Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America
From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite July/August 2013
John Garrison, President and CEO, Bell Helicopter
The newly elected chair of AHS International’s Board of Directors, John Garrison, took over Bell Helicopter in 2009 with a resume full of commercial and military experience. Today, he leads nearly 7,000 people who design, manufacture, sell, and support a revitalized portfolio of commercial and military rotorcraft. In 2012’s still-weak market, Bell delivered 188 commercial helicopters, 50% more than in 2011. It also delivered 39 V-22 tiltrotors to the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force (five more than in 2011) and 24 more powerful, fully integrated USMC UH-1Ys and AH-1Zs (one less than 2011).
With a broad industry perspective, Mr. Garrison observes that aviation is unique for the passion that its people and companies have for what they do. “Our customers do amazing things with these machines, so I got Bell focused on the customers.”
Bell commercial customers were heavily involved in defining the “super-medium” Model 525 Relentless due to fly next year. Customers said they needed the payload-range characteristics but not the other aspects of aircraft at the heavy end of the medium class, like the Sikorsky S-92 or Eurocopter EC225. Several years of work with a customer advisory panel resulted in a “super medium” design that focuses on revenue-per-seat-mile and “best-in-class payload-range capability, not to meet the current market needs, but the future market needs,” Mr. Garrison says.
Meanwhile, U.S. military Future Vertical Lift requirements drive the V-280 Valor third-generation tiltrotor concept. “We’ve demonstrated we can provide the speed, range, and payload they need today with the V-22,” says Mr. Garrison. “What we need to do is fine-tune things like hover performance and make some improvements in manufacturability. We think with the V-280 we’re going to be able to demonstrate that.”
Civil and military developments are different. “On the commercial side, you really do need to get your specifications up front” and have your clear design target before you start, notes Mr. Garrison. “On the military side, fortunately, or unfortunately, specifications have a tendency to creep over time . . . . The review process is much more in-depth and that just adds time that you don’t have in a commercial development.”
As the son of a U.S. Air Force tanker pilot and flight nurse, John Garrison Jr. grew up a “military nomad” in an aviation household. He first flew with his father at about 10. “We used to rent a little Cessna and flew quite a bit when I was in junior high.” College and career choices nevertheless took a non-flying direction. Recruited by all three service academies to play football, Garrison liked West Point’s focus on leadership, “and my eyesight was on the border of not being qualified for flight.” At that academy then, “there was only one major – engineering. It was just a matter of which concentration. I took mechanical . . . . My concentration was not on aviation at the time.”
After graduation in 1982, Mr. Garrison’s assignments included Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and command of an artillery battery in South Korea. He gained a soldier’s view of helicopters as the Army began transitioning from Hueys and Cobras to Black Hawks and Apaches. “They were new platforms and they were going through some growing pains, reliability pains,” he recalls. What soldiers in the back of those aircraft wanted was speed. “You wanted to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible and not be a target.”
The Army sent Mr. Garrison to Harvard for an MBA, then back to West Point to teach economics, finance, and leadership. He left the service in 1992. “I had a great experience with the Army, but West Point wouldn’t let me go to Desert Storm. When you’re a professional soldier, you don’t want a war. But when there’s one on, you don’t want to not be part of it.” After the Berlin Wall’s fall, the Soviet Union’s breakup and the Desert Storm victory, the U.S. military was being shrunk. ”They needed 70% of the officers in my year group to leave the Army.” At Harvard, “I had gained the bug for the competitive business world.”
In that world, Mr. Garrison managed international pipeline/powerplant, heavy farming equipment, and water system businesses. In 2002, he became president of the golf cart maker E-Z-GO that, like Bell, is a Textron Inc. subsidiary. In 2007, he headed up Textron’s Industrial Segment of four manufacturers, including E-Z-GO. Upon joining Bell, he set out to learn the rotorcraft business, traveling the world to meet military and commercial customers. “I listened to their needs – what Bell was doing well and not doing quite as well.”
What John Garrison heard gave Bell a new mission to enable its customers and a multi-pronged campaign to grow its business. “There was a perception the commercial market wasn’t important to Bell Helicopter. We had to correct that.”
In response, Bell developed the 407GX cockpit upgrade, a wheeled landing gear option for the 429 and the 412EPI with an integrated glass flight deck and more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-9 Twin Pac engines. “The 412 is arguably one of the most rugged, durable helicopters operating in the toughest places on the planet,” Mr. Garrison says. “But customers said they couldn’t even bid it in some business segments because we didn’t have a modern glass cockpit.”
Mr. Garrison reconsidered all-new products. “We needed to be more responsive and cost-competitive,” he says. “If you apply a military program mentality to the commercial marketplace, you’re not going to move at the pace you need to be successful.” This led to scrapping Bell’s Modular Affordable Product Line (MAPL) strategy, which was intended to yield a family of helicopters with great commonality but failed to produce expected cost-savings. “You ended up with designs that didn’t meet the needs of the marketplace.”
Bell also “focused on execution excellence,” Mr. Garrison says. “We’re going to meet our commitments.” To better understand customer needs, he brought experts from law enforcement, medical services, and oil and gas support operations into an expanded sales team as product specialists. The company also added service facilities in Prague, Singapore, and Guangzhou and Shanghai, China.
Bell upgraded its manufacturing and design capabilities with Dassault Systemes’ ENOVIA and CATIA V6 tools at Fort Worth and Amarillo, Texas; Mirabel, Quebec, Canada, and elsewhere. The transmission and blades are the heart of a vertical lift asset, Mr. Garrison notes, “so we believe that we need to control the design and manufacture of those components.” Bell does that at Fort Worth. With Amarillo’s world-class assembly competencies and the coming downturn in V-22 production there, “we decided that’s the best place to build the 525.” Mirabel is Bell’s primary commercial helicopter production site.
Bell is also revitalizing its engineering and manufacturing teams. “It always starts with people,” says Mr. Garrison. “We’ve had a pretty rigorous effort to attract and retain the best and the brightest.” The company is active with U.S. rotorcraft colleges, places like Penn State and Georgia Tech, with senior executives serving on their engineering boards. It has over 140 interns from 50-plus universities and a joint technology center in Bangalore, India with other Textron companies. “When I started, we had five people there. Now we have more than 150 and are growing. That’s been a source of engineering talent we’ve been able to draw on.”
Bell has increased research and development investments about 50% over the past three years. In 2011, the tiltrotor pioneer sold its equity in the BA609 commercial tiltrotor to its partner, AgustaWestland. “It really came down to the market potential for that size aircraft and price point and our need to invest” in other commercial and military platforms, explains Mr. Garrison. “We still have a substantial engineering and manufacturing services contract with AgustaWestland.”
In a global marketplace “far more competitive now than it was 30 years ago,” says Mr. Garrison, those efforts “have led to a substantial turnaround in Bell’s commercial business.” North America is a strong market, both from the fleet replacement and growth perspective, he says, and Bell aims to capture lost market share in Europe and make it a growth market. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of success in China, and Brazil is an amazing helicopter market. India’s a bit of a challenge in the military helicopter side, but the commercial side has been growing.”
Global rotorcraft manufacturers share common concerns. While they all produce safe aircraft, Mr. Garrison says, “there is opportunity for all of us to improve our safety record.” To do that, Bell is upgrading products, refining training and working to streamline regulations. For instance, the new 407GX cockpit enhances situational awareness. Bell has been incorporating lessons of the International Helicopter Safety Team (in which it has been involved from the start) in its Training Academy classes for pilots, service technicians, and mechanics – both in Fort Worth and at customer sites. Bell is working with the FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency to refine rules “to bring technology into our aircraft more safely and more quickly.”
Bell is very active in AHS. Its employees can join through payroll deductions and all its engineers have access to AHS technical papers. The new AHS chairman notes, “AHS provides an opportunity for broader, bigger subjects – technical aspects – to bring even intense competitors together to advocate for and pursue advancements in vertical flight.”