Boeing caretaker paid his dues

As a kid in south Los Angeles, James Bell’s ambition was to follow in his father’s footsteps and deliver the mail.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know what a CEO or CFO was,” Bell recalled last week. “I thought people who worked at the post office were those we could look up to. They were the ones making the honest living, and that was something I thought I could do.”

He’s doing something else. A week ago, the 56-year-old was named interim chief executive of Boeing Co. Bell presides over the world’s largest aerospace company, with $52 billion in annual revenue and more than 159,000 employees, from a mahogany-paneled office on the 36th floor of Boeing headquarters with a sweeping view of the Chicago skyline.

Bell toiled behind the scenes for nearly 30 years, managing finances for the company’s various businesses in Southern California and rising through the ranks as a good corporate soldier to the level of chief financial officer.

He got that job in November 2003 after Boeing’s board fired then-CFO Michael Sears for improperly recruiting a top Air Force official, Darleen Druyun, while she was negotiating a $23 billion contract for aerial refueling tankers from the company.

The CEO gig is temporary; it will probably run for six to nine months as Boeing directors search for a permanent replacement for Harry Stonecipher, who was forced to resign because he was having an extramarital affair with a female executive at the company.

Bell has no interest in being anything other than a transitory CEO. Boeing, he said, should hire someone with a “lot more operating experience” than he has.

“I’m still in awe of even being the CFO,” he added. “For anyone who grew up in the finance world, becoming a CFO is the epitome of their career.”

Bell’s 79-year-old mother, Mamie, a former Los Angeles County government clerk, still lives in the three-bedroom house where he grew up; his father died two years ago. Bell has a brother and two sisters.

The youngest of the four children, Bell recalled how the close-knit neighborhood was shattered by the weeklong Watts riots in 1965 that destroyed homes and businesses and left a devastation that took decades to repair. It was a seminal moment for Bell, who was about to begin his senior year in high school.

“They had National Guardsmen with rifles at each end of the block,” Bell said. “It opened my eyes and took me out of my cocoon.”

He was determined to go to college when few in his neighborhood continued past high school. He decided to pursue “something practical” and chose accounting.

A partial scholarship to California State University, Los Angeles, helped finance his tuition in the first year, but to stay in school he had to work. He cleaned offices, scraped sod from players’ shoes at a golf course and assisted patients getting X-rays in a hospital emergency room.

“It took me a long time to graduate, but I finally did,” Bell said.

In 1972, he missed a campus interview for a job at Rockwell International, which was later acquired by Boeing. To his surprise, he was offered a job anyway, an entry-level accounting position in what was then Rockwell’s Atomic International Group in Canoga Park, near Los Angeles.

Bell spent the next 24 years at that office, becoming the business manager for the unit developing the electrical system for the international space station. Shortly after Boeing acquired Rockwell in 1996, Bell was promoted to vice president of contracts and pricing for Boeing’s space and communications business in Seal Beach, south of Los Angeles. In 2000 he was elevated to corporate controller.

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