Executive Shuffle at Boeing Puts Defense Chief Next in Line as CEO

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Aircraft maker The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) announced Wednesday morning that the company had made a number of changes in its top management, including the naming of the current COO of its defense systems group to be vice chairman, president, and CEO of the company. The head of the commercial aircraft division retains his previous title as president and CEO of the commercial division and has been promoted to vice chairman.

Dennis Muilenberg will assume his new role as COO on December 31st and move the company’s Chicago headquarters. The 49-year old engineer has worked at Boeing for 28 years and his appointment today anoints him as the heir-apparent to 64-year old CEO Jim McNerney. There was no indication that McNerney intends to step down soon, but the company now has a succession plan.

Muilenberg has presided over Boeing’s defense and space systems group since September 2009, and under his stewardship the group’s revenues have risen by about $600 million annually, to $32.61 billion. That’s a rise of just 1.9% over the past 3 fiscal years, and revenues for this year are on track to be about level with 2012 revenues. But the main thing to remember is that it could have been worse. Military aircraft revenues are unlikely to reach the $16.4 billion level again this year, but the group appears that it can make up a significant portion of the difference in network & space division work.

Raymond Conner, who was promoted to vice chairman to go with his title as president and CEO of the commercial aircraft group, is 58 years old and has worked at Boeing for 35 of those years. The turbulence surrounding the launch of the 787 Dreamliner may have cost him his shot as second in command. That and the possibility that McNerney may not retire for another year or two yet and Conner would be near 60 when he ascended to the top job. In a business with really long horizons, that is probably not a plus.

McNerney has been Boeing’s CEO since June of 2005, and may want to stick around for another couple of years. He came to Boeing from 3M Company (NYSE: MMM) where he was president and CEO following a 20-year stint in various executive jobs at General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE).

The company’s board has given Muilenberg a chance to show that a military hardware guy can run a company that is now heavily tilted toward commercial planes. Boeing’s commercial aircraft revenues in 2012 totaled $49.13 billion and are on track to surpass that mark this year.

Shares of Boeing are down 1.6% at $133.70 in a 52-week range of $72.68 to $142.00. That is probably less a reflection on today’s announcement than it is investors’ wariness about the coming announcement of the FOMC later this afternoon.