re continuing with our research and development across the board. We’ve got improvements on the Challenger product line in play. We’re continuing to invest in this marketplace. We think this marketplace is going to rebound, it’s a great long-term place to be. I think it’s going to grow to even higher peaks than it did a year and a half ago, so we’ve no intention of letting up. The only other company doing a Part 25 composite jet–Boeing and the 787–has run into significant problems.

Does it help that the composite Learjet 85 is less technologically pushing the envelope compared to the 787?

We had to restructure the program, which was a disappointment for us, but we brought a lot of the stuff inside. And we have quite a bit of composite experience inside our organization. We were looking for Grob to assist us and share that workload, but it didn’t work out. We had to change our plans and do it inside, but we feel confident that we’re going to use a lot of that technology and we’re going to get there easily without some of the difficulties that Boeing is struggling with. We’ve done significant composite work in Belfast with our resin transfer molding [RTM] and resin transfer infusion [RTI] technology. Given our experience with RTM and RTI technology, we’re not pushing the envelope as far as the 787 was in terms of weight improvement, new engines and new technology. Except for the composite structure, the rest is relatively straightforward. We’ve done a lot of work ahead of time. We’ve already got technology in airplanes using this. For example, we’ve been using RTM flaps on CRJs for five or six years. From our perspective, we’re pushing the envelope but we’re not pushing it near as far.

Will there be more application of RTM on the Learjet 85?

On the wing. We’re using a lot of the C Series wing techniques, which includes RTI as well as RTM. It’s a little different from the original plan, which was more of hand-layup technology that Grob had. But this is part of our internal technology. It’s still composite, but it’s a different way of doing it, something we’re more familiar with.

Was the Jet Republic cancellation of 110 Learjet 60XR orders a surprise?

I don’t think I would characterize it as a surprise. Clearly we’re in the process of monitoring every customer very closely and doing lots of due diligence. We knew exactly where Jet Republic was, we knew that they were struggling, so we knew what was happening. We were well protected–from a planning perspective and from a financial perspective. So it’s disappointing; Jet Republic was a promising business model, but in every way we had protected our options. We’re absolutely committed to the Learjet 60XR, to the production line and the rate.

After every downturn, manufacturers say they will never again build whitetails. Has Bombardier been able to avoid whitetails?

We have whitetails. Whitetails get created when there are cancellations. Anybody who says they don’t have any, you’re got to take that with a grain of salt. Cancellations have been strong over the last six months, but you try to manage it. You manage the production line so you don’t destroy your company and your opportunities for the future. At the same time, you take some calculated risks about what you think the market will be and what you should be building and you don’t build on spec. But you do try to balance the revenue side and the build side of the equation as best you can. Obviously that’s not a perfect game, but you try to do all the right and prudent things. Considering how deep this recession is, we feel confident in the changes we’ve made to the production rate and the way we’ve handled things. That’s not to say we may not need to make adjustments in the future; you’ve got to react to [circumstances] as they come. But there is an element of being prudent in what you do.

Bombardier didn’t cancel its NBAA exhibit as other manufacturers did.

We approach NBAA as an opportunity to show our stuff and to brag a little bit. We haven’t scaled back; we think it’s very important to be out there. We are working really hard to make sure we have the most satisfied customers possible. We’ve made great strides in our service and support network. We’ve got exciting new products coming, and we have the broadest best fleet of aircraft. We’re showing them all, including a couple of new things.

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