Brian Rowe

Last week a close family friend passed away, the father of a good friend, and a good friend to my mother and my late father. His name was Brian Rowe, he was an extraordinary man, the personification of “larger than life.” He’s the big guy on the left in the photo below.

Brian Rowe will go down as one of the most important figures in modern commercial aviation. He was English, literally a boy genius, who at the age of 17 went to work at Britain’s deHaviland where he worked on the first jet engine technology captured from the Nazis. He emigrated to the United States, joined General Electric, and by the end of his career was the Chairman of GE’s jet engine division. Rowe was the man at the center of GE’s battle against Pratt Whitney, the executive who pushed the advances made in fighter engines into commercial aviation, and who led the team that developed one of the most important engines in modern aviation, the CF6.

The Wall Street Journal printed a remembrance on its front page last Saturday. From it, I quote:

“Former colleagues say his biggest technological accomplishment was the giant GE90 engine, the world’s largest and most powerful jet engine that now powers the long-range versions of the Boeing 777. That engine, whose outer diameter is roughly the same size as the fuselage of a single-aisle Boeing 737 and pioneered the use of lightweight composite fan blades, made it possible to go “undreamed-of distances on two engines,” says Mr. McNerney.

“The most recent version powered the Boeing 777-200LR that set the record for the longest nonstop commercial flight in 2005 when it flew from Hong Kong to London the long way. The flight crossed over the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. and the Atlantic Ocean, staying aloft for more than 22-and-a-half hours and covering a distance of 13,422 nautical miles.

“Former GE Chairman Jack Welch was among those who had reservations about the GE90. “Brian had total confidence in it,” Mr. Welch said yesterday, but “we were scared death of the technology. It was the first engine with the composite blade. It was going through the bird test and failing,” he added, referring to a test where air cannons fire dead chickens into the engine to simulate birds being sucked into engines during flight.

“The engine helped Boeing outsell Airbus in the market for large twin-aisle aircraft by a 2-to-1 margin. “It was the gutsiest call I’ve ever seen at GE,” says David Calhoun, a former GE vice chairman and formerly head of the aviation unit. “It’s changing the face of the competition between these two great giants,” he adds, referring to Boeing and Airbus. Mr. Rowe pushed both Boeing and GE to move ahead on the 777 design with two GE90 engines. He “had to convince Jack Welch it was something he could do and it wasn’t too risky. He had to convince Boeing it was a bet worth making,” says Mr. Calhoun, now CEO of the market-research firm, Nielsen Co.”

When I was 11 years old, Brian Rowe had a rare day off and wanted to go sailing. He called around and my father volunteered me to be his crew. Off we sailed into Nantucket Sound. I remember it was a breezy day, but the two of us could handle the boat just fine. He tied knots into the four corners of a handkerchief and made a funny hat he wore on his head to protect it from the sun. He reminded me of the actor, Terry Thomas, with a huge smile minus the gap in the front.

We had such a good sail that we stayed out late into the afternoon, until eventually we made our way into the harbor. Mr. Rowe was new to the Cape, and didn’t know the channel very well, and I was too timid to tell him he was out of the channel, so we ran aground, hard, on a falling tide. We jumped over the side and tried to push the boat off the sandbar, but that didn’t work. So we climbed back aboard and ate some crackers and resigned ourselves to an evening aboard until the tide turned and floated us off.

Then Leonard Peck came by in his tugboat, the Francis Minot, and offered to tow us off. He threw a line to me but the line was too big to tie around Mr. Rowe’s boat’s bow cleat. Mr. Rowe told me to tie a thinner line to Mr. Peck’s bigger line. Knowing my knots from Junior Seamanship, I knew the right knot for tying two lines of unequal diameters was a sheetbend.

I tied the sheetbend, made the lighter end fast to the cleat, and then sought refuge in the cabin in case the line parted and came shooting back. I looked out the companionway at Mr. Rowe, standing tall at the tiller, and as we slid off the sand saw his huge smile beam.

“You can come out now,” he said, so I went back to the bow and made ready to give Captain Peck his towline back.

The knot was frozen tight and there was no way I could get the lines to separate. So Brian came up and made a try, but the bend was frozen in place.

“Cut the thing and be done with it,” said Captain Peck. So we found a knife and sawed the lines apart.

“That’s one impressive goddamn knot,” Mr. Rowe said on the way into the mooring. “You’re quite the sailor.”

For some reason that piece of simple praise has stuck with me ever since. At the age of 11 the whole incident had high drama, and Mr. Rowe was the first adult to let me do my thing and assume I could do it. I’ve been inordinately vain about my seamanship ever since. I had no idea the man was a titan of aviation until much later, but the friendships formed with him, his wife Jill, and his children, David, Penny and Linda were more impressive.

A memorial service will be held at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington next month.

What I am reading

The Road
I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s latest — The Road — and am sitting in stunned contemplation, utterly saddened and affected by one of the best pieces of contemporary literature I’ve read since Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

McCarthy’s tale is of a father and son making a hopeless pilgrimage to survival on the road from some unknown and undescribed point of devastation through a burned landscape to an unknown destination to the south, where there may be some warmth against the nuclear winter. The boy is perhaps 12, the father perhaps 40, together they wheel their shopping cart through the ash and snow, terrified of any other human contact in a world filled with cannibal marauders reduced to infanticide for their own survival.

To describe The Road as the most powerful caution against nuclear war is an understatement, and McCarthy makes that understatement by never describing how the world came to end. It’s simply over, finished, and the conclusion is so foregone that you read the spare language knowing where the journey ends, but unwilling to accept it in light of the love between the father and his son.

I can’t recommend this book — it’s a profoundly depressing read — but I will re-read it in some time, and will share it with my own sons as one of the most profound expressions of paternal love I have ever read. This is a little book but a big book, and made me think of the passages in Stephen King’s The Stand when the survivors make their way across the country of bicycles. Oh the number of times I wished for a carless road when I was a cyclist. After reading McCarthy’s grim tale, I know there will be no bikes in his future.

Heart of a Soldier

My step-father lent this to me last weekend and I burned through in three short flights. Story of Rick Rescorla, VP of security at Morgan Stanley, who perished when the towers collapsed on 9/11. Rescorla was a Brit who enlisted in the US Army, served as an officer in Viet Nam, was a Silver Star winner at the Battle of Ia Drang (reenacted by Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers), and an all around Hemingway-style man’s man who did it all … from playing rugby in Rhodesia to shooting a lion. The book is not a tale of tragedy and terrorism, but of a remarkable friendship between Rescorla and his best friend and fellow Army officer, Daniel Hill. By James B. Stewart.

What Makes Sammy Run?

Budd Schulberg’s (On the Waterfront) classic tale of ambition and greed in Hollywood. It is the story of Sammy Glick, Lower East Side newspaper copyboy who rises to Tinsel Town prominence through backstabbing, plagiary, and utter weaselishness as told from the point of view of fellow Jew and writer, Al Mannheim. Good book, not a classic, but sort of essential in a Sweet Smell of Success sort of sense.

Durham foodie

One of the worst things about the road warrior life (I hate that term) is eating crap on the road. Trying to stay on the straight and healthy while living out of a suitcase in a Suite Hotel is pretty tough when you’re a workaholic and think working from 6 am to 9 pm is cool just because you don’t have a family to go home to.

I fell into some terrible habits the past year in North Carolina, habits brought on by the fact that there is more fast food in the Raleigh-Durham area, particularly around the Research Triangle Park, than anywhere else I have ever seen. We’re talking fast food you have never heard of before — or at least a northerner has never heard of. Bojangles? Fried chicken and iced tea. I am not proud to say I have tried them all, and not because I like a 2000 calorie cholesterol bomb, but because I am too tired to seek out a better alternative. Some colleagues who live the “suite life” have the smarts to go to a local grocery store and at the very least buy something half-way edible to run through the microwave in their hotel room’s kitchenette. I’ve tried that, too lazy.

So, as part of my pledge to myself to clean up my act in 2007, and in large part because I carry the auspicious title of executive sponsor to the corporate “wellness” initiative, I am on a crusade to identify healthy ways to eat around the office.

To the rescue comes my colleague, Kelly. She’s running a blog — Durham Foodie — which answers the question: Is there edible food around the Triangle.

The answer is yes, you just need to get smart and figure it out. Like the greek place on Miami and 54. Or the salad bar at the Harris-Teeter on Davis (home of the only Starbucks in the general vicinity). This week the company opens up a new cafeteria and cafe in the new headquarters buildings in Morrisville, hopefully ending my habit of chowing down two bags of Cheez-its for lunch.

Face to face with customers

Yesterday I went on sales calls in New York City and Long Island.

I caught the 6 am American flight from Raleigh to LaGuardia, worked through my inbox as a beautiful sunrise turned the Outer Banks orange and purple, landed, and caught a cab for a fast ride to a frayed Starbucks choked with Columbia students. There were no outlets, the music was too loud, but the coffee did it’s job and I kept banging through email and instant messages until my colleague — a person I had never met before face-to-face — gave me a call to say he was sitting on the bench outside.

I belonged to him for the day, part of a program to get executives in front of customers. This was my first series of sales calls in a very long time, the first calls I’ve done with a salesman since the early days of Forbes.com in 1995 when Miguel Forbes and I would extol the brave new world of banner advertising and click-thru’s to skeptical agencies and marketers from Manhattan to Santa Monica.

I loved and still love sales calls. Sales was forbidden to reporters, who are supposed to never lower themselves to the level of the dirty world of commerce in the name of journalistic objectivity. Me, I thought it was a complete adrenalin rush to have someone commit to a $250,000 sponsorship after I babbled and waved my hands for 15 minutes. This was the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, where “coffee was for closers” and it all came down to the leads.

What I heard yesterday, from six different people at three different institutions, was the most accurate and direct feedback available about:

  • The quality of our website
  • The quality of our service and support organization
  • Our warranty and return policies
  • Advice on corporate branding
  • Wish-lists on how our customers want to order from us, the tools they need, the tools they like from our competition
  • Stories of bad customer service
  • Headaches in managing IT organizations with shrinking staffs
  • Utilities and tools that are needed to make the management of our products easier
  • Praise for the salesman I was accompanying

What was most interesting is what was being sold was not the product per se — it was taken as a given that the product is what it is and costs what it costs — but the service that surrounds it. Supply, availability, delivery time, invoice accuracy, order tracking, spare parts, on-site service, asset management … This is stuff we talk about a lot internally, but after yesterday I realize those conversations are held in an echo chamber. We can project what they want and need, but unless someone is there to hear it, it’s all theoretical.

An editor-in-chief at a newspaper I worked at in the early 80s used to come out of his office after lunch, a couple hours after the afternoon edition had gone to bed, and would kick reporters out of the newsroom, exhorting them to “Get off your ass and go knock on doors.”

Yesterday was an education for me, one that gave me more ideas on how to improve the business, but more importantly what the priority improvements should be. It’s a trite cliche — particularly for a web marketer who can get insulated from reality by dashboards and GUIs — but getting in front of people delivers more insight and feedback than any survey, poll, or statistic. I plan on doing it again soon.

Oh, and we sold a ton of product yesterday.

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