By Julie Johnsson / Bloomberg News)
Former Boeing Co. Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg is joining Monarch Tractor, a Silicon Valley startup that’s angling to be the Tesla Inc. of the agriculture world with an all-electric tractor that is “driver optional.”
While Monarch isn’t a household name, it combines longstanding interests for Muilenburg, an engineer by training who grew up on an Iowa farm and served on Caterpillar Inc.’s board for nine years. He is an investor and adviser as the Livermore, California-based company prepares to deliver the first of its $50,000 tractors late next year.
“They have all the elements to be a strong, robust, growing business,” Muilenburg said in an interview.
The former Boeing chief has largely flown under the radar since being ousted a year ago after fumbling the planemaker’s response to two deadly 737 Max accidents and their aftermath. Since then, Muilenburg has pursued passions such as cycling — he’s logged 17,000 miles this year — and advising companies with promising technology.
Monarch is one of about a dozen firms that are working with Muilenburg, who started a consulting business after a 35-year career at Boeing. He’s embracing his new role with characteristic intensity, providing pointers to an executive team at Monarch that includes former Tesla executive Mark Schwager and Chief Farming Officer Carlo Mondavi, the grandson of winemaker Robert Mondavi.
“He’s very engaged,” Monarch CEO Praveen Penmetsa said in an interview.
Boeing’s old boss isn’t the first fallen industrial titan to feel the allure of a fast-growing venture. Jeffrey Immelt briefly flirted with taking the top job at Uber Technologies Inc. after he exited General Electric Co. in 2017. He later became a venture partner at investment firm New Enterprise Associates in Menlo Park, California.
Muilenburg said he first heard of Penmetsa, who is also an engineer, over the summer through a mutual friend who is a Boeing retiree. Penmetsa is no stranger to aerospace since another company he runs, Motivo Engineering, was a supplier to Airbus SE’s former Vahana flying taxi project. And it didn’t hurt that Monarch’s compact tractor is outfitted with robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning — technologies that captivated Muilenburg at Boeing.
Still, it’s not every day that a 35-employee upstart nabs an executive who once ran the largest U.S. exporter to help with global distribution and building a supplier network.
“Once we started talking to him, sharing ideas on strategy, there was no apprehension,” said Penmetsa of his initial pitch. “It’s actually the perfect set of skills that Monarch Tractor needed.”
Monarch last week unveiled its first commercial offering, a compact tractor loaded with rugged sensors and cameras to record and analyze crop data in real time. Capable of being operated by a person or driving off to carry out tasks on its own, the vehicle can also act as a power generator in a pinch. Powered only by a battery that lasts 10 hours, it stands out from competitors emitting clouds of diesel fumes.
The green technology, a novelty for agriculture, has been tested and refined in the fields of Penmetsa’s native India and California. The company has signed up “several hundred” farms as preliminary customers, according to its website.
Muilenburg, in a brief conversation, kept the focus on Monarch’s potential, while politely declining to delve into the turbulent close to his stint at Boeing. Regarding his former employer, he said only that he was proud of the team there. The Max is flying again after a 20-month grounding, with commercial flights on the plane having begun this month at Brazil’s Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA.
“I started as an intern, finished as the CEO. It was a dream job. It was the company I love. My heart will always be with Boeing,” he said. “Now I have an opportunity for a second career, and it’s very fulfilling.