In a move that has sent shockwaves through the industry, Textron has parted ways with the highly respected chairman and CEO of its subsidiary Cessna Aircraft, Jack Pelton. The news was announced on Cessna’s Twitter feed and in a Textron news release on Monday afternoon. Pelton had earlier in the day sent a farewell internal email to Cessna employees, with whom he was remarkably popular. In the short and upbeat note, Pelton thanked them for their “support and for all you do for Cessna. It has been,” the message continued, “an honor and privilege to work with each and every one of you.”
The parting of the ways is being portrayed by Textron officially as a retirement, but if so, it is one of the more sudden retirements in aviation history.
Last week Textron chairman and CEO Scott Donnelly issued a terse press release highlighting Cessna’s weak first quarter performance and calling the results “disappointing,” an unusually blunt remark for an earnings report. David Sylvestre, a spokesman for Textron, told me that the decision for Pelton to leave Cessna happened only in the “last couple of days.” Indeed, Pelton’s departure from Cessna is immediate. Donnelly will take the reins at the Wichita aircraft manufacturer until a successor is found. The search, Sylvestre said, was already under way. He said that given the small world that aviation is, he didn’t expect it “to be a protracted process.”
Pelton came to Cessna in 2000, and was named president and CEO in 2003 and chairman in 2006. He presided over the most profitable years in Cessna history, a period during which, ironically, parent company Textron depended heavily on Cessna’s earnings for its survival. Pelton was also a fierce supporter of the company’s single-engine product line. He is a pilot and an airplane owner, as is his wife Rose. He was the force behind the (eventually abandoned) Next Gen piston products, the acquisition of the assets of Columbia Aircraft and the creation of the Skycatcher, as well as the reinvigoration of the Cessna Pilot Center brand. On the jet side, Pelton oversaw the creation of more than a dozen derivatives, including several new CitationJet models and the enormously popular Mustang. He was shepherding the large-body Columbus through the early phases of development when the subprime mortgage crisis hit and the markets crashed. The program was promptly shelved.
There were controversial changes at Cessna during Pelton’s time at the helm. There was a strong backlash to the company’s announcement that it would build Skycatcher components in China, and the decision to move a variety of assembly and electrical work to Mexico, where there continue to be quality control problems, was also unpopular in many quarters of the aviation community.
In the end, however, it seems as though it was the recession that ended Pelton’s tenure at Cessna, like thousands of other Cessna employees who have found themselves out of a job despite their hard work and devotion to the brand.