President Barack Obama offered up leadership tips to Boeing managers at the company’s annual planning session earlier this month in Arizona. He also visited the state’s championship golf courses. (Associated Press)

President Barack Obama offered up leadership tips to Boeing managers at the company’s annual planning session earlier this month in Arizona. He also visited the state’s championship golf courses. (Associated Press)

Boeing gets Obama pep talk after giving millions to library fund

The former president drops by the aerospace giant’s executive retreat in Arizona.

  • Julie Johnsson and John McCormick Bloomberg
  • Monday, January 28, 2019 1:22pm
  • Business

By Julie Johnsson and John McCormick / Bloomberg

Boeing Co. lined up a surprise motivational speaker for an executive retreat in Arizona this month: former U.S. President Barack Obama.

He was the second former U.S. president in two years to offer up leadership tips to managers gathered for Boeing’s annual desert planning session. George W. Bush addressed the group last year, said people familiar with the matter.

While guest speakers are staples of corporate getaways this time of year, inviting former world leaders to inspire employees is unusual. That had been true at Boeing, too. Its change reflects the corporate ties that linger after a president leaves office — along with the planemaker’s swagger as it’s taken over the mantle from General Electric Co. as the largest U.S. industrial company.

Obama dropped in on the leadership sessions while traveling back to the mainland from his year-end holiday in Hawaii, and Arizona’s top-notch golf courses were part of the allure. The former president waived his speaking fee for the informal address, said Katie Hill, Obama’s spokeswoman.

Boeing has emerged as one of the major corporate donors helping fund Obama’s library and museum in Chicago. The aerospace giant gave $10 million to the project ahead of Obama’s address to managers at a five-star Scottsdale resort in early January, according to the people, who aren’t authorized to speak publicly. An Obama Foundation spokeswoman declined to confirm the exact amount of the donation, only pointing to the group’s website, which says Boeing gave more than $1 million.

Contributions to presidential libraries and inaugurations are par for the course for Boeing, the largest U.S. exporter and second-largest U.S. defense contractor. The planemaker has also given $10 million to the Dallas-based George W. Bush Presidential Center to fund an initiative aimed at helping U.S. military veterans transition into civilian life.

“We’re proud to partner with both of these presidential centers,” said Gordon Johndroe, a Boeing spokesman.

While he declined to comment on the presidents’ speaking engagements at Boeing, Johndroe spoke of the importance of fostering such relationships in “communities where we live and work.” Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, while its new global services division is based in Dallas.

Boeing attendees described Obama’s talk as characteristically high-minded, touching on economic development and the role for his foundation.

Inviting in celebrities to inspire company leaders is a new phenomenon under Boeing’s hard-charging Chief Executive Officer, Dennis Muilenburg, and a reflection of the company’s recent success, said the people. Under his predecessor Jim McNerney, the sessions focused primarily on business objectives — like getting the tardy 787 Dreamliner program back on track.

Obama wasn’t the only A-lister to address Boeing executives this year. Magic Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers’ president of basketball operations and former basketball star, also spoke, sources said.

Presidents typically try to collect as much money as possible in the years immediately after leaving the White House because fundraising can become more challenging as time passes. The cost of building and sustaining a presidential library puts Obama in the position of seeking deep-pocketed benefactors at a time when some of his Democratic colleagues are shunning such donations as they contemplate 2020 White House bids.

More than $500 million in private money was raised for the most recently built presidential shrine, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. That institution opened in 2013 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In Bush’s case, roughly half of the fundraising went to build what now is the largest presidential library complex, while the other half went to programming, maintenance endowments and other facility-related costs.

The Obama Foundation is overseeing the development and construction of the Obama Presidential Center, which is expected to eventually be a sprawling campus in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.

The foundation expects the center will create 2,500 permanent jobs and deliver $2.1 billion in economic impact to Chicago’s South Side, according to its most recent annual report. The report shows that the foundation raised $232.6 million in 2017 after Obama left office and fundraising began in earnest. Almost 95 percent of that came from individuals and 5.1 percent came from corporations and other foundations.

Obama’s donor roster is heavily weighted with Chicago luminaries. Oprah Winfrey, the Crown family, Exelon Corp., Citadel’s Ken Griffin and mutual fund CEO John Rogers Jr. all rank in the same “more than $1 million” category as Boeing, according to the foundation.

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