Able Aerospace Services, a Textron-owned company in Mesa, Arizona, has built the numbers in its favor. In its 30 years of business, the MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul) corporation has repaired millions of components for OEMs and operators across the globe. Two key drivers: An innovative, solutions-focused culture, and an on-site, experienced engineering team that works with designated engineering representatives.
One dedicated engineer rose through Textron’s ranks to pilot Able Aerospace Services from an all-encompassing view. In that rise, general manager Gabriel Massey, a Montreal native, hasn’t lost his engineering enthusiasm for numbers. “I was always good at math and numbers,” he says. “Many of my relatives were engineers, so I always knew it was part of my path, but others were entrepreneurs, which fostered an equal interest in business strategy – a little unique for an engineer.” At Able, this helps him to see more than just digits and details. “It’s important to understand the details, but not get buried in them,” Massey observes. “As a leader, it’s a balance of digging into technical details when necessary, but at the same time not managing the details. I allow my teams to take care of their details and make their own decisions.” That’s a lesson Massey learned watching other leaders during his rise. “I’ve seen leaders that are good in the details, but never rise up above them, and I’ve seen some that didn’t master details and were disconnected.”
Massey can talk technical on multiple levels as needed. “As a leader in this industry, I think it’s important to understand the technical aspects of a failure, design, or quality issue. Being able to do that gives you competence and credibility. Your employees gain confidence in you,” he says. As if to underscore that point, one of his colleagues overhears and timely interjects, “You can see that on the floor when he’s huddled with employees around a job. You can see on their faces that he really understands what he’s talking about when he offers a strategy, and that creates a great deal of trust and balance.”
The word “balance” seems apt, for as the interview proceeds Massey is all about balance: in hiring and team building, in work and family life (a balance that is being currently calibrated to welcome his new son born this past summer, “Having the little guy at home with us now is amazing,” he beams.) He’s even balanced in the books he reads for pleasure; they’re split between engineering history tomes and Stephen King horror fiction. Massey’s young son will likely welcome a sister to the family in the future just to balance the family’s gender ratio. When the girl goes through her inevitable gymnastics phase, she’ll specialize in balance beam, but that’s pure speculation of course.
COOL AND COLLECTED
Levity aside, balance requires a serious, measured response, especially when it involves workplace temperament. “I’ve seen a lot of styles,” Massey reflects. “Some managers were very emotional. I tend to go in the other direction. My style is to stay non-emotional in everything I do and I want my teams to be like that. Try to keep your rage in check. I think my style is cool and collected. If a problem arises, I want us to think through it and find the best possible solution. Anyone can approach me with things that are really good or really bad. We’ll definitely celebrate successes, but the world’s not going to implode if they bring me challenges.”
Did you catch that? “Team” and “us.” Massey promotes people working together to create united synergy that each individual could not reach on their own. Still, there is balance. The Whos are not expected to join hands and form a Seussian circle singing “da-hoo dorés.”
Massey explains, “In my staff, I really like to build teams with different opinions, styles, and attributes. If I surround myself with people like me, I may not get different viewpoints and new ideas. I don’t want people afraid to challenge others. As you can imagine diversity can generate some conflict. To (ahem) balance that, I try to find people who can work well with people with different styles..”
So, what’s more important when hiring: working well with others or technical competence? “Good question. Attitude would probably tip the scale,” Massey replies. “Generally, I will focus on people’s approach, attitude, and motivating capabilities. I will lean more towards technical competence for positions where technical skill is critical, but it’s easier to surround a leader with a good attitude who motivates others with strong technical people. It’s not so easy the other way around.”
JUMP IN THE POOL
With such assured and insightful answers about group dynamics, one strives to remember that Massey began as a numbers-loving engineer. He has not always been a seasoned guru of management. “Prior to five years ago, my career was engineering,” the young executive remarks. The transition from a technical engineer to an overseeing manager occurred as Massey worked within the Textron family of companies. (“Family” is apropos; even Massey’s wife is a former Textron employee. They met at a hockey game.) Upon graduating from Concordia University, Massey joined the Textron Engineering Leadership Program when he worked at Bell Helicopter’s commercial aircraft manufacturing plant in Mirabel, outside Montreal. “We early career employees were encouraged to explore three different business units for one year each in the Textron family across the globe. Three years into working at Bell (in Canada), I joined the leadership program and chose to move to Kansas. That was a big jump into the pool, not knowing if there was water in it for me.”
Rather than sink, Massey swam. He joined the Bell 525 program in its early stage. “One of the best parts of my engineering career was being part of the 525 program team. We designed that aircraft, starting with a blank sheet of paper. I was part of the 20-person team from day one. We had secret badge access and it was a lot of fun.”
Massey had more than fun; he worked hard at his assigned tasks. It’s good advice he passes on to new hires. “I tell them to make sure their feet are grounded and that they focus on executing the
task at hand. It’s great to have aspirations and discuss how to get to your next step, but focus on your current step and the next step will come to you. That’s what I was taught and remember today.”
That lesson was well learned. Massey eventually worked his way up to chief engineer of all Bell legacy products. Then he moved, within Textron, to Able Aerospace Services. Through his engineering career, Massey had a natural curiosity that went beyond a typical engineer’s focus. “Whenever I was leading an engineering team, I consciously tried to understand the business issues involved: our break-even points, our profit goals. I had a natural curiosity for business,” recalls Massey. “Learning how to communicate and explain things to executives was something I strived to do well. Communication is not a priority for many engineers, but it’s very important.”
COMMUNICATE & APPRECIATE
While communicating is now a priority for Massey, it is a skill he had to learn. “Early in my career, I received some negative feedback on how little I communicated to my team,” he remembers. “Up to that time, I had not been in leadership positions; I took care of things myself. I was then coached that I needed to go out of my way to keep my team informed and make sure they correctly understood what I expected. Just because you say something, don’t assume that it’s heard and understood the first time. Just because you know how to do something, don’t assume that your team member also knows how to execute the task. As a leader, you need to ask questions to make sure everyone understands expectations. Communicate to your team properly and repetitively.”
Now as general manager, he goes beyond communicating. Massey even mentors his engineers by recommending books on engineering history that he believes will develop appreciation for their chosen profession. “I feel that in modern times we don’t appreciate what it took to accomplish major engineering feats like the Panama Canal built in 1908. Thirty thousand French engineers and workers gave their lives to build that canal. The concrete and steel originally used lasts to the present day. It was one of the first major uses of corrosion- resistant steel. We take these things for granted and don’t realize the dedication it took to create things we use today.”
Reading about the ultimate sacrifice past engineers made helps put today’s challenges facing Able Aerospace and the rotorcraft industry in perspective. For example, helicopter flight hours have been down, which means that large operators try to sell used aircraft on the open market. “That creates a big, new competitor for us as an MRO/OEM trying to sell aircraft support,” says Massey. A corresponding challenge: when oil & gas sector hours decline, so does its need for overhauls and repairs.
Massey says, “Fewer people flying drives down repair and overhaul demand, which makes it hard to make money in our segment.” The flip side can also create challenges; when times are really good for operators, they tend to bring major repairs and overhauls in-house. While Massey believes that 2018 “is going to be a good year,” a future challenge Massey foresees flying toward Able Aerospace are fleets of unmanned aircraft: “Are we going to keep maintaining and fixing major mechanical engines, or are we going to shift to replacing electric motors?” he wonders.
While he seeks the answer to that possibly existential question, one is confident that Massey will find a balanced solution that both benefits Able Aereospace Services’ customers and his Textron team.