The 30 Billion Dollar Man
Seddik Belyamani wrote the book on selling passenger jets.
THE CONTRACT HAD BEEN NEGOTIATED DOWN to the last comma. It covered the sale of 18 Boeing 767s—“A big deal,” as Seddik Belyamani, Boeing’s legendary salesman, puts it, talking quietly on a recent Saturday in the comfortable Bellevue Club in a Seattle suburb.
“We were staying across the street from the airline. At noon we walk over, saying that we’ll sign and be back for lunch at one o’clock.” In the airline’s boardroom, all appeared to be going swimmingly: “I pick up my pen—it’s a nice Boeing pen, the guy from contracts makes sure that the ink works—and I say, ‘Shall we go?’ The chairman says yes, so I sign, and I move the contract to him to sign.”
That was when the chief financial officer said: “Just a minute, Mr. Chairman.” The chairman put his pen down.
“That pen was down for eight hours,” Belyamani says.
The airline didn’t have a commitment from its bankers to finance the deal, the CFO told the chairman. “We want Boeing to give us an out, or commit to financing the airplanes themselves,” Belyamani recalls the CFO saying. “I put my pen down and said ‘We are not going to give you an out. We just cannot do that.’ ”
The airline execs left the room and came back at 1:30. “By that time we were starving,” says Belyamani, who was stunned when the airline officials presented him with a new offer to buy six 767s, instead of 18. That’s a different deal, Belyamani told them; “We’ll be happy to come back in two weeks with a new proposal.”
“My gut told me that they are going to buy these airplanes,” Belyamani says, “and when your gut is right you take a firm stand.” There was no Airbus sales team waiting in the wings, the market was strong, and Boeing could sell the airplanes elsewhere. The airline raised its offer to 12 airplanes, but Belyamani did not budge, increasingly convinced that the airline would make good on its first agreement.
Belyamani’s gut was telling him something else: “It went on until six p.m. They didn’t give us one piece of bread, zero, nothing.” Convinced that this was a deliberate tactic, the Boeing team held their ground until the airline chairman, announcing that he was tired and going to play tennis, invited the famished and frustrated Boeing team home for dinner.
Belyamani told a colleague from the contracts division to bring the final agreement (“boxes and boxes”) but carried in his own pocket a handwritten letter curtly revoking the original offer. (“Sometimes it helps to let your steam off,” he says.) At the house, “the chairman looks at me and he says: ‘Now then…’ ”
Belyamani said nothing. “I put my hand on my mouth”—a gesture that reminds him not to talk, he explains.
The next thing the chairman said was “Let’s sign.”
Says Belyamani: “If I had said one word, if I had said ‘Now what is the problem, Mr. Chairman?’ ” the chairman would have seized the opening and Boeing would have had to restart the negotiation. “The moral of the story,” Belyamani says, “is that there is a real person that signs the contract, not a computer, not an Excel spreadsheet.”
“I could tell you that I was fascinated with aviation from the age of five, but it wouldn’t be true,” Belyamani says with the slightest hint of an accent, partly from his upbringing in Morocco, where he was knighted twice by successive rulers, and also from his education in Toulouse, France, home of Boeing’s arch-rival, Airbus.
Bent on a career in electrical engineering building hi-fi systems, he was led by France’s education track into aeronautical engineering. In 1967 he returned to Morocco to join Royal Air Maroc, the nation’s international flag carrier, and in 1970 became vice president of maintenance. But after having lived in France it was hard to settle there.
After a year in Seattle overseeing the delivery of Royal Air Maroc’s first Boeing 727-200, Belyamani attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he developed mathematical models to predict the performance of an airline’s route network and earned a master’s degree. He took those math skills to Eastern Air Lines and didn’t like what he saw: After comparing Eastern’s fleet and routes to those of arch-rival Delta, he recalls, “I got bad vibes and called friends at Boeing.” Were there any openings, he asked?
In 1974, Belyamani was hired as an airline analyst in Seattle, his primary job being to back up the salesmen in the field. He soon got noticed. “We had a 747 that we were selling to an airline in Africa,” he says. “Everything was going smoothly until three months before delivery, and we found that the International Monetary Fund had imposed restrictions on their foreign debt and they couldn’t pay for the airplane.” If there is one thing airplane manufacturers hate, it’s a “white tail”—a completed airplane with no customer and no airline livery.
“We tried to get hold of the airline’s chief financial officer, but the guy was never there,” Belyamani recalls. “I got fed up.” Following a quick inquiry to the U.S. Embassy, the 36-year-old mid-level manager telephoned the president–not of the airline, of the country. “Sir,” he said, “I need to speak to your minister of finance.” Two minutes later, the minister called Belyamani. The sale was back on. As it progressed, “everything went wrong that you could think of,” he says, but the 747 got delivered.
In the early 1980s Belyamani left Seattle and went into the field to sell. Fluent in Arabic and French (and some Spanish), he was assigned exclusively to French-speaking countries. “I was pigeonholed,” he says. “I think that they forgot that I spoke English.” Frank Shrontz, then the company’s vice president of sales, moved Belyamani into Boeing’s biggest markets, and over the next two decades he became its top salesman, retiring in mid-2002 with $30 billion in sales to his credit.
Being one of Boeing’s sales representatives involves travel—lots of it. At one time, Belyamani was on the road for 200 days out of the year, inspiring the classic: “I sat down to family dinner one evening and my wife asked me what I was looking for. I realized I was reaching for my seat belt.” Airline sales staffs worldwide know the joke and its author.
The people who sell large airliners don’t make up a large group, and they all know one another well. They move around but stay in the industry. “It’s a big family of people who have known each other for years,” Belyamani says.
Where there once were a half-dozen or so companies building jet airliners of 100 seats or more, only Boeing and Airbus survive. Boeing normally has between 60 and 70 salespeople in the field; Airbus a similar number.
“What’s special is that there are only two of us,” notes Airbus’ vice president for Middle East sales, Abdellah Sbai. (Coincidentally, Sbai, a rising star at his company, is also Moroccan-born and also entered the business via Toulouse and Royal Air Maroc.) “There’s always a winner and a loser at the end, and you always lose against the same competitor,” he says.
At a personal level, the rivalry between the two giant manufacturers has been friendly. Says Sbai: “We meet in the same waiting rooms and we pass them in the corridors.” But they never talk business, he adds.
During a hard-fought sales campaign in Australia, John Leahy, Airbus’ chief commercial officer, invited him aboard an Airbus A320 in Sydney. “We toasted each other, each of us thinking, Here’s to your loss,” says Belyamani. Boeing prevailed, and Leahy later told Belyamani that he’d send him a photo of their meeting when he was in a better mood.
The sales campaign—Belyamani calls it “an obstacle course with people throwing things at you”—never goes the same way twice, though it starts when an airline indicates that it’s ready to buy airplanes and ends when the manufacturer’s representative and the airline CEO sign the contract. And not a second sooner, as Belyamani has learned when airlines balked at the last instant. That kind of last-minute crunch is unusual; most airlines push for concessions from the first day.
After the initial indication of interest, it’s the manufacturer’s turn. Like all salesmen, those selling airplanes strive to make deals that retain as much profit as possible for the company. The salesman makes the first offer, which is calibrated to appeal to the airline without giving away the store. “If you’ve done your homework properly, you’ve talked to the decision makers, the head of the department that analyzes this stuff, the VP of operations, the maintenance guys, and they’ve told you what they would like to see,” says Belyamani. “So you go in with your proposal. The next day they tell you you’re way off the mark, you’re never going to win. It depends on how aggressive their negotiating style is. Some of them will tell you how much you’re off, particularly if they’ve made a gut decision to buy your airplane.”
In rare cases, the negotiations are brief; some products sell themselves. “The most beautiful campaign we had, years ago, was Air Mauritius,” Belyamani recalls. In it, the 767 went head to head with Airbus’ A310. “They wanted to fly from Mauritius to London, and the A310 can’t make it. End of speech. Today you have the A320 and the 737-800 and they’re close enough that you’re arguing about seats and price.”
Often the negotiations—arguing over seats and price—take a long time, and winning a campaign requires patience. “The [Boeing] 777 has some advantages that we can quantify over the [Airbus] A340. You have to start selling that story two years before the decision. You can’t come in at the last minute and say, ‘My airplane’s more expensive, but it has all of these advantages, it carries more cargo, it burns less fuel.’”
Analysts and marketing people provide the salesmen with technical data and information that make the airplane look as good as possible. “One of the biggest areas of tweaking is seats,” Belyamani says. A good analyst will add seats to his airplane knowing the airplane probably would never go out the door that way; it’s just for the seat-miles game. “There are tricks: the number of galleys, number of lavatories, number of closets.” The competitor claims an equal number of closets and hopes the airline won’t notice that they’re smaller. “We measure the closets by rod length,” Belyamani says, pointing out that it’s the number of hangers you can fit in all the closets that determines total storage capacity. And if the seating layout has no cross-aisle, that’s a dead giveaway that the salesman is being less than realistic. “In a twin-aisle airplane you need a cross-aisle somewhere in the middle of the airplane,” says Belyamani. Without it, there will be traffic jams and meal carts in gridlock.
But ultimately, the salesman’s most effective tool is an intimate knowledge of the airline and the people who make it run. “The litmus test of having a close relationship with an airline customer is when you can feel free to call the CEO at home, talk to his or her spouse, and get valuable advice on where you stand,” Belyamani says. “The ultimate is when the CEO starts confiding in you about his personal life.” That doesn’t happen very often, he adds.
For a field salesman, schmoozing the CEO is not enough. “You have to go two or three levels below the head,” says Belyamani. “There have been cases—it hasn’t just happened to me—where there’s a little guy who lives in the corner office and nobody paid attention to him because he was a number-cruncher, and they’re dealing with the big guys. Lo and behold, two or three years later you find that the little guy in the corner office is the CEO.”
Belyamani says the worst sales prospects were the cases in which he didn’t know where he stood or when he didn’t have time to build a relationship with a buyer. “You can tell there’s no electricity—‘Thank you very much for your offer, we’ll consider it.’ ” he says. “When you don’t have a dialogue, you sense that you’re losing. They didn’t ask any questions, they didn’t challenge my numbers. It’s bad.
“Sometimes it works to their advantage to be in disarray, because they’re confusing the hell out of you,” leaving the salesman guessing whether the airline is roiling with internal dissension or putting on an act to beat down the price. Belyamani’s advice in that situation: Stall. “You try to convince them that there’s no rush, that the delivery positions will be there if they make a decision two or three months from now.”
Among the customers Belyamani has worked with, business styles vary. “It’s hard to generalize,” he says. “The Japanese are tough negotiators. They operate by consensus. There’s no real decision maker; it makes it hard to work. When they reach an agreement they live up to it, to the letter. They’re not really hagglers, but they know what they want and they get it.”
Middle Eastern customers “believe in win-lose,” says Belyamani. “They’re not satisfied until they feel that you have given everything.” But they are not as obsessed with numbers as the European and U.S. airlines, which tend to “conduct their negotiations with data. They say ‘Your airplane has a seat-mile cost of X and it needs to be Y for it to work for us.’ It’s a more logical style. You may believe it or not, but at least you’ve started with a rational foundation.”
In dealing with foreign customers, says Belyamani, “if you speak to someone in their own language, it establishes a bond.” Even if you conduct business in English, the jokes and pleasantries may be in Arabic, he says. Belyamani’s multi-lingual talents have served him well.
Another challenge in dealing with foreign customers is government involvement, which can make decisions drag on. “The Saudi order [after the first Gulf War] took at least two years,” Belyamani says. “At one time there wasn’t a single person at Boeing who knew the whole transaction.”
More and more airlines have been privatized by their former government owners, and Belyamani hastens to point out that the decline of government ownership has led to a decline in incidents of bribery. “The U.S. has a very stiff law [the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act], and I’m not interested in going to jail. If somebody brings it up, you say we can’t do it, it’s against the law. We’ve lost campaigns like that, but it’s rare now.”
What attributes for surviving and thriving in this business can’t be taught? “Common sense, a self-starter, integrity,” says Belyamani. He fervently believes that credibility is an aircraft salesman’s most important asset, and he has devised his own credibility scoring system: “If the customer wants to know something and you respond fast, you score. But if you’re wrong and it’s discovered that you’re wrong, then your credibility goes down by a factor of four. If you accidentally get something wrong, and your customer doesn’t notice and you call immediately to correct it, your credibility goes up three times.”
Optimism is also vital, he believes, keeping you going after you lose the very campaign you worked on hardest. “The first losing campaigns were a bit tough,” says Airbus’ Sbai. “You have to take a long-term view: You can lose and win again later.”
Belyamani, who still consults for Boeing, believes that some people think that selling something as big and expensive as airliners must be different from other sales jobs. “It isn’t,” he says. “In a lot of ways, the same principles apply to selling a washing machine.”